Natural Foods Merchandiser

Ellwood Thompson's online presence

Visit Ellwood Thompson’s Facebook wall and you’ll find a steady stream of lively comments like “Hungry. Wish you were open,” and “I’m jonesing for a vegan veggie/hummus wrap and tofu cookie:-) Can u deliver to Midlo:-)?LOL.” These customers are a few of Ellwood Thompson’s more than 2,500 Facebook friends and nearly 1,000 Twitter followers who are connected both to the store and its digital message.

Ellwood Thompson’s is one of a growing number of natural products stores that is successfully tweeting, friending, videoing and blogging its way to a more engaged customer community.

Online, in store
The store’s focus on the Internet has surged in the last few years as social networking and blogging have become mainstream, says the store’s Marketing Director Cyndi Watkins.

“The majority of Richmond is college students, so a lot of people use Facebook and Twitter,” Watkins says. “It’s just a really inexpensive way to get in touch with a whole bunch of people quickly.”

Ellwood Thompson’s employees use a multitude of virtual platforms to educate and inform customers about what’s happening in the store, minute by minute. Twitter and Facebook are two of the largest tools, but they also use a blog (featured on the store’s home page), and a Flickr account where they post photos of in-store events and products, along with videos that allow shoppers to take a virtual tour of the store.

“We’ll run specials for a couple of hours and put out something like, ‘If you come in and say ‘buy local’ to your cashier, you’ll get a dollar off your hot bar,’” Watkins says. “Those always get really, really good responses. All of a sudden we’ll see 50 people come in saying, ‘buy local,’ and we realize people are following us. It’s a quick, easy way to put Ellwood Thompson’s back in people’s minds.”

Watkins also uses alerts to customers’ Facebook and Twitter accounts to help the store stand out against larger competitors. She says shoppers feel a personal connection when they receive individual messages from the store wishing them a happy birthday.

“I think being an independent retailer, in a world of all the big giants, it’s nice to have that personal touch,” Watkins says. “[Wishing them happy birthday] is a nice way to say, ‘Hey, we are local and we’re not corporate giants, and you guys do mean something to us.’”

Virtual sanity
The store’s website and social networking tools allow Watkins and other employees to use their time better, so they are able to put more focus on products and improving customer service.

“We used to get phone calls, probably every minute, asking what was on the hot bar for the day. Now we put the specials online. Obviously, that frees up some productivity for the kitchen so they can actually make the food instead of fielding phone calls,” Watkins says.

Using the Internet effectively also helps the store save money on marketing and customer education.

“The website has a lot of resources on it,” Watkins says, noting that the store’s home page rotates environmental, political and farmer-profile articles. “It’s a little bit of both a marketing tool and a resource for customers. We are trying to be as paper-free as we can, so this is a great way to do that cheaply.”

Get interactive
Once you have a site you feel confident about, the key to success is empowering your staff to use it consistently, Watkins says. Ellwood Thompson’s trained each department head to update the website and social networks daily so content is never old and users are never bored.

“When I had to teach the department managers how to do it, the people who had been using it personally took right to it. Those who hadn’t blogged or Facebooked or Twittered were a little nervous at first,” Watkins says. “It is super friendly, easy to do and doesn’t take much time. I just explained it to people over and over again until they felt comfortable.”

About Ellwood Thompson's Local Market

4 N. Thompson St.
Richmond, VA 23221

Store size: 15,000 square feet
Employees: 120
History: Owner Eric Walters started the business in 1989 by selling supplements out of a closet in a restaurant.
Find it at:

To learn more about going digital, visit

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.