You’ve all experienced it—a newbie shopper enters your store in a panic, reeling from a diagnosis of diabetes or gluten intolerance or a chronic skin condition, and looking for help. Some stores have a dietitian or aesthetician on staff who can counsel the customer about healthy food, supplements and personal care choices, but what happens if your store doesn’t?
Increasingly, natural products stores are forging low- or no-cost relationships with local practitioners who can educate consumers on everything from chiropractic adjustments to ionic detoxification footbaths. Retailers who work independently with practitioners say these relationships not only draw in new shoppers, but also make their store a valuable resource for existing customers and add credibility to staff recommendations.
Building these relationships, however, can take some trial and error. To help make the task easier for you, we asked a team of experts for suggestions on how to begin or improve a store’s interactions with local practitioners. Here are their top tips.
Think outside the hospital
A practitioner can be someone other than a doctor. Auerbach polls her staff for ideas on alternative practitioners, and Rainbow Blossom benefits from free lectures and demonstrations from professionals in intriguing fields such as ionic detox footbaths, food therapy, Rolfing, reflexology, sound therapy, crystal energy, craniosacral therapy, homeopathy, guided meditation and herbalism and more.
Think inside the hospital
When Johnson opened Living Well Down East last March, she papered the local medical office park with coupons for her store and introduced herself to medical professionals. She established a relationship with a local physician’s assistant who refers her dermatology patients to Johnson’s store, accounting for about 10 percent of Living Well’s sales. The PA gave Johnson a list of items her customers were likely to shop for, including natural loofahs and back brushes. “That gave me an idea to open a spa section in the store, and the products have sold like hotcakes,” Johnson says.
Before you visit your local hospital or clinic, bone up on natural alternatives to prescription drugs, Johnson advises. Conventional practitioners may be willing to refer patients to your store if you can provide them with scientific evidence showing why your products work. Above all, White counsels: “You’ve got to be proactive and tell them what’s in it for them [and their patients] to work with your store.”
Hold a health fair
Rainbow Blossom hosted its first in-store alternative health fair six years ago and ended up with 30 to 35 practitioner tables in the store. “Everyone wants to participate in this event,” Auerbach says.
Too many tables at once for your store? Cozad recommends holding a “learn to live” day each month, during which practitioners conduct a series of seminars or workshops.
Whichever option you choose, select a diversity of practitioners to lure as many customers as possible; advertise the event, send out press releases, update your social media and website and alert your email list; and make it festive by having raffles and prizes featuring gift baskets from vendors. Auerbach also sends fliers to participating practitioners to hand out to their clients.
Create a contest
Cozad recommends differentiating your store from the competition by holding a sweepstakes in which customers write about how they’re making their lives healthier. Use local health professionals as judges. The sweepstakes winner can receive a “health makeover” from a practitioner.
Open a clinic
Rainbow Blossom’s newest store includes a practitioners’ room that professionals can use for free to see patients. It’s a win-win situation, Auerbach says. “For a practitioner, it can be like an adjunct office to an existing practice, attracting people from different parts of town, and for us, we get the extra traffic flow.” Lomax says from a practitioner’s standpoint, seeing patients in a natural foods store offers a “hands-on situation where we have the foods and supplements we’re recommending right there.” Many practitioners can operate with just an exam table and a desk, and Lomax says some may consider offering discounted services in exchange for the visibility they get from your store.
Clear any practitioner services with your insurance company first, Auerbach advises, and have a lawyer draw up a waiver and release form for anyone who sees a practitioner in your store. “It’s important that customers understand they’re doing business with the practitioner so if something happens, the store’s not liable,” she says.
Educate beyond the store
Practitioners can also provide content for your blog, social media or website; write advice columns for your newsletter; or even serve as spokespersons for your store, Crawford says. One caveat: Be sure they stay on message.
“If you’re a vitamin store that also sells natural foods, you don’t want to work with a dietitian who says people shouldn’t take supplements,” Crawford says. “Even if there’s no dollar-and-cents transaction, it’s best to get all particulars spelled out in advance—a contract isn’t a bad idea, particularly for a long-term relationship.”
Make use of vendor experts
Don’t overlook the practitioners some companies make available, such as well-known naturopaths or nutritionists who can attract 40 or more customers per lecture, Montieth says.
Boost your sales after the presentation by asking the vendor to discount its products. “Garden of Life brought in [popular health and wellness author] Jordan Rubin to speak [at Georgetown Market], and the company offered a 30 percent discount off the retail price of their products for that day only,” Montieth says. “We did $5,000 in sales that day just in Garden of Life products.”
Tailor your inventory
Your practitioner seminars should focus on issues most likely to draw in customers—women’s health, immunity and children’s health are all hot topics, Montieth says. He suggests asking practitioners if they’re going to recommend any food or supplements during the talk, and then make sure to not only stock up on those products, but contact vendors to see if they’ll give you a discount. “You can even have the practitioners choose the products on a monthly or quarterly basis and market them as ‘health-practitioner approved,’” Cozad adds. If a practitioner charges a fee for a workshop, class or lecture, Auerbach makes sure her store gets a 25 percent cut and that employees can attend for no cost.
Take advantage of free training
Practitioners can be walking reference books for your store. For instance, “if you have a homeopath who stops by twice a week, it gives your customer-service people a chance to ask questions and also tell customers, ‘Let me ask our homeopath when he comes in,’” Auerbach says. “It gives your staff instant credibility.”
Work the floor
Keep an eye out for nutritionists, dietitians and personal trainers who may be leading tours in your store without you even knowing it. White takes his clients through nearby natural foods stores, pointing out products he recommends. Along the way, he’ll usually attract random shoppers who buy the same products.
Do your homework
Not all practitioners are assets to your store. Some may not be holistic enough, while others just want to market their own branded products. Montieth quizzes practitioners he’s considering using in his store, checking out their backgrounds, the products they’re likely to recommend and their speaking style.
Another factor to take into account: Be equally careful how you turn down those who don’t make the cut. Not only could they be potential customers, but they can also recommend clients to your store
Owner of Georgetown Market, Indianapolis
Chief operating officer of
Rainbow Blossom, Louisville, Ky.
Judy B. Johnson
Owner of Living Well Down East, Kinston, N.C.
Barry Lomax, ND
Beneveda Medical Group,
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Jim White, RD
Certified personal trainer and American Dietetic Association spokesman, Virginia Beach, Va.
President of Bounce Enterprises, a holistic food and business consulting company, Henderson, Nev.
Director of retail publishing programs at New Hope Natural Media, Boulder, Colo.