Building community and store loyalty top the list of reasons why retailers bring in experts to talk to their customers. In the health and beauty aids section, you might invite a certified nutritionist or an herbalist to answer questions about supplements. Another option is to schedule lectures featuring book authors or big names in the supplements or body care industry. No matter how you go about it, you're apt to find these education efforts pay off.
Leigh Blackwell, health and body care manager at Earth Fare in Asheville, N.C., says the store has an herbalist come in between 4 and 7 p.m. a few times a month to work with customers. She says the visits are well received. "[Customers are] very receptive to it. It definitely helps them feel more comfortable with herbs."
The Tulsa, Okla.-based Akins Natural Foods chain taps the expertise of senior staff members Mary Ann O'Dell, R.D., and her sister Sally Sobol, C.N., who work with customers in the stores and also give presentations. "People like the idea of coming in and talking to a nutritionist," says O'Dell, Akins' marketing director.
With all the information—and misinformation—available to shoppers, Sobol thinks giving them access to experts in the store is vital. She says sharing her knowledge with customers gives her satisfaction and builds the store's reputation. "When there's someone there who speaks with authority—who says, 'Let me tell you about some of the studies that have been done, let me [tell you] how this is working in your body'—people say, 'This person knows what she's talking about.' It does a tremendous thing for our stores, reputation wise," says Sobol, whose weekly hours spent fielding questions in the Tulsa store are advertised to customers.
In these cases, the experts work alongside staff members to answer questions. Customers value this personal attention and professional advice because it is often more accurate than what they get in other stores or from untrained help. Sobol says customers want to talk to someone with experience, someone who can give them an educated answer, someone they can trust. "When you know what you're talking about and you can give people good advice, they get the results they're supposed to get, for the most part, and they come back and tell you that," Sobol says.
Another popular option is scheduling experts to give presentations. Some stores are fortunate enough to have an in-store community room for presentations and classes; others have to be more creative. Some use rooms off the floor, others rent space at local hotels or convention centers, especially if they are expecting a large crowd. Marcia Greenstein, marketing coordinator for Earth Fare, says the frequency of presentations at the store varies, but in general the schedule is less busy in the spring and summer and picks up in winter. Evening classes seem to be better attended than those offered during the day.
Greenstein has had local practitioners give talks on Ayurvedic, traditional Chinese and herbal-medicine therapies. Working with local experts is a win-win-win situation for the store, practitioner and shopper. "They come and give a free talk. A lot of it is to promote themselves and their practices," Greenstein says. And often, after the talk, shoppers will return to the store looking for products that were mentioned. Retailers can capitalize on this by preparing a display in advance, putting products related to the presentation on sale or offering a discount to attendees.
For Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats chain, building community is a top priority. Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications, says the nutritionist at the company's Henry's Marketplace division in San Diego developed a local health advisory panel of medical professionals, including homeopaths, nutritionists and dieticians. "In exchange for getting exposure through Henry's, every month they are committed to doing at least one in-store event." Tuitele says the store hosts medical screenings and lectures. "We have an ongoing series of lectures and events that surround the whole area of natural living, healthy eating and living healthfully. [The professionals] are typically very high profile within the community, and if they get interviewed they'll mention that Henry's is the place to go to get ingredients or supplements." In exchange for working with Henry's customers, the professionals get exposure to potential new clients. "It is really mutually beneficial, and it works out nicely," she says.
Local practitioners get the job done, but national personalities are a definite draw. O'Dell scheduled author, educator and consultant Michael Murray, M.D., to visit Akins' sister chain of Chamberlin's Market & Cafe stores in Florida late last year. "Ninety people came to the lecture," O'Dell says. When she brought nutritionist Rick Rose, who sometimes works with Melville, N.Y.-based Nature's Plus, to Tulsa, 75 people attended his weight-loss seminar. For a local practitioner, expect between 12 and 25 attendees.
Topical presentations are key, O'Dell says. Popular topics include weight loss, allergies, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, menopause and cholesterol control.
Some companies with a medical doctor or herbalist on staff will pay for them to travel and give lectures. But most retailers warn against the speakers who simply promote a product line and instead recommend those who will speak generally about health and healing.
Sobol says she's extremely picky about who she brings in. She wants people who will talk about studies and physiology rather than just touting a product line. "We have had some people who work for companies that have gone on the floor and been awesome at knowing products," she says, adding that those experts also can help educate employees on product lines.
Blackwell says both formats are effective in different ways, but thinks the individual interaction sells more products. "When [an expert] is working in the aisle with customers, it is a little more personal, a little more individualized," she says. "I think customers are able to get specific questions answered, which probably sells more products in the long run because it is more tailored to them. Lectures are geared more toward generalized products and aren't as individual-specific. People like individual attention."
Sobol, who loves working one-on-one with customers in the store, prefers her aisle time to lectures. "I can do a talk [for] 20 people, but it is just on one subject. When I'm on the floor, I can talk to lots of people. I just go from one person literally to another," she says.
Working out a program for hosting experts in the HABA section is a great asset for your store's educational program. Good recommendations from experts drive sales, referrals and repeat business.
Dena Nishek is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 28, 30
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 30
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 30