Natural products shoppers are buying products from an average of 3.5 different types of retail outlets to cover all of their food, supplement and body care needs. That?s a lot of shopping around.
The reason, of course, is that most consumers buy a mix of conventional and natural products. In food alone, fewer than 4 percent of all respondents said that they purchased only natural organic and health food. On average, even shoppers of independent natural foods stores are spending 50 percent of their grocery budget on conventional foods.
NFM?s researchers asked shoppers what they wish their preferred naturals stores—which could be any outlet from Wal-Mart to the smallest co-op—would carry. No store can stock everything or be all things to all customers, but our respondents told us some things they would like to see from their store of choice.
Newer naturals shoppers may be more likely to want to buy natural and conventional products both in the same store. Our results show us that these light users are much more likely to frequent mass and supermarket channels. ?I think it?s great if I can get both the natural and organic brands I like, along with all the other stuff, under the same roof,? says Billy Alounevong of Providence, R.I. Alounevong has been buying organic for ?about a year or two? at his local Shaw?s and Stop & Shop as part of an effort to lose weight and improve his eating habits.
However, these folks are likely to come to a point where they want more. Shoppers at Sam?s Club and mass merchandisers told NFM they want more organic fruits and vegetables, bulk items, organic bakery products and personal care products. Since these are areas where naturals retailers are strong, these should be important components of ?win-over? strategies.
Shoppers who prefer to shop at specialty natural products stores are looking for products to round out their assortments so they can do more one-stop shopping. Examples include hair coloring products, vegan hot dog buns for Tofu Pups, vegan cheese products that taste authentic, organic Mexican foods, and thinner-cut organic potato chips. People still want the best possible options available, but they want to round out all of their customary product categories in fewer trips to the store.
?One advantage that smaller, independent retailers have is their flexibility and speed in getting new products on shelves,? says Charlie Morrow, vice president of the Rosengarten Group in New York. ?They?re so much closer to the consumer. With the chains, their ability to focus on customers is tied up in their bureaucracy because they?re very regimented in terms of when they do overviews and look at categories.?
So should natural products retailers be speedy to pick up the conventional products that we know their customers are buying? About half of the respondents who shop naturals stores are looking for some conventional products in these stores. Most popular would be conventional paper products, followed by certain household cleaning products. Obviously, though, when trust and product safety are on the line, this customer need must be balanced with your store?s reputation.
?I?m loyal because I trust what they sell,? says Laura Napoleon of Manhasset, N.Y., who buys naturals at Whole Foods Market as well as at two supermarkets, Waldbaum?s and Stop & Shop.
Pleasing the customer who wants soda may alienate committed naturals shoppers. ?What is it my customer base uniquely needs that they can?t get from other folks?? asks Ryan Mathews, founder and chief executive of Black Monk Consulting in Royal Oak, Mich.
?The No. 1 thing is product. Natural foods consumers want the right product.?
?We try to be a very high customer-service kind of store,? says Alex Beamer, owner of LifeSource Natural Foods in Salem, Ore. ?We try to have fair prices, but we?re more about quality than about price. We love customer suggestions, but we can?t carry everything people ask for because we have some of the industry?s highest standards for clean ingredients.?
Mathews says the key to successful merchandising is finding out how your customers see you and playing to your strengths. ?For many retailers, the answer will be, ?Let me do what I really do best,?? he says. ?If you?re on the purest end of the spectrum and rigorous in terms of ingredients, tell people that?s who you are. But if consumers are scared off by this holier-than-thou approach, maybe you?ll need to redirect your energy, adding new products with a broader audience in mind.?
Ultimately, a retailer does much more than just provide a product. A successful retailer tells a story. ?The role of the retailer is not unlike the role of the shaman. A shaman gives a vision, sets a tone, provides imagination and opens the door to a world others can?t see,? Mathews says. ?At the end of the day, we?re all tribal entities. We love to belong. Great retailers tell a story in which customers can find themselves.?
What story is your store trying to tell? Successful retailers play to their strengths, minimize their weaknesses and have the vision to change when change is needed.
Mitchell Clute is a writer and musician in Crestone, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 15, 28