By Hilary Oliver
Consumers are making the Web work for them; are you making it work for your store?
From online bill-paying to reading celebrity gossip, your shoppers are using the Internet to find information and check items off their to-do lists. If your store's Web site is tuned in to what naturals shoppers are surfing for, your store might just make it onto those to-do lists a bit more often.
The Natural Foods Merchandiser's consumer research showed that although nearly a quarter of naturals consumers use Web sites as a purchase channel in a typical month, the Web is rarely their primary source for natural, organic and health products. So if your site's main goal isn't to sell product, what is it? Providing up-to-date information on specials and events, which ultimately drive traffic into your brick-and-mortar store. According to shoppers and Web-savvy retailers, the key is keeping your site current, attractive and homogenous with the feel of your store.
Must-have Web elements
The most common thing shoppers use your Web site for, according to the consumer research, is to find basic contact information for your store, such as location, hours and phone number. After that, shoppers check for sales and special offers, followed by information about food and health.
"I look to see what's on sale," says survey respondent Monica Willett of Harrisburg, Pa., who buys most of her natural and organic products from the naturals section in her local Wegmans. She checks the store's specials online regularly, so she can better plan her shopping trip. Natural products chain Earth Fare, based in Asheville, N.C., not only publishes its special offers, it also features an online shopping list program. Shoppers can enter the items they need, and the program organizes the list by department before the shopper prints it out, so the customer can streamline the shopping trip.
Retailers are also making use of blogs. From the supernatural giant Whole Foods Market to the member-owned Syracuse Real Food Co-op in Syracuse, N.Y., natural products stores are drawing attention to themselves by giving a voice to their management and keeping their shoppers up-to-date on events.
"I like reading things written by the people in charge of the company," Willet says, explaining that getting to know the faces behind a store can build a sense of security and loyalty.
Leisha Doherty, community development manager for the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, says the store's blog, which is only a few months old, has already been an integral link to driving traffic into the store. "The blog is such a great format," she says. "It can be updated easily and doesn't need a system administrator." The co-op usually updates its blog a couple of times weekly and includes photos of events, new products and even new employees.
One other tool shoppers look for is the online recipe box. Bridget Cutshaw, graphic designer for Akron, Ohio-based Mustard Seed Market and Cafe, says the recipe page is one of the top hits on the store's Web site, following the homepage, specials and events. Highlighting recipes that feature unusual ingredients can encourage shoppers to buy something they don't typically put on their shopping lists.
Show your expertise
Whether you contract out the content of your Web site by working with a company like Venice, Fla.-based Living Naturally, or opt to assemble it yourself, relevant health information should be one of the mainstays of your site. "Give us articles," says survey respondent Suzanne Dobson, of Slingerlands, N.Y., who says she values easy access to health information she can understand.
According to the consumer research, more than 23 percent of shoppers have accessed their natural products store's Web site to check for information about food and health. The Real Food Co-op is using its informational Web site to build health-related connections within the Syracuse vicinity. Instead of pulling information from seemingly random articles, Doherty says she's planning on linking to local practitioners to help build a sense of community.
Things to remember
In building a solid Web presence, a few tips will help you avoid disappointing surfers who are just a click away from someone else's site, and just a car ride away from someone else's store:
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.22