Zed Clark, owner of Nature's Food Market in Berlin, Ohio, visited more than 350 stores throughout the Midwest to research housewares for his expanding store.
"I realized, by visiting all these stores, that all the housewares health food stores used to carry were no longer being carried," Clark says.
Many natural foods stores stopped carrying housewares as access to shelf space became more competitive and folks began to find what they needed on the Internet or in dedicated stores such as Bed Bath and Beyond. Clark believes it is time to take another look at housewares.
"I saw a lot of great new appliances coming out. To me, it's a no-brainer because if you sell a juicer, then you are increasing your per-customer purchase. You can only eat so many carrots, but you can juice five of them [for one serving of juice]."
Clark is not alone in his observations. Conventional grocery stores have increased the shelf space dedicated to housewares, from a dust-covered pile of corkscrews to entire aisles complete with nesting Bundt pans. And housewares are creeping back into natural foods stores in many ways.
Lori Korb, front manager and housewares buyer at Oryana Natural Foods Market in Traverse City, Mich., offers housewares mostly by request.
"We are in the process of expanding, and I'm looking for something that we feel good about buying, or we would like to buy locally." Korb says she wants to stock items that people would come specifically to a natural foods store to find. For instance, she's looking for housewares that were made by people earning fair wages, or items from which proceeds go to a good cause.
Harmon's, in St. George, Utah, is in the middle of the spectrum. Matt McGann, the home and house buyer, fills an aisle with housewares and adds some floor displays throughout the store. He might place a citrus juicer by the oranges or put grilling paraphernalia by the meat counter.
"We sell everything, from spoons to spatulas," he jokes. "I would say it's more of an impulse buy. One of our best-sellers right now is barbecue skewers." McGann believes that most consumers are drawn by one-stop shopping. He stocks items selected mostly from manufacturers such as Ecko, Oxo or Revereware.
Clark intends to have an entire section of his store's new location devoted to housewares. He selects his products based on durability and their applicability to natural foods. He stocks food dehydrators, water distillers, coffee and tea ware, juicers and items that will bring consumers back into the store to buy raw products.
"I'm looking at appliances that appeal to natural foods buyers, like flaxseed grinders," Clark says. "So you end up selling the appliance, which is great, but more importantly, you've created a flaxseed customer. With a yogurt maker, you've got milk sales and yogurt starter sales. Even if you create just one or two of those customers, that is the value."
Clark believes there are two natural foods movements that will feed houseware purchases. One is the raw foods movement, and the other is the back-to-basics, anti-convenience food trend. Clark describes Berlin, Ohio, as "the buckle of the Bible belt" and points to several Bible-based diet plans that are luring people away from processed snack foods and toward ingredients such as milk and honey.
"People are beginning to look at the ingredients that sneak in with all of the ready-made products they are buying. If they've got a fruit dehydrator, then they know that all they're eating is the fruit they put in there themselves," Clark says.
"If retailers look at just the appliance, then they'll think that the appliance is not paying the rent, so to speak," he adds. "But if you look at a customer who's coming in twice a week for juicing carrots, then appliances start to look pretty good."
According to market research firm SPINS, naturals retailers sold $156 million of yogurt and kefir products in 2005. Carrying yogurt makers could tap into those sales. In conventional stores, consumers spent more than $2 billion on bottled water (think: water distillers or filters). Coffee, coffee substitutes and cocoa sales increased by almost 28 percent (coffee and tea appliances and accessories).
There are lots of ways to dip one's toe into housewares if there isn't room in the store for a whole section. One way of testing the waters is to replace the "penny candy," as Clark calls it, at the register with something that costs more. Here, Clark takes another page out of the conventional grocery store book. Rather than selling a variety of 65-cent candy bars, conventional stores now stock cameras, batteries and other items in the $15 range. A single, well-placed $14 garlic dicer might earn as much profit as 80 candy bars.
Another strategy is to try out products for the holidays. In its 2005 survey of consumer buying intentions for holiday spending, NPD Group, a consumer and retail information company, discovered that 14 percent of survey respondents planned to purchase housewares as holiday gifts. According to the survey, 62 percent of those who planned to buy housewares as gifts were thinking of spending up to $100. NPD research suggests that small kitchen and personal care appliances are likely to be items of choice for holiday giving.
To ensure that housewares earn money for your store, make sure to demonstrate appliances and let people taste the difference between, say, homemade dried fruit and the packaged kind. Clark suggests demonstrating a new appliance every two weeks or so. In this, as in most things, educating staff is very important. If the staff can see the differences, so can the customers.
It's also important to be conscious of the seasons. Stock up on hot-drink appliances and nutmeg graters for winter, and keep ice-cream makers and corncob holders handy for the summer.
And finally, know your customers. Clark's store is near an Amish community, so he keeps a good selection of nonelectric grinders and mills. Urban clientele might be more likely to buy appliances that fit into shoebox-sized kitchens.
There are housewares for every home and a spot for housewares in natural foods markets, too.
Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 64, 68