Not every city is like Boulder or Berkeley, where natural, organic and overall healthy eating has been ingrained in the culture for decades. Similarly, not every city offers ready access to these kinds of foods—or vitamins, supplements and nontoxic body care. But a natural products retailer can achieve success if the owner has enough passion, drive and knowledge to reach and resonate with shoppers.
Meet Judy Johnson. She opened Living Well Down East in the newly revitalized downtown of Kinston, N.C., in 2010. In four short years, Johnson has funneled her long-held fervor for natural and organic foods and dietary supplements into a winning business that has inspired an entire community to eat better, live better, feel better. With an ever-growing roster of regular customers and new shoppers stopping in daily, Living Well is gearing up to open a second location soon. Natural Foods Merchandiser caught up with Johnson to get her story.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What are the cornerstones of your business?
Judy Johnson: Our focus since day one has been to encourage customers to be proactive in maintaining optimal health by offering them natural and organic foods, supplements and beauty products. We aim to provide the best knowledge and service with an emphasis on treating ourselves, one another and the Earth with care. It’s important that we be a service to everyone, from growers to people in the community who want to learn to eat right.
NFM: What can customers get from you that they won’t find elsewhere?
JJ: I would say we are the best available option for organic, local food. All of my produce is organic. The farmers market is within eyeshot of my store, but there aren’t any organic growers there. We also buy as many organic groceries and other items as we can, and we always keep in mind low glycemic, low sodium and non-GMO when choosing products to stock. We support local businesses by carrying local produce, honey, meat, eggs, coffee, homemade soaps, artisan products and more. We also offer produce and meat CSAs. And of course, we focus on impeccable customer service.
NFM: Who are your customers?
JJ: It’s a very diverse group of folks who shop here. We have young and old, men and women, folks raising small kids and folks who’ve run into health or weight issues and are now finding new lifestyles. We get lots of return business, regulars who come in at the same times every day. But we also attract lots of new people from this area and neighboring communities. We still hear on a daily basis that someone did not know we were here.
NFM: Are they mostly natural foods veterans or newbies?
JJ: As a percentage, more are just learning about new eating styles, whether as a result of being overweight, having some medical condition or just not feeling well. For example, a lady came in for the first time and looked scared. She said she felt terrible, was overweight and was tired of it. We showed her around; she bought a few things but said, “Boy, it’s expensive to eat this way!” I told her that this food would be more satisfying and it would go further. The next week she came springing through our doors, saying she had lost eight pounds and felt amazing. Now she has found a way to budget and comes in every week.
NFM: What else are customers interested in?
JJ: Gluten free is big, big, big. The Virgin Diet has also been big this year. Customers do ask about GMOs, but in general, they are not as passionate about the issue as shoppers in some other places. But I am really pleased people are starting to pay attention. I’ve spent a lot of time just trying to educate shoppers on what is natural, organic and GMO. Folks will come in and say, “I’m mostly organic” or “I’m sort of gluten free.” That frustrates me, but that’s why I’ve taken on the challenge of helping people better understand these terms.
Judy Johnson's 3 tips for embedding yourself in the community
Encourage shoppers to take stake. “When I tell customers about our new locale, they worry that we’ll close this one,” Johnson says. “I tell them that this business belongs to the community. They’ve been supporting us so far, and if they continue to do so, we will be here. I encourage them to take ownership and to tell me what they’d like us to carry.”
Keep in touch. “I reach out via Facebook and try to send out an email once a week letting customers know what we’re getting in fresh or when we’re doing wine tastings and other events,” Johnson says. “We’re also a pilot program for Delicious Living magazine, so I send out the digital edition every month.”
Give ’em a little something extra. “We have a massage therapist who subleases space here,” Johnson says. “We also have a spa bed, which has become pretty popular, especially among customers with fibromyalgia.” Little, unexpected touches like these can draw more shoppers to your store and give your regulars even more reason to stop in.