(Health.com) -- It's that time of year to make your list, check it twice -- and hit the stores. Happily, some retailers today are realizing that shoppers want a healthy experience as well as bargains.
But which stores are doing a great job? We asked retail experts to help us review the top U.S. discount and department stores on "healthy" criteria, including comfort, cleanliness, customer service, and eco-friendliness.
There were some disappointments (health isn't a subject some stores wish to discuss or care much about), but we were pleased to find 10 that are doing some smart things.
In fact, our winners are making shopping better for you in ways you can see (recyclable bags, healthful products, hand sanitizer) and ways you may not even notice (greener lighting and building materials, solar heating). Here's to the stores that make your blood pressure go down.
What makes a discount store good for you? Convenience and bargains are job number one, but our winning stores are also paying attention to the health of their shoppers.
3,400 stores in 50 states
Our top-scoring retail chain won over our experts for its customer service, green initiatives, and overall product satisfaction. (Who can resist a deal on organic produce?) "Wal-mart is at the top of its game," says Chain Store Age magazine editor in chief Marianne Wilson.
Walking into the store, you're greeted with a friendly "Hello!" (company policy requires associates to greet customers within a 10-foot radius), which helps raise your spirits and get you in the mood to shop. Browsing through the well-lit, identified aisles, you'll notice that more organic and natural products are available.
Plus, many stores have an in-store health clinic, and Wal-mart's pharmacy has gotten recognition for having very affordable generic drugs. "Wal-mart is realizing that offering more healthy items and making stores inviting is going to help them get more healthy consumers into the store," says expert J. Nick Baird, M.D., chief executive officer of the Alliance to Make US Healthiest.
In addition to selling more than 500 Earth-friendly products, Arkansas-based Wal-mart recently announced a multiyear plan to create a Sustainable Products Index to let shoppers know more about the environmental impact of the products they purchase. "We're starting to see this great trend emerge where shelf space is filling up with healthier options," Baird says.
We like that when you're finished shopping, you can cart your purchases away in a reusable Wal-mart blue bag, an initiative that has kept more than 97 million pounds of plastic out of landfills. "Wal-mart has -- and will continue to have -- a huge impact on sustainability," Wilson says.
1,700 stores in 49 states
Target got high marks from our experts for the overall healthy atmosphere of its stores. "Target is one of the best at combining sustainable products in a streamlined, stress-free environment," Wilson says. Its vibrant store colors, clean displays, and helpful employees make customers excited to shop there, our experts agreed.
Add the selection of reusable eco-chic totes and organic food and health-and-beauty products, and you've got a winner. "What Target has done is create an inviting 'want to' shopping experience, instead of a 'have to,'" Baird says.
Like Wal-mart, Target sells a 30-day supply of generic medication for $4 (90-day costs $10). And the Minnesota-based company earns convenience points for its clinics and eye-care centers, which hike the ease of one-stop shopping.
One of the company's eco-friendly efforts directly benefits consumers -- for each shopping bag you bring in and use, you get a credit of 5 cents. "When stores like Target offer healthy products, merchandise, and incentives, shoppers have the choice to embark on a whole behavior- modification process to make themselves and their families healthier," Baird says.
926 stores in 50 states
Sears, based in Illinois, got its number-three ranking thanks to its eco-friendly efforts over the years. It was the first retailer to join the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program, initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling customers' old appliances for free long before that became the norm. Many stores now have energy-efficient lighting.
Plus, they recycle bags, cardboard, and shrink wrap, and offer reusable bags. While shopping for clothing, you may notice that the sweater you're trying on is made of organic cotton, wood, or bamboo, as the chain has widened its eco-friendly offerings. They even carry a suit made from recycled beverage containers (the Bagir EcoGir suit).
And before you put your newly purchased garments in your recyclable bag, give the sales associate your hangers: about 75 percent are reused; in 2008, 2,250 tons of hangers were recycled.
190 stores in 5 states
Based in Michigan, Meijer recently stepped up its game by offering more organic and healthy products. One perk: an Express program that delivers purchases you make online to your car in the parking lot. At $6.95 per order, it's a small price to pay to avoid the stress of the crowds, especially during the holidays. But here's the real reason Meijer made our top five: We loved the free antibacterial wipes available at front entrances.
1,368 stores in 49 states
Although Kmart (a subsidiary of Sears) has struggled recently, our experts gave it a nod for its mix of health-conscious products in a relatively stress-free space. The clean, uncluttered aisles make it easy for shoppers.
