Natural Foods Merchandiser

Put your best foot forward with a top-notch front end

Although a store?s front end is the last thing most shoppers see, it still deserves the attention and dedication that you give your aisles. Not only does the front end convey the impression of the store that consumers leave with, it also offers a chance to profit from potentially hefty impulse buys.

During the last year, shoppers in the natural grocery channel spent more than $65 million on candy and individual snack items and $11 million on lip balm, according to the market research firm SPINS. ?The checkout is where customers spend the most time in the store standing still, so you have an opportunity to engage them or at least educate them with signage,? said Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a consulting firm in Brattleboro, Vt. Stocking the front end with high-margin, high-frequency items can be a very powerful combination, he said.

?Merchandising [in the front end] should be intentional, not just haphazard or a bunch of clutter,? Jacobowitz said. It?s better to have a select number of items that fit the store?s mission than a plethora of items that get lost and can?t be explained well, he said.

The cashier staff can play a large role in accelerating impulse sales. Some retailers experience success by giving cashiers a script to work with, Jacobowitz said. For example, an employee may ask customers if they?re running low on vitamin C at home, then suggest the brand on display nearby. At the minimum, front-end employees should be knowledgeable about the products sold in their department, he said.

At the Mustard Seed Market & Caf? in Akron and Solon, Ohio, co-owner Phillip Nabors knows that to make his store?s front end work he needs to rotate the stock and throw in new items frequently.

?It?s a mistake to accept anything permanent; it needs to stay fresh and alive,? he said.

So what sells well at the front of his stores? ?We don?t have great success with normal, mundane things like batteries and sunglasses,? he said. ?Customers can get those anywhere.? Mustard Seed customers might find turkey jerky (?for a quick protein fix?), candy, flowers, magazines (?Be sure to monitor them for controversial topics?) and small indulgences.

This last category results in some high-margin sales for Nabors. ?People think, ?I deserve this.? You can actually sell some pretty expensive little items because they represent a treat,? he said.

From his 25 years in business, Nabors knows that assigning a front-end employee to manage that section works well. ?If it?s managed by someone who is not close [to the front end] it tends to be neglected, not just from stock but from keeping it fresh,? Nabors said. It?s also a good way to train an employee to handle more store real estate down the road, he said.

Many naturals manufacturers are willing to work with retailers to spice up the fronts of their stores by offering creative displays and merchandising tips. ?We spend as much time on the merchandising end of the business as the other parts,? said Steve Shriver, president of Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Eco Lips. That is no surprise since the company?s lip balm sells four times faster near the checkout than in the health and beauty aids department.

If retailers believe they don?t have room at the register for more stock, they may just need to think outside the box. Although the Eco Lips fishbowl display results in the product?s highest sales, Shriver knows that not all retailers have that kind of space, so he offers a variety of displays.

?It?s important to have a merchandising vehicle that works in all types of stores and all types of places in the store,? he said. To that end, his company offers clip and magnetic strips in addition to bowls.

Shriver advises retailers to place products up front that appeal to the widest demographic. For instance, he suggests stocking the classic Eco Lips product near the register while keeping the higher-end Eco Lips products in the HABA section. Novelty items should also be saved for the front end, he said. ?Our Eco Lips on a carabiner or on a zip cord catch the eye, and they drive future replacement sales,? he said. And retailers should never let stock get too low. ?The last five or six lip balms in the fishbowl will sit there forever,? Shriver said.

The people at Gaia Herbs know that the front end is valuable shelf space, and they work with retailers to get product placed there. ?We really strive to get our products there and to create a win-win situation,? said Mark Nathan, national key account sales manager for the Brevard, N.C.-based company. One way the company achieves front-end placement is with its seasonal sample packs. ?In the fall it might be echinacea and energy in a graphically matched display box,? Nathan said.

Retailers should rethink stocking their front ends primarily with grocery items, he said. ?The profit margins they are running on [grocery] items are significantly less than they would be running on supplements and herbs. What?s more important: a $1.50 snack bar, which will ultimately result in more snack bars purchased, or something along the line of our Sound Sleep, which at $5 [for a sample] can have a turnaround sale of $21.95??

A variety of enticing products can provide entertainment for customers in line, as well as multiple rings. When customers have a sampling of the 16 chocolate bars made by Dagoba in front of them, they tend to buy more than one, said Mary Heckenlaible, spokeswoman for Ashland, Ore.-based Dagoba. ?Ranging from 37 percent milk to 87 percent cacao content, the choices are seductive and fun for the customer to make,? she said.

So when shopping for your front end, stock fun, interesting products, some with high sales margins. And change the stock every two weeks to three weeks. With a smooth checkout operation, this will result in high impulse sales and happy return customers.

Anna Soref is a freelance writer in Lafayette, Colo. Reach her at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 28, 32

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