The beauty and abundance of the earth shouts from every corner of a naturals store—except the supplements section.
Over there, in the land of the 40 percent margin, rows of white pill bottles and rows of brown pill bottles are broken up by the occasional row of blue pill bottles or display of brightly colored vegan bath bombs.
Why is the supplements section—the most inventory-packed, labor-intensive, profitable part of the store—so often the least attractive to look at? And what are smart retailers doing to create nutritionals departments that are pleasing to the eye?
In the old days, reputable medicines were dispensed from plain bottles labeled in sober Latin, while brightly packaged snake oil was sold with fanfare and flash. In 2005, those images are changing. Pharmaceuticals are increasingly marketed via consumer advertising, while over-the-counter products capitalize on strong package and ad messages, as well as the power of familiar brands.
The atmosphere of a section, and the way products are presented, ideally tells consumers, ?This is serious medicine that can be trusted and is efficacious,? says Tara Estabrook, an industry consultant from San Rafael, Calif.
At the same time, shoppers want a human touch, ?like a cosmetics counter, where it feels like people come up and talk to each other,? says Cynthia Barstow, who teaches natural products marketing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ?Consumers need support that they?re not getting.?
Retail writer Karen Kingsley of Easton, Conn., has her own list of pet peeves, which include shelf-reading down a 20-foot set of supplements in search of the lone bottle of colostrum. ?At some point, I?m giving up,? she says. ?The problem at retail, for the most part, is confusion and a lack of knowledge.?
Who does a good job of blending the messages of reliability and accessibility, of friendliness and professionalism? Industry watchers cite the supernaturals.
At Wild Oats, the ?Holistic Health? sections in newer stores feature lower-profile gondola shelving, to give the section a human scale, and large displays of books, organic clothing, fitness gear and home accessories. Colorful racks of Crocs shoes and candles break up the visual monotony.
?Only one-fifth of our customers shop that area of the store,? says Sonja Tuitele, vice president for communications at Wild Oats. ?It?s a challenge. It?s intimidating for shoppers.?
Wild Oats? numbers may actually be better than the industry average, says Estabrook, who believes only 5 percent to 10 percent of natural foods shoppers cross the aisle into supplements.
The newer stores? health section centers around a staffed counter where employees hand out samples, answer questions and give advice. Barstow finds that appealing. ?It feels like you?re going into a waiting room,? she says.
Beyond an attractive presentation, Wild Oats has committed to having two staff members in Holistic Health at all times and paying them commissions. ?Merchandising has to be complemented by information and education,? Tuitele says.
According to the company?s press materials, the Whole Body section at the new flagship Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas, focuses on pampering and self-care, whether that means supplementation, shampoos with organic ingredients or a massage. Practitioners from The Crossings, a Hill Country spa, offer full-body massage and nutrition counseling. There?s a display of organic linens, towels and clothing for men, women and kids?and a fitting room to try items on. Aisles are wide, signage is plentiful and workers are trained to speak to any customer within speaking distance.
Focusing on personal care is a smart way to make shoppers who are intimidated by alternative medicines feel less wary of the HABA section, Kingsley says. ?If I buy a lipstick and it?s the wrong color, what am I losing?? Adding workout gear, color cosmetics and hairbrushes gives them a comfort zone in which they can experience the quality and service that will, one hopes, inspire them to come back for vitamins.
Unified and pretty Stores can start that transition by rethinking the same basics they use in merchandising food: shelf height and composition, lighting and aisle width, signage and staffing.
The section should have the personality of your ideal health care practitioner—competent, organized, calm and friendly. Product stacked to the ceiling, different shapes and sizes of packaging and lots and lots of words on plain labels come off as chaotic and confusing.
Rather than making the products the star, as a store might with produce or fresh fish, add color and a unifying theme with shelving, signage and fixtures. Plants soften the hard edges, and friendly area lighting makes the section seem accessible. At Pharmaca, a chain of integrative pharmacies based in Boulder, Colo., shelving is arranged into alcoves with track lighting to give a more intimate, more private feeling. Near the supplements, customers can relax in a comfy chair with a cup of tea while they browse books for sale or peruse the store?s reference library, says Anne Dirks, marketing and public relations manager.
