Natural Foods Merchandiser

Make the Web work for you

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:

  • Make sure to update your site regularly so customers come to view it as a resource, Doherty says. Shoppers who never see anything new on the site will eventually quit checking it.
  • Always reply promptly to online communication from customers. "Sometimes when I post a question, I'm afraid it will disappear into a bottomless pit of e-mail somewhere and never be answered," Willett says.
  • Build a strong brand connection between your online presence and brick-and-mortar store to help guarantee that the rapport you've developed in your store carries over to your Web site. Using consistent graphics and style will help ease the flow.
    In the past 12 months, which of the following electronic sources have you used to learn about organic, natural and health products? (Select all that apply.)

    Web site devoted to health


    Web site devoted to food and diet


    General Web site (Yahoo, Google) with news stories


    Newspaper or magazine Web site




    Online community (forum, online group, etc.)




    RSS feed




    In the past three months, to what extent have you used the Web sites of stores or outlets where you shop for organic, natural and health products? Under Age 35 35 and Older

    Under Age 35

    35 and Older

    Have not used



    Have checked for location, hours or contact information



    Have checked for sales and special offers



    Have checked for information about food and health



    Have purchased products through store Web site



    In the past three months, to what extent have you used the Web sites of stores or outlets where you shop for organic, natural and health products?



    Natural Foods Store


    Have not used





    Have checked for locations hours or contact information





    Have checked for sales and special offers





    Have checked for information about food and health





    Have checked for information about food and health





    Have purchased products through store Web site





    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.22

  • Hide comments


    • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

    Plain text

    • No HTML tags allowed.
    • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
    • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.