Natural Foods Merchandiser
Are you serving your vegetarian customers?

Are you serving your vegetarian customers?

If you haven’t walked your store in a vegetarian’s Birkenstocks, you may be alienating an important customer base. As natural products stores move from fringe to favorite, more space is dedicated to gourmet products, and other special diets steal the spotlight, so it’s possible the needs of this long-standing customer have fallen by the wayside. Now, more than ever, there’s reason to reach out.

Between 6 million and 8 million adult vegetarians live in the United States—a population that has more than doubled since the Vegetarian Resource Group began polling in 1994. While the hippie movement of the ’60s and the low-fat craze in the ’80s and ’90s spawned many vegetarians, today going veg is seen as another way to go green. Societal emphases on a more sustainable diet and a gentler carbon footprint aren’t trends that are expected to wither soon. And because natural products stores are often a vegetarian destination, greenies are more likely to spend more in your store. In an informal study, Down to Earth, an all-vegetarian market in Hawaii, found that while only 40 percent of its customer base was vegetarian, their purchases accounted for more than 60 percent of total sales.

Here are a few tips to keep this key group out of the compost pile.

Don’t smell fishy.
John Cunningham, research manager for VRG, says it’s not uncommon for vegetarians to avoid stores with a high-funk factor in the seafood department. To keep everyone happy, Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Markets runs its fish counters on a simple motto: “If you can smell it, we won’t sell it,” says Ken Swanson, director of fresh foods for the chain. To keep smells at bay, Sprout’s doesn’t accept seafood above 39 degrees, orders product to fill the needs of one day rather than several, and cleans and resets displays daily. “We believe that the fish case is the barometer of the entire store. If it doesn’t look good or smell appealing, customers will probably judge the rest of your store accordingly,” Swanson says.

Anticipate customers’ concerns.
When your staff samples foods, do you make sure they’re aware of all of the ingredients? Preparing for questions and considering vegetarians’ special needs is a great way to ensure return business. For example, is the product dairy free or vegan? Is the cheese made with rennet?

Support Meatless Monday.
If San Francisco can go meat free, so can your store. Earlier this year, the city by the bay passed a resolution encouraging restaurants, grocery stores and schools to increase their meatless offerings. The goal is to ensure all residents have access to healthy, meatless options while promoting a more nutrient-rich diet. Do the same in your store by providing discounts on meat substitutes, opting for vegetarian-only dishes in the deli case and giving demonstrations with vegetarian recipes.

Keep foods separate.
Devote a section entirely to vegetarian options in your deli case since it’s easy for food to spill or spoons to end up in the wrong dish. In the frozen section, keep meat and meat substitutes behind separate doors rather than having them interspersed.

Bulk up on bulk.
Beans, legumes and nuts are often staples in a well-balanced vegetarian diet. Make sure you’re well stocked, organized and that those areas are kept clean. You might also consider making your store a bulk destination by keeping a portion of bins available for rotation with trendy ingredients.

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