Peter Littell had a food problem: How could he convince grocery buyers that his client's miso pastes were worth keeping on their stores' crowded shelves? As a consultant to both natural foods retailers and manufacturers, he was familiar with the territory. He just needed the right approach.
"The company makes a traditional, hand-crafted miso that uses organic soybeans and deep well water. The soybeans are stomped by foot into a paste—a traditional process used in Japan—then slowly cooked in a koji culture inside massive masonry stoves."
Most grocery buyers, Littell knew, would need more than a good foot-stomping story to sell the product. "Stores have to evaluate whether the product is worth the additional price to the consumer," he says. "So, what we did to help convince retailers is to rebrand the miso by putting it into glass jars. Our competitors' products were all in plastic tubs."
Retailers would still have to position the jarred miso against its lower-priced competitors. (Miso may be tasty, but it's not the prettiest-looking food.) So it was decided to add another visual clue to the packaging to differentiate the product: "We used a silver medallion for the one-year miso and a gold medallion for the three-year miso," says Littell.
Within six months, sales of his client's miso pastes had increased a healthy 25 percent. "The consumer would look at it and say, 'Wow, this is different,'" says Littell, whose company, Pioneer Communications Group, is based in Sunderland, Mass.
His story exemplifies a common scenario. For their part, retailers must constantly evaluate new products for quality and value while keeping their customers in mind. To do that efficiently, a retailer should consider at least three primary areas on which to focus questions for vendors: sourcing, processing and packaging.
Sourcing From Seed To Shelf
"The first thing that most retailers want to know is the quality of the ingredients in the products," Littell says. "Are they conventional, organic, machine-harvested, hand-harvested? In essence, what's their process from seed to shelf?"
For scrutinizing by naturals retailers, the "integrity" of a producer's ingredient sources is important. Manufacturers should be willing and able to fully disclose the source of each ingredient going into their product. Certain questions will help bring about the desired information.
First, does the manufacturer have its own farm? If its products are organic or kosher, who is the certifying agent? Does it claim to be using nongenetically engineered sources? If so, how does it guarantee this? Are its backup sources certified-organic, kosher or non-GE? Does its manufacturing facility have an open-house policy for retailers?
"I think being truthful—whatever that information is—would be a wonderful marker for our industry to have going forward," says Karen Lewis, vice president of natural living for Wild Oats Markets, based in Boulder, Colo. "Full disclosure pushes the envelope on that. It's kind of a new truth to the consumer."
To find companies that make truly cruelty-free products, Lewis' team of supplements and personal care buyers, as well as the grocery team at Wild Oats, sends detailed quality assurance questionnaires to each manufacturer seeking shelf space in the chain of 100-plus stores .
How does a retailer know that the manufacturer is being truthful when answering quality-related questions? "In terms of manufacturing, as long as people are willing to partner and accept that there is a question, and to research that question and be humble about it, then we would move forward with them," says Lewis. "But if they don't want to answer those questions, we would be less likely to want to partner with them and to have their products on our shelves."
Processing: Learn the Lexicon
Often the most complicated—and possibly most controversial—discussion between a retailer and manufacturer is about the processes used to manufacture a product. "Manufacturers should be able to provide retailers with their criteria for natural products," says Littell. "What does natural mean to the company?"
To get those answers, retailers need to be persistent, patient and open to educating themselves. They should start by learning a bit of the food-additive lexicon. The list of FDA-approved (and nonapproved) food additives, extractives, fillers, carriers, preservatives, and artificial and natural flavors is available online at www.cfsan.- fda.gov/~lrd/foodadd.html. Yet, even the government's information does not provide all of the details that some retailers and manufacturers may seek.
Take, for example, modified food starch. It's defined as a thickening agent used to alter the caking or gelling properties of a food, usually breads, soups and sauces. Some retailers will accept a product made with modified food starch only if it is physically—not chemically—modified. Does your manufacturer know the difference?
Another example is fractionated oils. These oils are derived from either a mechanical or chemical process that separates an oil into several different fractions having different properties. Some retailers will accept these oils in products if the process is done by steam distillation but not if they're created by a chemical process. Is this important to your customers?
To many, this may seem like minutia, but ultimately it's these manufacturing details that differentiate the "natural" product from the "conventional" one.
Packaging: The Final Frontier
Assessing a product's quality and value also involves looking at its packaging. Boxes, plastic bottles and labels can be more, or less, "natural" too. For starters, consider the obvious: What type of packaging does the product have? Is it plastic? If so, is the plastic recyclable? Or, can the package be reused in any way?
Then, reflect on the not-so-obvious, such as inks used in printing the package. Is the company using any harmful or toxic inks or chemicals that could possibly leach into the product if it gets wet or cold? How much of its soy-based ink is actually petroleum?
Consider, too, whether or not the product is being put in an appropriate package: Are the supplements in tamper-evident or childproof bottles? Also, will the product fit onto your store's existing shelves? Radical Cuisine recently repackaged its line of frozen entrees to make them smaller, which fit better in freezer cases.
Ask the manufacturer if its product is being co-packed by another company. If it is, what are the co-packing company's packaging sources, including inks and dyes, not just ingredients? What's the ultimate source of a company's recycled packaging? How does the company handle waste from raw ingredients and packaging materials? What's its recycling policy? Does its packaging minimize materials but maintain its safety and shipping qualities?
The Company Story
Finally, many natural and organic companies have a "good story" behind their products. What is that story, and how is it woven into not just its marketing message but its overall production and corporate philosophy?
"Consider whether a company has the ability to not just 'talk the talk' but to also 'walk the walk,'" says Littell. "Does the company invest in the quality of its products? Many manufacturers try new labeling and new marketing tools to push sales; that costs money. A lot of that money could go into product development," he says. "Sometimes that's valuable, but I would ask the question, 'Why?'"
With so many potential unknowns, stores should consider developing their own vendor questionnaire. It should ask the manufacturer to disclose all information pertinent to the retailer's product standards. Getting manufacturers to complete the questionnaire may take time and follow-up, but the end result will be a store filled with the perfect mix of high-quality, good-value, truly natural products.
Steve Taormina is president of PixelPort Productions Inc., a writing and Web design firm that specializes in the natural and organic products industries.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 8/p. 18, 21, 24