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Target pushes health, hands workers Fitbits

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POSTED September 16, 2015 8:49 p.m.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Target is going on a health kick, aimed at both customers and its employees.

The discount-store chain will push granola bars and healthy grab-and-go snacks over candy at the checkout and hand out free basic activity trackers from Fitbit Inc. to its more 300,000 employees as part of the effort.

Target will also give employees extra discounts on fruits and vegetables, said Jodee Kozlak, chief human resources officer.

The retailer is trying to reinvent its image as a promoter of wellness for employees and customers under new CEO Brian Cornell, who came on board in August 2014. The move mirrors a strategy adopted by others including the drugstore chains Rite Aid Corp. and CVS Health Corp. CVS stopped selling cigarettes last year and changed its corporate name from CVS Caremark as part of a plan to become known as a health brand.

CVS also is adding more fresh foods and healthy snacks at many of its locations while moving bagged candy out of prime store space in the first aisle. 

A company executive has said that consumers who used to eat three meals a day now tend to be snacking more through the day and are looking for better access to healthier foods.

Those consumers have been learning about healthy eating habits in school for decades and are placing more of an emphasis on living longer, noted Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group.

“This is really becoming a lifestyle. It’s not a trend,” he said. “What you’re looking at is retailers beginning to catch up to the consumer who has already changed.”

Health foods also offer higher profit margins to retailers, and providing them can draw new customers and keep existing ones, Cohen noted.

Employers who offer insurance to their workers also have been trying to improve employee health for years to fight steadily rising costs. This push is taking on a new urgency because a tax on expensive benefits plans will be imposed starting in 2018.

As part of Target’s partnership with Fitbit, Target employees will get the Fitbit Zip, which retails for $59.95. Employees who participate will be grouped into teams for a monthlong challenge. The winning team will get $1 million to funnel into a charity of their choice, Kozlak said.

Target says it will not monitor data from the devices and will not force employees to use them.

Fitbit said Wednesday that the account with Target is one of its largest. Initially launched in 2010, Fitbit Wellness works with companies representing many industries including Boston College, Quicken Loans and Autodesk.

While the company declined to say how much revenue the Fitbit Wellness division brings in, it did say that it’s one of its fastest-growing business units.

Program administrators at companies using the program are able to view employee statistics such as steps walked, calories burned and minutes of activity. But more personal employee data such as weight, heart rate and food logging remain private, Fitbit says.

Wellness is one of the key areas for Target CEO Cornell, along with such areas as baby products and fashion. Target is adding more organic and natural food as it revamps its grocery aisles.

The retailer, which quit selling tobacco in 1996, also is partnering with CVS to have the drugstore chain run its in-store pharmacies and clinics and expand what they offer.

Target shoppers who still want a junk-food fix shouldn’t fret, though. Candy bars and chips are not going away. In tests in 30 stores, the chain is trying to get the balance right, so that its health push isn’t too pushy.

“They don’t want us to be too preachy,” said Christina Hennington, Target’s senior vice president of merchandising.

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