When retired chemistry teacher Charles Head of Dallas goes grocery shopping, he has ingredients on his mind. "I know exactly what hydrogenation is," he says, laughing, and he avoids hydrogenated oils and other specific processed ingredients. He's a label reader. But when Head walks into his local natural foods store he doesn't feel like he needs to have his guard up the way he does in a conventional supermarket, he says. Why? The work has already been done for him. A list of ingredients the store does not carry is clearly posted, so when Head picks up a jar of peanut butter, he knows it will not contain hydrogenated soybean oil.
With conventional supermarkets and club stores picking up more organic and natural SKUs, a strong, well-publicized set of ingredient standards can be a powerful point of differentiation for natural foods stores. "This is how we keep our integrity, by staying ahead as this goes mainstream," says Shannon Hoffman, owner of GreenAcres Market, a naturals store in Kansas City, Mo., where buyers adhere to a consistent set of natural standards.
But how should a store decide what to carry or exclude? Once that's decided, how can standards be enforced? And how can standards boost consumer confidence? To find out, The Natural Foods Merchandiser consulted Mary Mulry, who has been helping naturals companies sort out standards questions for 18 years. President of FoodWise, a consulting company based in Boulder, Colo., Mulry has worked in product development for Central Market/H-E-B's natural and organic brand, and in standards for Wild Oats Markets.
Hiring a consultant can shortcut the standard-setting process, but Mulry points to Mrs. Gooch's, a Los Angeles-based naturals store opened in 1977 and bought by Whole Foods in 1993, as an example of successful do-it-yourself standards. Mrs. Gooch's had a reputation for holding its suppliers to rigorous standards: no harmful chemicals or preservatives, no artificial colors or flavorings, no white flour, refined sugar, alcohol or caffeine. The standards came from the owner's personal convictions, which were then applied to the buying process.
To begin building a standards department worthy of a reputation, Mulry suggests meeting with employees or member-owners to articulate how the vision of the store translates into practical standards. For example, what definition will your store use for the term natural? Though it might seem fairly straightforward in the food department, a definition for natural might be more difficult for personal care and cleaning products, Mulry says. That's when a consultant's knowledge can come in handy; however, taking a peek at other stores' lists of banned substances can be helpful too. If you have a particular employee or group of employees who enjoy digging for information online, you can delegate research to them, she says.
Enlist your vendors
While you're compiling a list of ingredients and products you will and won't carry—which will likely be an ongoing process—knowledge from your vendors can be invaluable. "You can go to a trusted vendor—one whose products are a good example of what you want to carry," Mulry says, "and they're often willing to send someone to help your [standards] committee." That way you don't have to pay a consultant, but can get reliable advice on what natural means in different categories.
As you begin to do your buying with the new standards in mind, Mulry suggests developing a questionnaire to give to vendors about each product. Beyond ingredient information, you can also ask for information about the manufacturer's sustainability initiatives, social responsibility and other issues. This way, if you decide the product is right for your store, you already have extra points to sell on.
Go public with it
When communicating your list of product standards to your employees, remember: They will change jobs. Someone who buys paper goods now might be buying food next year. "You need to create a way to pass on information to new employees in that category," Mulry says, "whether that means that each buyer has a copy of all the standards, or they are on some sort of shared intranet."
Keeping employees filled in on why you only carry certain products will also help them communicate your store's values to customers. "The key difference between natural food stores and conventional is that education is really critical to selling [natural] products," Mulry says. If employees can explain to shoppers why your store does not carry certain ingredients, it not only shows off your employees' knowledge, it empowers shoppers to make healthier choices. "I think it's a very powerful program to say, ?We don't carry everything,' " she says.
Feed on feedback
To keep your standards department up to date and in touch with your customers, communication is crucial. "Tell customers you have a program and ask for their feedback on products," Mulry says. Making it easy for customers to communicate, whether it's through a Web site or a designated employee, will open you up to receiving compliments as well as criticism, she says. If a customer asks you to carry a product that does not fit your standards, be ready to explain why, and have alternatives in mind that do fit your standards. "You're not going to please everybody," Mulry explains, "but you can meet the needs of the majority of your customers." And that's the purpose of your standards in the first place, Mulry says. "It's more than just how much I buy or sell it for. It's how much my customer appreciates what I carry."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p.26