Part of the appeal of Pharmaca, says Estabrook, is its mingling of the clinical with the whimsical. Shoppers travel past appealing displays of color cosmetics, magazines, designer chocolates and candles. ?It makes the whole section beautiful,? she says.
Even among the nutrition products, tables in the center of each alcove carry a selection of seasonal and gift items, such as cosmetic cases, stationery and eye pillows. Signage characterizes products by type (calcium, vitamin C) and by treatment (women?s health, ?Brain and Memory?). Mainstream OTC products are merchandised among natural remedies, so a shopper will find Mylanta next to probiotics in the digestive section.
Having a pharmacy also helps crossover customers feel comfortable. According to Estabrook, ?The pharmacist is the No. 1 most respected professional in the United States.? It may be time for naturals stores to broaden their vision to include prescription medications, she believes. ?Everybody needs to think outside their box. We get insulated in our natural foods mind-set, just like [other stores] get insulated in their conventional mind-set.?
Experts are nearly unanimous on this point: A section with one bottle of every remedy known to humankind is going to alienate even longtime naturals shoppers and freak out newcomers.
?I, myself, am intimidated by all those bottles of pills,? Estabrook admits.
Category management is often sold to retailers as a way to streamline vendor management and increase product turns. What many store managers forget, Estabrook adds, is that it cuts down on customer confusion. ?As soon as you confuse customers, you lose them,? she says. Too many varieties of the same product forces the customer to default to price comparison.
Consultant Danny Wells of Vacaville, Calif., says more than 50 percent of single-faced merchandise goes unnoticed by shoppers. Remove the slow sellers and maximize the impact of your best-selling products, he advises. ?We recommend taking the best sellers within a section and merchandising them six to eight facings wide, or ribbon facing three to four bottles wide and two to three shelves high.?
Whole Foods, for one, has narrowed its selection while increasing its space per SKU, Estabrook says. That gives shoppers an impression that combines abundance (lots of bottles) with focus that implies ?We?ve created the best selection for you.?
Sign, seal, deliver
Manufacturers should provide display units and ?clear solution signage with [photos] of healthy consumers,? Wells says. ?People aren?t buying vitamin E; they are buying a healthy heart.?
Proper signage is critical, Estabrook says, and ?it will always be confusing if you break your section out by structure-function.? The current trend is to arrange your supps by condition, which can be a broadly defined subcategory; for example, being female is a condition that can inspire a section with menopause products, women?s multis, yeast- infection remedies and greeting cards shaped like shoes.
The issue of condition-specific products brings up another underutilized tool: cross-merchandising.
?Cross-merchandising is the one thing in our industry that?s almost never done,? Estabrook says, ?and when it is, it is extraordinary.?
In its new Austin store, Whole Foods set up a ?Whole Baby? department that combines baby food, diapers and other infant-care products with a private nursing area and a set of interactive playthings at a kid-friendly height. Elsewhere, a sports area combines fitness drinks, powders, energy bars and nutrition products to appeal to Austin?s many Lance Armstrong wanna-bes.
So, Estabrook says, why limit your weight-loss section to shakes and thermogenic products at the back of the supps section? Instead, set up a ?healthy weight loss? section that includes protein-fortified cereal and fitness DVDs, bottled water and broccoli. During cold season, why not create a display that includes citrus, astragalus, tissues, tomatoes and Alacer Corp.?s Emer?gen-C?
Themes stretch across the store, inspire events and promotions, and engage the shopper in a conversation about wellness, rather than illness, Estabrook says. A store could promote Heart Month with fish oil and oatmeal in February, and a Mother?s Day theme with prenatal vitamins, chocolates and those shoe-shaped greeting cards in May.
And a men?s section, by all means. ?Men don?t like to spend a lot of time shopping,? she says. ?Put the men?s body care and men?s supps in one area. Make things easy.?
Research says people shop more stores than they used to while spending the same amount of money, so it behooves stores to clarify their presentation, Kingsley says. Trader Joe?s seems easier to shop, she says, because of its limited assortment and wide array of private-label products. ?Because the labeling is the same, it?s easier to see what?s on the shelves,? she says.
?Frankly, supps are one of the highest margin areas in the store. Why people don?t spend a little time and money on it makes no sense to me at all.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 4/p. 20, 22