Natural Foods Merchandiser

Front-of-Store Weight Display Puts Fitness in Your Face

Only in Southern California.

The first thing customers see when they walk into Clark's Nutritional Centers store in Riverside is a 1,000-square-foot display of weight-lifting equipment.

"It's definitely in-your-face marketing," says Starkie Sowers, director of training and development for the company. "It goes along with our philosophy—you can't just take a pill if you want to look good."

Although the store also sells a full line of groceries, it caters in particular to athletes and body builders—supplements supply 80 percent of its sales. Looking good is serious business in Southern California, and Clark's considers sports nutrition products one of the cornerstones of its business.

In operation since 1970, Clark's now has three stores—the flagship in Riverside, one in San Bernardino and another in Loma Linda. All three merchandise sports nutrition products, but only the Riverside store carries weights. Clark's marketing and merchandising efforts are based on the tried and true—serious employee training and solid customer service.

Placing the weights at the front of the 11,000-square-foot store sets the tone for the Riverside location, Sowers says. The display is a throwback to the start of the body-building era. Bob Hoffman, who owned York Barbell and Hoffman Foods, was a weight-lifting pioneer who sold weights in his food and supplements stores in the Golden State during the 1940s and 1950s. Clark's doesn't sell a lot of weight equipment, but the location of the display sends customers a strong message. Interspersed with the weights are shelves of related books, magazines and a variety of supplements products.

"We did this to create an image. The whole idea is that people who buy here are committed to health and a lifestyle. The display says, 'We're doing this for your health,' " Sowers explains.

When Sowers started working for Clark's 21 years ago, the stores devoted little space to sports nutrition products. But thanks to Sowers' interest in physical training, the store managers allowed him to start stocking specialized supplements such as amino acids and protein powders. At the same time, because he is a registered nutritionist, Sowers could answer customer questions about supplements and training.

Providing customers with accurate information continues to be a primary marketing tactic for Clark's. All new employees are required to take the stores' 10-week introductory course in basic nutrition. Subsequent classes cover digestion, the immune system, herbs and supplements, male and female health issues and more. Sowers and other staffers also help customers design basic weight-loss programs and training regimens.

The amount of data customers demand continues to grow, Sowers says. "People are looking for more and more information. Every time they buy something, they want literature about it."

Customers are especially skeptical of new products, so Sowers and his co-workers closely evaluate labels and often try the products themselves before offering them for sale. "We know when something works and when it doesn't," Sowers says.

Clark's maintains a solid clientele in Southern California, but it was not immune to the downturn in supplements sales in the late 1990s, and from the onslaught of competition from mass marketers and Internet vendors. To bounce back, store managers evaluated which products were most successful and narrowed SKUs accordingly. Then they negotiated with suppliers to reduce prices. Clark's also embarked on an extensive private-label program for supplements and has devoted more resources to build its mail-order catalog business.

These tactics all focus on providing customers more service. That's paid off in word-of-mouth promotion, especially among athletes and personal trainers in the region. "We get a lot of referrals from trainers. They know we're providing the best products [and backing them] with the best information, and that we have a very educated staff."

Even though competition is always a concern, Sowers says an ongoing commitment to excellent customer service is the key to fending off the discount stores and the Web peddlers.

Says Sowers, "If we're consistent and continue to make improvements, it will pay off."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 16, 18

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