"Signage and layout is really important for a healthy shopping experience," Baird says. "If you're bombarded with unhealthy options, that sends a message about what the store is all about." Kmart's affordable pharmacy also earned health points.
What makes a department store healthy? A commitment to shoppers' comfort (a little pampering, please) and a strong desire to protect the planet.
1,000-plus stores in 49 states
Shopping carts! Two words that make a shopper's heart sing when they're laden with merchandise, especially this time of year. Kohl's is the only department store on our winning list that offers shopping carts, giving sore backs and shoulders a much-needed break.
But this Wisconsin-based chain doesn't stop there when it comes to customer comfort, says expert J. Nick Baird, M.D., chief executive officer of the Alliance to Make US Healthiest, who gave Kohl's top-of-the-class marks. "I've been very impressed by the eco-friendly products and the overall appearance of the store," he says.
"The ambiance of the store invites multiple purchases," adds expert Elaine Buxton, president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. "I would shop here and risk straining my back even if they didn't have carts!"
Kohl's led the pack from start to finish. When entering the store, helpful signage and displays intrigue instead of overwhelm your senses. And if the air feels a little fresher at Kohl's, that's because newer buildings feature fresh-air ventilation and no smoking within 25 feet of the entrance.
About 46 Kohl's stores are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified, and about 20 percent of building materials in new stores are made from recycled elements. "Kohl's also has the largest solar-energy program of any retailer in the world," says expert Marianne Wilson, editor in chief of Chain Store Age magazine. Another winning move: As of 2009, all new Kohl's stores will have bike racks so you can burn calories, save money on gas, and reduce your carbon footprint to and from the store. "This company clearly demonstrates a commitment to a healthy lifestyle," Buxton says.
800 stores in 45 states
"Macy's is implementing strategies to be a world-class leader on the healthy-shopping scene," Baird says. Recently, Macy's has become a pioneer in the green world, replacing plastic hangers with 100 percent--recyclable options and using recyclable folding gift boxes and wrapping paper made from 100 percent--recycled material.
Other healthy efforts include installing solar panels and upgrading heating and lighting in new and existing stores to help reduce energy emissions. "Their investment in more eco-friendly practices is impressive," Buxton says.
In addition, the salespeople who work at Macy's are trained to be attentive but not pushy. And the company's fitting rooms are roomy and consistently well-maintained.
180 stores in 28 states
Nordstrom stores are known for providing great customer service, according to Buxton. "When shoppers know what to expect and are treated with respect, the stress that's associated with shopping is reduced," she says.
What's more, Nordstrom offers more eco-friendly choices than a typical department store. One example: their Well Beauty cosmetics boutiques combine natural, organic, and chemical-free options (at select stores) from various beauty lines, making it easier for you to choose a healthier alternative. "What a great concept -- this is extremely useful for consumers," Buxton says.
1,093 stores in 49 states
JCPenney's motto is "Every day matters," and you can see that vision in the layout of its stores and the friendly customer service at checkout. Some stress-reducing aspects: clearly marked signage that guides you to the appropriate department, and ample space between racks that helps you avoid running into other shoppers and feeling claustrophobic.
To keep the shopping space as energy-efficient as it can be, each store has a designated Energy Captain responsible for monitoring energy-usage data and identifying places for improvements. In fact, the company's Monthly Utility Mania (MUM) program rewards teams for developing new energy-saving solutions.
5. Neiman Marcus
69 stores in 20 states
"Neiman Marcus creates the most luxurious, soothing atmosphere of any chain," expert Wilson says. This posh department-store leader also received high marks for its "unparalleled" customer service, Baird says: "Their employees are consistently going that extra mile."
Why we love IKEA
With only 36 stores in the United States, IKEA wasn't big enough to be part of our America's Healthiest, but we couldn't resist giving it some props. Here, some of IKEA's "healthy" habits that we wish other stores would adopt.
• Its restaurants have vegetarian and organic choices for adults and kids. And they recycle plastic, glass, and aluminum, and compost food scraps.
• No babysitter? No problem. You can leave your kids for up to an hour at IKEA's supervised play area.
• Its products are well-designed, inexpensive, and eco-friendly.
• Most stores have collection points for customers to return waste (electrical and electronic equipment, discarded packaging, spent batteries, low-energy bulbs) for recycling.
• IKEA has replaced all plastic bags with reusable ones at checkout and donated more than $300,000 from disposable-plastic-bag savings to American forests.
Health.com's Lindsey Holland contributed to this report.
Copyright Health Magazine 2011