It used to be that all the owners of a natural products store had to do to make a living, if they were the least bit savvy, was to have the product on the shelf. These were businesses that succeeded because of relationships built with customers.
McCusker's Market & Deli in Shelburne Falls, Mass., has plenty of staff to wipe the tables in the small café at the back of the store, but owner Michael McCusker can often be found helping clean up. "When I'm wiping tables, my customers talk to me," he says. "I'm more available then than when I'm ringing someone up and there are two people behind them."
This is natural products retailing the way it should be done—building business by building relationships.
But as competition from everything from giant supermarkets to kiosk-like stores on New York City street corners has grown, things have changed a lot for naturals retailers.
Michael Kanter has been at natural products retailing for almost 30 years, and he has seen a lot of competition emerge for his Cambridge Naturals store; there are three Whole Foods Markets within three miles. There is a Harvest Co-op Market in Central Square, and Harnetts Homeopathy & Body Care shop is within walking distance of his store near Harvard Square. Every supermarket and drugstore for miles around carries his SKUs. Still, Cambridge Naturals thrives, mostly because of the strong relationships Kanter and his staff have built with their customers.
If you don't control the market, you can't compete on price or on product mix. Customer service once was the naturals retailer's saving grace. Now even Internet retailers have figured out that price and product mix only go so far.
There is a need to return to the roots of this industry, putting more emphasis on relationships than on price or store design or product mix or even customer service. All those things are important, but they won't serve you as well as relationships when competition five times your size moves in across the parking lot.
Relationships are most often built in your nutrition department. It is not because your produce or grocery people are any less skilled at customer service, because this isn't about customer service. People come to the nutrition department based on need; questions posed in grocery typically are based on desire.
I was recently at the Bread & Circus in Hadley, Mass. Typically, I'm in this store no more than once a month, if that often. At the back of the store, near the food-service area, my friend began talking with a staff member who soon turned to me. She remembered my name and that I had visited her in the nutrition department three years ago, looking for nutritional support when I was recovering from an appendectomy.
Can your staff do that? My guess would be that this type of quality interaction is more the exception than the rule. But for me, it clarified the power of relationships better than any book, article or workshop.
When I ask your nutrition staff what they know about protein supplementation, because I've been lacking in energy of late, that's personal interaction and the basis of a relationship.
The more often your customers ask health or nutrition-related questions, the more interactions take place, and the greater the likelihood that a relationship will begin to form. How many ways can you give your customers a reason to ask a question of your nutrition staff?
Health and nutrition-related questions are emotion laden. Answer a question about organic grapes and you've got a customer. Provide your customer with a meaningful response to his or her health- or nutrition-related questions and you've got a loyal customer. The difference between the two should not be lost on you in today's marketplace.
Former NNFA-East Executive Director Peter Farber is the principal of Loyal Customer, a marketing/merchandising program for retailers. He may be reached at [email protected].