Natural Foods Merchandiser

Produce still top gateway

Long-held beliefs about which foods entice consumers to try natural or organic products for the first time are, it turns out, not exactly right.

Over the years, research and anecdotes have suggested that dairy, baby food and produce are the points of entry for most shoppers. The Natural Foods Merchandiser's consumer research turned those assumptions on their ear when we discovered that of those items, only produce was cited as the first natural, organic or health product that survey participants tried. A third of the people surveyed (21 out of 60) named produce as their "lead" category. Vitamins were the next most commonly cited product. Milk and baby food, however, were near the bottom of the list, with only about 5 percent of respondents naming either of those as their gateway category.

Because produce and vitamins are the products that bring first-time shoppers into a store, retailers should take care to make those departments as visually appealing and easy to navigate as possible.

"You always want to make sure that … you have enough room [around islands and dry displays] that two carts can get by, so people don't have to dance cheek to cheek when they're shopping," says Mark Mulcahy, owner of Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm in Glen Ellen, Calif.

"As far as setting up [your department], you want to create islands of impulse," Mulcahy says. "If you're going to put out avocados, have a place where you also have garlic, tomatoes, basil and cilantro. Help them to think about what they may or may not be thinking about. Eighty-five percent of produce sales are impulses." He also recommends creating bountiful displays. "It doesn't have to be all product—it just has to be the perception of fullness. As a customer you're thinking, 'Wow, I've got all this choice.'"

In your supplements aisles, make sure employees are knowledgeable and pleasant, and that shelf talkers and other literature are easily understood—and also follow the letter of the law.

It turns out that the products that attract consumers in the first place are also the ones that keep them coming back. When asked which product in the last six months they were most satisfied with, more than 20 percent said fresh produce and dietary supplements. The next-closest competitor, soy product, was most satisfying to just less than 12 percent of the 378 dedicated naturals shoppers (those who favor natural products supermarkets, natural products stores, or vitamin, mineral and/or supplements shops) who responded to this question.

But while people were able to name the specific produce they liked (organic apples and bananas, leafy greens), they had difficulty naming a brand of supplements they preferred.

"With little brand value penetrating at the product level, it is challenging for a retail store to make an impression on consumers based on vitamins alone," says Sherwood Badger Smith, lead researcher at Avero Research, which conducted the study. On the other hand, retailers who showcase produce in advertising and other promotions should reap the benefits. "It is likely that those who try [advertised produce items] will return for them often," Smith says.

Mulcahy agrees, and says that to keep shoppers coming back for organic produce, retailers must build value. "I recommend between six and eight different items [in the department] that are a good price. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're losing margin on those prices. Have at least two in fruit, two in the wet side and two in the dry section. Make sure at least four of those are staples. When customers see broccoli and lettuce on sale, it puts [them] in a shopping mode," he says.

Specific products new users of natural products report as the first organic, natural or health food they tried



Specific Examples


Produce (20)

Organic carrots, organic tomatoes, salad mix


Vitamins (10)

Vitamin E, "all natural living supplements"


Herbs and Herbal Products (7)

Garlic, ginger pill for seasickness, fenugreek aid for kidney stones


Soy Products (5)

Soymilk, tofu


Supplements (4)

Chondroitin, glucosamine


Ready-to-Eat Cereal (3)



Baby Food (3)

No brands named


Juice (3)

Elderberry juice, apple juice


Milk (3)



Tea (3)

Green tea

The products respondents have tried in the past six months with which they are most satisfied



Specific Examples Not Ranked Within


Grocery: Fresh Produce (81)

Organic apples, organic bananas, leafy green lettuce, carrots


Health: Vitamins or Dietary Supplements (78)

Arizona Health Foods enzymes, Bluebonnet Super Earth, buffered powdered Vitamin C, Co-Q10, Wise Women Herbals, Emer'gen-C


Grocery: Soy Products (45)

Silk, 8th Continent soymilk, tofu, soy crackers, Genisoy bars


Grocery: Fresh Meat or Fish (41)

Amish Farms free-range poultry, Bell and Evans, bison meat, Coleman's


Grocery: Snack Foods (27)

Stacy's chips, soy crisps, Larabar, granola


Grocery: Dairy (27)

Free-range eggs, Trader Joe's soy cheese, milk, yogurt


Personal Care: Skin Care (21)

Burt's Bees, Aubrey Organics lotion, Aveeno, Lush Skin's Shangri-La


Grocery: Other (20)

Annie's organic pasta, almond milk, Peace cereal, New Morning Oatios


Grocery: Frozen Food (19)

Amy's lasagna, frozen raspberries, vegetarian burritos, frozen sausages


Health: Herbal Products (19)

Cinnamon extract, wheatgrass, Zyflamend

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 20

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