Natural Foods Merchandiser
How 4 natural retailers invest in employee education

How 4 natural retailers invest in employee education

Educating your customers is integral to your business. Here's how Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Apple Health Foods engage staff to educate shoppers.

The natural products industry has always brought new information about the benefits of healthy eating, organics and herbal and nutritional supplements to consumers. It led the charge for low-sodium, low-fat and low-refined-sugar diets while it extolled the value of high fruit and vegetable intake, organics, and nutrient-rich diets. While the conventional medical world was saying that diet had nothing to do with disease and mass food producers were busily spraying their crops with pesticides they said had no detrimental effect on human health, it was the health food industry that offered an alternative in thinking and eating.

This continues to be the cornerstone of both independent and chain health food retailers, who invest in the nutritional and herbal education of their staffs.

1. Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers

Margaret and Phillip Isely began their retail business in 1955. They borrowed $200 from Margaret's mother and started selling bulk whole foods and vitamins door to door and lending nutrition education books. They became so successful that they opened their first retail outlet within six months. In 1963, they purchased a store in Lakewood, Colo. Though it looked like a country cottage, it was the start of what is now a 23-store chain in Colorado and New Mexico.

Vitamin Cottage is committed to having one of the most well-educated teams of trained nutritionists in the industry. They must undergo two years of training in a state-approved nutrition program and receive certification. Vitamin Cottage also pays for additional staff education from herbal retailer courses offered by the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas, and Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash.

The nutritionists are available to customers for free consultations at most of the chain's stores. This program was a brainchild of Margaret Isley. Although she passed away in 1997, the program continues to be run by her daughter Heather, who, along with her siblings, still operates the business.

Customers who make appointments for nutritional consultations are taught what and how to eat through individualized guidance, store tours and seminars. An outline of the services Vitamin Cottage nutritionists provide includes:

  • A comprehensive review of customers' supplement programs for balance and adequacy
  • Education on nutrition-related issues
  • Referrals to holistic practitioners
  • Research conclusions about new information and hot topics on nutrition
  • Individualized nutritional programs for specific health needs

Jo Ann Schultz is one of the certified nutritionists at Vitamin Cottage. "Consumers do not get individualized nutritional consultations from almost anyone else in the world of health professionals," she says. "I see my job as providing nutritional guidance to the community [by providing services] from lecturing … elementary school kids to [creating] specific nutritional protocols for their grandparents and everyone in-between. It's a great job and a great service."

Customers seem to be equally excited about having an expert who can help them navigate myriad supplement products, dosages and forms that are available in today's market. One Vitamin Cottage shopper said: "Jo Ann helped me with my health tremendously. Through her continual support, her knowledge of nutrition and supplements, and her positive light she shines my way, I have gained a better understanding of myself and how everything affects my health. I have tackled my health concerns and have gained a friend in the process. What a valuable service. I believe every health food store should have a nutritionist on staff available to their customers."

Vitamin Cottage also actively engages in community outreach programs such as bringing elementary school classes on store tours to teach them about whole foods, the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the detriments of excessive consumption of processed foods, pesticides, food additives and breakfast cereals that glow in the dark. In short, with their innovative certified nutritionist program, Vitamin Cottage is investing in both the future of its community and its business.

"I believe the Vitamin Cottage nutritionist program is unique in the industry," says Connie Sanchez, Vitamin Cottage's director of nutrition. "It began many years ago as an experiment and has since developed and grown into a valuable service that provides our employees, our customers and the community at large with top-notch, evidence-based nutrition information and education. What we receive in return is priceless: devoted customers who return week after week to shop with us."

Sanchez, a naturopathic physician, adds, "We know our nutritionist program is positive for the community, and we know it positively influences the bottom line."

2. Apple Health Foods

David Stouder, owner and manager of Apple Health Foods, a retail store in Redwood City, Calif., epitomizes the dedication of many health food retailers. In the health food industry for more than 20 years, Stouder worked for 12 years in an East Coast retail store, several years as a sales representative for a national line of herbal and nutritional supplement products, and for the past seven years as the owner of his own store. Much of Stouder's knowledge is self-taught through reading, attending nutritional and herbal lectures at trade shows, direct training from herbalists and nutrition experts, and firsthand experience gained from feedback from his customers.

Stouder serves as vice president of the board of directors of the Natural Products Association West, formerly National Nutritional Foods Association-West. He also hosts Health Matters, a monthly call-in radio show produced by NPA-West that focuses on natural health topics with leading experts in nutrition and herbal medicine.

3. Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods, with more than 155 stores nationwide, actively supports staff training by encouraging employees to attend herbal and nutritional conferences, actively setting up manufacturer-led training sessions and engaging in herbal education programs. People in Whole Foods' corporate office consider staff education an investment that contributes to the company's bottom line. Whole Foods pays for staff members to take ABC's herbal education program and supports attendance at numerous nutrition education forums.

4. Wild Oats Natural Marketplace

Wild Oats, a chain that includes Henry's Farmers Market and Sun Harvest, similarly believes that staff education is critical to its mission. In addition to sending staff to herbal and nutrition conferences and organizing numerous manufacturer trainings, Wild Oats hosts an innovative annual educational summit that brings key staff together for herbal and nutritional training by leading industry experts—and it is largely underwritten by manufacturers. Each of Wild Oats' showcase stores houses a Holistic Health Center with Health Notes information kiosks that customers can use to educate themselves about herbs, nutrients and protocols for specific health needs. Like Vitamin Cottage, Wild Oats executives believe education is an investment, not an expense, and say it positively influences their bottom line.

Education pays off

These independent stores and national chains, which represent the interface between the natural foods industry and natural foods consumers, consider staff education to be a critical investment in terms of philosophy and mission, customer service, career building for staff, and their stores' finances. All take advantage of training opportunities provided by manufacturers, and some promote attendance at educational conferences or host independent educational programs. Some engage the services of certified nutritionists, herbalists and naturopathic physicians.

Whether it is developing individualized nutrition programs for customers, providing information through kiosks, doing public outreach to schools or hosting a community radio show, the training of natural products staff creates a dynamic and direct interface between a store and its community. Education will always be integral to the continued robustness of the natural products industry.

Roy Upton is trained in Western and Chinese herbal medicine, is the executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, general manager of Planetary Formulas, and vice president of the American Herbalists Guild. He lives in Soquel, Calif.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 11/p. 16, 18-19

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