Natural Foods Merchandiser

Get a read on hottest books

No longer just places to stock up on organic vegetables, free-range eggs or a bottle of supplements, health food stores have become community education centers. Customers turn to your staff for information, attend lectures at your store and, increasingly, look for books to help them learn about health and wellness.

Savvy natural foods store owners are capitalizing on this trend and bolstering their books sections to make more sales. By looking at what's hot—and what's not—in the world of natural health books and listening to what books merchandising experts and successful retailers recommend, you should be able to make your book sales soar.

Location, location, location
While some trends sweep the entire country, the reality is that best selling books vary greatly by region. "Each health food store is kind of unique as far as book sales go," says Ganesh MacIsaac, manager of Integral Yoga Distribution in Buckingham, Va., which supplies books to natural foods stores and yoga centers across the United States. "Something like vitamin sales will probably not vary so much, but selling books is much more eclectic. Obviously, selling books in Cambridge, Mass., differs from selling them in Norman, Okla. So the hot-100-books approach just doesn't work."

To determine what the book trends are in your area and what your customers want, MacIsaac recommends retailers use a detailed sales-tracking system, or at least a spreadsheet. "A lot of people think they can do it in their heads, but they can't," he says. "They'll stock a bestseller, and it will sell out so quickly that they'll forget they ever had it, and they'll reorder a slower seller that hung around on the shelves."

It pays to pay attention and not make assumptions because sometimes customers' book-buying patterns will surprise even a savvy book buyer. For example, publisher Jo Ann Deck of Berkeley, Calif.-based Celestial Arts-Crossing Press says though pet-health books are hot across the country right now, that's not the case at Greenlife Grocery in the college town of Asheville, N.C.

"Our pet products do really well, but the books not so well," said Greenlife's Book Buyer and Supplements and Body Care Manager Christa Hamilton. "We had The Tao of Bow Wow (Dell, 1998) and The Tao of Meow (Dell, 1999) and books on aromatherapy and homeopathy for pets, and those just kind of sat on the shelves." The one pet book that does fly off the shelves at Greenlife is a classic natural healing tome, Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by holistic veterinarian Richard Pitcairn (Rodale Books, 1995).

By tracking preferences, Hamilton has been able to give her customers what they do want—mind/body books and books on spirituality—which, according to MacIsaac, are often big in college towns such as Asheville and Boulder, Colo., and in big cities, but not so much in small towns where the population skews older.

To cater to her customers, Hamilton stocks local big sellers such as The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997) by Don Miguel Ruiz, a shaman who uses ancient wisdom to help readers change their lives; The Fifth Sacred Thing (Bantam, 1994) a spiritual, ecofeminist fantasy novel by Starhawk; and a selection of Hindu books.

"It surprises me because I just don't see a supermarket as a place people would come for their spirituality," Hamilton says. "I don't associate ice cream and the Bhagavad Gita in the same cart."

What's hot and what's not
There are some trends that transcend region. Some new books have become universally popular, and some classics stay strong in sales.

One category that's big everywhere is vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, says Deck, who's also a vice president at Tenspeed Press, publisher of The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen (1977), which has been a steady seller for years at natural foods stores across the country.

"Cookbooks have always been popular in health food stores, but there's an even bigger interest in them recently," Deck said. Recent publication of a few mainstream books that expose problems in the large-scale production of meat and dairy and heightened awareness of the issue have spurred an interest in cooking without animal products and in raw foods, MacIsaac said.

Gluten-free cookbooks are selling well across the country, too, according to MacIsaac. Retailers agree. "I think people have had gluten intolerance for a long time, and nobody knew what it was, and now they're pinpointing it," said Gina Garcia, manager of Deland Bakery & Natural Foods in Deland, Fla., just outside Daytona Beach. In fact, Garcia just started stocking a gluten-free French food cookbook that she predicts will sell well.

Books on detoxifying and detoxification diets are also popular. "Detox is big everywhere," MacIsaac said. Another big trend? "Anything that's do-it-yourself," Deck says. According to MacIsaac, books on DIY natural treatments for chronic diseases, like chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, are strong sellers right now, perhaps because Western medicine does not have cut-and-dried prescriptions for them. (A subcategory, books on fighting inflammation, spiked last year, MacIsaac says, but Hamilton says they're still big sellers for her—especially a book on the anti-inflammatory properties of ginger.)

"It used to be if you had a condition, you went to doctor and went home and did what doctor told you to do," Deck said. "Now you go to doctor, get diagnosed, then go to the health food store and see a book on the topic, and you get empowered."

While general health books used to be big sellers, Deck says, customers are now buying more books on specific conditions. "Instead of an overall book on women's health, there's more demand for a book that focuses on, say, menopause or bone disease."

Make the best seller list
For retailers who want to rev up book sales, it helps to listen to other retailers who have been there and done that. "Books have done really well for us," says Greenlife's Hamilton, who stocks several hundred titles. Distributors and publishers have advice, too. Here are some strategies:

  • Use books as "garnish" on nonbook displays. "We set out men's health books by the saw palmetto, for example, so men aren't just taking a pill blindly, but can educate themselves on prostate health," Hamilton says.
  • Do promotions. "We have three rotating end caps we change every few months. We'll feature breastfeeding one month and candida another month so customers can learn about new topics," Hamilton says.
  • When you find a good book, order multiple copies. "Display a lot of copies of a book you like and all the other books around it. Customers will wonder what's special about that book," Hamilton says.
  • Bring in a local or national author to do a lecture and book signing. "That really helps the book department," says Hamilton, who recently drew a lot of parents to the store for a talk by Andrea Candee, co-author of Gentle Healing for Baby and Child: A Parent's Guide to Child-Friendly Herbs and Other Natural Remedies for Common Ailments and Injuries (Pocket, 2003). "A lot of times you can e-mail your distributor and get author information, and then set it up with the marketing coordinator. The authors seem eager to come in, and it gives us exposure."
  • When customers have a question, walk them to the book section, and look up the answer to their question. "You have to be careful what you tell customers as far as what a particular product will do, so it helps to lead them to the book section and let them educate themselves," Garcia says. Keep your section organized by category so staff can easily find a book. Garcia keeps a dog-eared copy of Healthy Healing by Linda Page (Healthy Healing Inc., 2004), which is now in its 12th edition, as a reference book for her customers.
  • Educate your staff, and inspire them to actually read the books they're selling. "We're all big readers on staff," Hamilton says. "We've even thought about doing a book of the month where we all read that book so we know what it's about."
  • Stock a range of books to cater to customers with different levels of knowledge. "Some people are already experts and will require advanced texts. Others are new to a topic and want glossy beginners' books," MacIsaac said.

Allie Johnson is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 64, 66, 68

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