Natural Foods Merchandiser

Blaze an organic trail

Every year, Americans flock to national parks, wilderness areas and state forests to take part in two of summer?s greatest pastimes: hiking and sleeping outside in a tent.

According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, 24.9 million Americans went backpacking at least once between 1999 and 2000; 34.9 million stayed at primitive campsites, and another 56.8 million camped at developed sites. That?s a lot of hungry people looking for delicious, easily portable, one-pot meals that can be cooked outside.

Natural foods stores and co-ops are likely destinations for these healthy, active, environmentally minded people. Lure them away from the freeze-dried food section of the local sporting goods store and through your doors with the following strategems.

Merchandise your bulk section
Backpackers and campers are looking for food that?s easy to transport and lightweight. There aren?t a lot of natural and organic prepackaged backpacking foods on the market—and you should carry those that are (see below)—but, beyond that, your bulk department offers the organic consumer a selection most likely lacking at the local outdoors store.

?Bulk is where the opportunity is—low on packaging, inexpensive and packed in flexible sizes to fit in odd spots between flashlight and camp stove,? says Sherwood Smith, vice president of The Intelligence Agency, a marketing consultancy for natural products companies. ?Backpackers want dried fruit, trail mixes, oatmeal, pancake mix, pasta, etc.? Smith suggests bulk packaging ?pounders? of popular items for them and slipping cards into the bag that give cooking instructions and portion size.

At least one company—Mary Jane?s Farm—makes an organic line of dehydrated backpacking meals that stores can sell both packaged and in bulk. ?If you offer it in bulk, that?s 40 percent less cost-wise, and [they] can take it backpacking without dealing with the packaging,? suggests Mary Jane?s wholesale manager Cindylou Ament. Other brands, such as AlpineAire Foods and Richmoor Foods? Natural High line, also offer natural, vegetarian and gluten-free versions of dehydrated or freeze-dried foods.

For car campers, who are not as concerned with weight issues, the bulk section can offer a large selection of easy-to-prepare snacks and meals that leave more time for hiking and canoeing and require less time slaving over a campfire.

Let them know you?re there
Arcata, Calif., located near the Marble Mountains and the famed Lost Coast Trail, is a mecca for outdoorsy types. To bring in more of that business, Northcoast Co-op merchandiser Ron Sharp creates a themed endcap each June. The display contains a variety of camper-friendly bulk foods—such as refried beans, soups and trail mix—as well as energy bars, natural sunscreens and insect repellents. Last year the endcap also featured a drawing for a backpack donated by a local outdoors store. The technique proved quite popular. ?We?d fill [the endcap] with a mix of stuff, and every day we had to fill it back up because it got depleted,? says Sharp.

?It might not occur to someone until they see products in a specific backpacking set that this is stuff that could be used for backpacking.?
Smith says this kind of presentation is a great way to appeal to backpackers and campers who are probably shopping at your store anyway. ?It might not occur to someone until they see products in a specific backpacking set that this is stuff that could be used for backpacking.? Some of his suggestions for a display like this include: Print up three-day, five-day and seven-day backpacking and camping meal plans, complete with recipes and shopping lists; merchandise products together that would easily create a meal, such as tortillas with quick beans and rice; and include products like no-bake cheesecake or skillet-baked bread—items that might seem out of place in an otherwise typical natural products set.

Betsy Nichols, vice president of Richmoor Foods, encourages in-store cooking demos. This is yet another way of letting customers know that your store is a good source for trail food and that food made in camp can still be delicious.

Bring the campers to you
The Web site of the Harvest Co-op in Cambridge, Mass., publishes an extensive hiking guide for Boston and the surrounding areas. The guide was created by Christopher Durkin, director of membership and community relations, a hiker who thought his health-minded customers would be interested in learning more about easily accessed ways to enjoy the outdoors. He also occasionally holds hiking information sessions at the co-op. These approaches bring hikers, campers and backpackers into the store and, potentially, out to the aisles.

There are many ways to become a focal point for the outdoor community and capture its business:

  • Suggest your parking lot as a meeting place for local hiking clubs. When members arrive, offer goodie bags filled with water and trail snacks.
  • Host a series of cooking classes that teach participants how to cook one-pot meals over a campfire or how to dehydrate their own food.
  • Team up with a local outdoors store to create pamphlets on hiking, camping and backpacking that give ideas about where to go and what to bring.
  • Offer up your community room for survival skill seminars and gear demonstrations. Your store undoubtedly has all the food that hungry outdoor adventurers need—the key is making sure they know it?s there. Once backpackers and campers realize your store is an ideal destination for natural, tasty and easy-to-carry food, they?ll come back year after year to stock up for all their expeditions. And every time they find in a nook or cranny of their backpack a bag of goodies with your logo on it (hint), they?ll have reason to think well of you and anticipate returning to stock up once more.

O?rya Hyde-Keller is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 4/p. 30, 34

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