The first ice slick in your parking lot, the first stockout on cranberries and brown sugar, queues forming to order free-range turkeys, ominous pah-rum-pa-pum-pums echoing on your music system. It's time to cue the Jaws theme, hire the elves and polish the menorah—the holidays are coming.
Gift buying ranks right up there with food buying as a holiday season activity. But most naturals stores relegate gift items to a few shelves of candles and earrings in the health and beauty aisle.
Why should you care about gifts? Because if you don't, you're leaving money on the table, suggests Steve French, managing partner of The Natural Marketing Institute, based in Harleysville, Pa.
"Gaiam [yoga] items are showing up in Kohl's and Wal-Mart," he says. "Why let your customers go to Kohl's and buy the same thing? It's a shame you can't capture the dollar while they're in your store, buying organic produce."
French believes that retailers will need to distinguish themselves from a "health food store" or "vitamin store," and define themselves as a "natural living store" or "wellness center," according to what consumer needs dictate.
"Some retailers have started to explore the nonfood category more than ever," French says. "That is strategically important for the channel." Gift items, travel centers, investment desks, organic clothing, "even some durable items, like energy-saving appliances," could make sense in the store.
Especially in a small community, your store may be the logical place to buy a compost bin, organic cloth diapers or art and pottery.
Co-op Shines In Nonfoods
That's the way it is at Ukiah Natural Foods. "We just offer a really varied line, so people can come here and get those things," says Lori Rosenberg, general manager of the co-op in Ukiah, Calif. "We're a get-what-you-need kind of store—and the fun stuff, too."
Among the items stocked in Ukiah Natural Foods' 7,500-square-foot store: organic cotton clothing, natural-fiber bedding, "practical kitchen stuff" and housewares. "And they sell," Rosenberg says. "People are so happy that we offer those products."
"Just wait for your customer to come to you," he says. If you have a well-merchandised, well-priced, attractive selection of gifts in an eye-catching spot, wrapped and ready to go, you will solve all kinds of problems for your time-stretched customers. "Christmas Eve is a huge day for gift shopping."
What kinds of products become gifts? Look around. "A lot of stores say, 'We don't carry any gifts.' The fact is, they have a lot of unique food products that are giftable," says Michael Miner of WrapSacks, based in White Salmon, Wash. "It's not your ordinary food that's found at a natural foods store."
Gourmet food is a hot category among gift retailers, according to trade associations. So are pet products and personal care items. You carry soaps, cookies, lip balm, fair-trade chocolate, herbal tea, Italian vinegar? Then you have the goods at hand; now, merchandise them. "It's not what you're carrying, it's how you romance it, how you display it," says Laurie Karzen, a gift industry consultant in Emeryville, Calif.
To turn existing inventory into gift selections, make that impulse buy easy for your shoppers, DeMasi advises. Group gift items by category, like "Great Gifts Under $10" or "Perfect Presents for Men." Enlist the fruit basket whiz from your produce department or bring in an expert to create interesting combinations: a salad bowl with utensils; salad dressings and seasonings; or a colander with pasta, cheese and an Italian cookbook. "Create an entire story," DeMasi says.
End caps will work only if they appear where customers can quickly and easily see them. A better spot, and one that's often overlooked, is the front end, DeMasi adds; put a small display of gift items where customers can pick them up while waiting to check out. Add signage and hand out gift lists by price and category: Great Gifts for Her, for Him, for Them, for the Office Pollyanna. "Take the guesswork out of shopping, and customers will respond with their buying power," he says.
Planning to expand your gift offerings for 2004? Start by paying attention to your customers and your competitors, says Karzen. Spend this holiday season in other stores, seeing what pops off the shelf, what impulse items you find yourself drawn to.
"Small retailers need to look outside their own inventory," she says. "Things that pop out at you—how are they displayed? What makes you want that? They can learn from the big guys—a lot. Go to Target and take a look at what people are in line buying."
It doesn't hurt to survey your own customers as well. Ask them what items they would buy if you offered them. Think about categories of goods that people go across town, or many miles down the freeway, to buy. Ukiah Natural Foods has expanded its nonfood items by customer requests, manager whim and luck. "Once you get one thing, people say, 'Oh, I wish you had ...,' or 'It would be so nice if you got ...,' " says Rosenberg.
Expanding Your Assortment
While the 2003 holidays are fresh in your mind, visit one of the gift markets and have a look at what's new. Gift and home markets are held throughout the year in major cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and New York. The first one is in Chicago—in January.
DeMasi, a frequent speaker at such events, advises first-timers to attend the new-buyer workshop that's offered at every market. "Just walk [the show] for the first couple of hours." Know what categories you're interested in and how much you're prepared to spend before you venture into showrooms with your open-to-buy book, he says.
Karzen thinks the combination of natural living and gift giving is a winner. "There are an enormous number of natural gift products that marry well with the kind of products [naturals stores] have." Focus on merchandise that surprises and delights you, and your shoppers will be surprised and delighted as well.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 10/p. 16, 18