As independent natural products stores face ever-increasing competition, some question whether their days in the sun have passed. Not Angie O’Pry Blades, owner of Fiesta Nutrition Center in Monroe, Louisiana. She feels more confident than ever that independents play a unique and much-needed role in ensuring the health and well-being of their customers and wider communities—one that big-box retailers and online supplement sellers just can’t match. O’Pry Blades tells Natural Foods Merchandiser why she’s so passionate about natural products retail and why she thinks independents have a long and vibrant future ahead.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What drew you to natural products retail?
Angie O’Pry Blades: I was a foodie before that was a term and always loved taking a natural approach to life. Also, my grandparents had a grocery store in a small town, so I just loved retail. While studying home economics and nutrition in college in the 1970s, I shopped at Fiesta Nutrition Center, back when it was a 1,900-square-foot mom-and-pop located in a strip mall, and soon began working there. After graduating, I stayed on and became a manager, and when the original owner retired, I bought the store. Then in 2009, I bought a building in midtown Monroe that nearly tripled our floor space and was much easier for shoppers to find. The new space allowed us to expand beyond supplements into produce and full grocery and put in a grab-and-go café.
NFM: And your enthusiasm hasn’t waned after all these years?
AOB: I’m 58 and still have so much passion for this business. I’m a retailer at heart—I love the interaction with customers all day long. I like to think my personality is suited for it. I love what I do and feel so strongly about it that it shows—and as a result, people trust in me. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I always try to find [answers for customers]. I also really care that people get their money’s worth and that the products they buy are really good.
NFM: Do people in your area understand healthy eating and supplements, or do you have to do a lot of education?
AOB: Louisiana is not known to be the healthiest place on Earth, so we were pioneers in this region. We were really fringe, really grassroots, so there were certainly some very lean days. But as people got more educated about health and natural living, thanks in large part to the media and all the information now available, the store grew. So there is a good subset of people who do understand nutrition, but yes, we do some outreach. We give talks at schools, do in-store education and bring in great speakers for our lecture series. We are so approachable that we make it easy for people who are interested in healthier foods. Our staff is so walk the walk, talk the talk. We really embrace new customers’ questions and sincerely hope they can make small changes that will lead to big lifestyle changes.
NFM: Is the wider availability of supplements and natural foods making it harder to stay on top?
AOB: It’s getting a bit tougher, but not as much as you’d think. When you stick with solid brands sold only at independent health food stores and local retailers, it really plays out. With us, customers are buying the whole ball of wax: products and customer service. They trust us, and they can tell a difference in product quality. I’ve seen it many times where brands move online and offer big discounts or go into Walgreens, and it never works out. Customers tire of those brands, or they see right through them.
NFM: What do you look for in supplement brands?
AOB: The brands we carry, like Nordic Naturals, Bluebonnet, Michael’s and EuroPharma, support us so much. They work with us to offer the right pricing and discounts, provide staff trainings and let us have products first. In turn, we are very loyal to them. In our store, you won’t find any low-grade supplements or cheap loss leaders. People want quality, and I’m a stickler about providing it. Also, when you’re a destination spot for certain brands, savvy customers know that and come to you.
NFM: Has your private label been successful?
AOB: We’re having a very good experience with our private label. We are not a discount store; we have line drives but not discounts. We find that branding products with our name, offering them at a price point that’s good for customers and good for us, and having an excellent staff that can discuss these products makes having a private label a wonderful thing.
NFM: How do you differentiate with food?
AOB: On the grocery side, our main competition is big-box stores that now carry some of the same natural and organic brands that we do. So if we see a brand like Horizon milk go hog wild at the grocer down the street, we’ll segue into a brand that’s small or local to give shoppers some contrast. We prefer carrying products people can’t find elsewhere. We offer local grass-fed beef and other meats; humanely raised local pork, poultry and eggs; and local honey and coffee. We offer a weekly preordered box of organic, seasonal produce, which is really popular. And we have our Cilantro Organic Bistro open Monday through Friday, serving made-from-scratch salads, soups and hot lunches that run the gamut from vegan to gluten free to paleo friendly.
NFM: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in this industry over the years?
AOB: Labeling has gotten so much better. A bottle used to say Vitamin C and that was it. Now there is full disclosure of excipients and fillers or lack thereof, and labels note gluten free, dairy free, non-GMO, etc., which tells customers so much more about a product. Sometimes people will bring in an empty bottle of Centrum and tell us they’re looking for an upgrade. We’ll turn that bottle around [and compare it to an item we carry] so the customer can clearly see the difference: no red dye, no fillers and so on. Good labeling also helps us weed out the bad guys. Also, it’s so nice that over the years we’ve become more relaxed and can now speak about certain foods that are no longer taboo. Now we have access to better choices for coffee, oils, dairy, chocolate and other foods that were frowned upon in natural food stores.
NFM: What excites you about today’s natural industry?
AOB: I’m really motivated to help build a future in which people are able to live drug-free lives, so the availability of good products for everybody, with fair pricing, is very exciting. Also, the fact that more consumers are tasting the difference between really good food and fast food—and catching on to how much junk is really out there—is so heartening to me.
On a business level, we can stay in business because of the efforts of quality companies that won’t compromise their standards, provide us with good products and ample support, and have truthful marketing. We are holding hands with those companies.