Since purchasing Tunie’s Natural Grocery and Vitamin Supercenter from original owner Al Forman in 2010, Taylor Hamilton has been focused on the store’s exemplary education initiatives—from regular seminars and community outreach programs to one-on-one nutritionist appointments in the on-site consultation office.
Now open on Sundays and with an additional location set to open in November, the Coral Springs, Fla.-based retailer is bringing even more knowledge to more people—and teaching shoppers about more than just the store’s 30,000 natural SKUs. Hamilton shares his education strategy here.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Why spend time and money on education?
Taylor Hamilton: Because this is about a lifestyle, not just coming in to get some vitamin C when you feel under the weather. If you educate people about the benefits of healthy living, they start eating healthier, feeding their families better food and getting on a nutritional regimen that makes sense to them. We get new customers who don’t know anything about our nutritionists or weekly seminars, but we also have customers who are extremely educated and have been shopping here for years.
Another reason to educate is because our store has such an enormous selection of products that people feel overwhelmed. They see 30,000 vitamin and grocery choices, and unless we provide them with the tools they need to make decisions, they don’t know what to do.
NFM: What is the role of the in-store nutritionists?
TH: We are fortunate to have two great nutritionists, one who was the first licensed nutritionist in Florida. Having nutritionists on hand allows retailers to speak more specifically about conditions with their customers.
We have a consultation office because a lot of people have very specific, private health issues that they don’t want to talk about with an associate on the sales floor while other customers are walking around. We also don’t want them to feel pressured that they have to buy something. There’s a separate entrance and a waiting room; it’s a very clinical, doctor’s-office-type setting with a private room where we offer free appointments and walk-ins. We’ll do anything from discussing that particular person’s nutritional needs to talking about his or her family member.
NFM: How do seminars fit into your strategy?
TH: We have a 120-person conference room in the store where we hold seminars on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Oftentimes, companies whose products we carry will send trainers or doctors they’re affiliated with. Local physicians, chiropractors and naturopathic doctors also come. We typically have no fewer than 20 people, and the room will fill up to 50, 80 or 100. When we had Jordan Rubin [founder of Garden of Life], we cleared out our back receiving area and fit about 300 people in there.
NFM: What is your annual health and wellness fair?
TH: Once a year in January we rent out the Coral Springs Center for the Performing Arts for a free health seminar. It seats 1,500 people, and we bring in three nationally recognized speakers. This will be our 12th year, and we typically pack the auditorium. We have 100 or so vendors set up tables and give out free samples afterward. The following day we have a big sale in the store, and the speakers from the night before often come in and hold book signings.
NFM: Who manages your store’s education efforts?
TH: We have a marketing and outreach coordinator who schedules all of the seminars. It’s almost a full-time job between that and some other efforts. We also try to get really involved with other events. Any time there’s an expo or health fair going on locally, we try to get a table.
Measuring education initiatives
NFM: How do you measure the success of your education initiatives?
TH: We gauge the return on investment for the expos by tracking the redemption rate of the coupons we print for the event. It’s easy to track sales on the big sale day after the January seminar. If one of the speakers is affiliated with a brand, we can look at the sales of that line the day after.
When we have sales that offer 10 percent off of everything in the store, we also have to look at the whole month. What were our sales like for the entire month? What were our margins on a particular line? We increased sales but at a lower margin—did it pay off or not?
NFM: Which of your education efforts provides the highest ROI?
TH: I think it’s the aggregate of everything we do and the synergy of all the little pieces of the puzzle: the education, our low prices, and the big annual health and wellness fair. It’s certainly nice to have customers come in twice a week to listen to seminars, because afterward they’ll often walk through the store to shop.
NFM: How do you work with your vendors to promote education?
TH: I love when vendors come to the store for sampling and demos. I think it’s a huge part of our success. The companies that commit to putting someone in our shop so customers can try their products are the most successful.
NFM: How do you keep good staff?
TH: I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve owned the company for two years, and I have almost the same vitamin staff with me now as when I started. A lot of them have been here for a very long time. We have a great corporate culture, and our employees take pride in working for a company like Tunie’s. Just by the nature of our company, we attract talent. But once you attract talent, you have to keep it. The key to any company’s success is its employees.
NFM: How does your staff educate customers as they shop?
TH: We have staff members whose only job is to walk the aisles and help customers. It’s the old Home Depot philosophy that you can always find someone to help you. You’d be surprised by how many questions people have in large stores like Publix. But there’s nobody there to help, so they’re expected to shop on their own and pick out what they like. In a health food store, people are looking for very specific things and ask questions all day long about grocery products.
We’re building a training program to use for our next store and other future sites. It will be a basic nutritional program. They’ll have to attend classes and take tests—and pass them.
Square feet: 15,000
Gross margin: Declined