Twenty years ago, Bill Wolf had a revolutionary idea. A marketing mastermind and longtime proponent of organic gardening, Wolf felt consumers should look to their natural foods stores for organic seeds, fertilizers, soils and mulches.
"I thought natural foods stores were the ideal market, as opposed to conventional garden centers where we had to educate the customer and the store owner on the importance of organics," he says. To test his theory, Wolf and his growing supplies outfit, Necessary Trading Co., teamed with Bread & Circus, the largest natural foods retailer in the Northeast at the time, to create a garden outlet at one of the chain's Massachusetts locations. The team maintained fully stocked centers within the store for two growing seasons, but failed to garner much customer interest. Eventually, Wolf and company realized it would take longer than two years for Bread & Circus to gain a foothold in the organic gardening market, which was more time—and space, money and personnel—than the retailer could afford to allocate to the project.
Fast forward to 2007, and Wolf's idea doesn't seem so far-reaching. Along with organic gardening needs, products such as all-natural grilling supplies, sunscreen, food coloring and holiday candy are now making their way into shopping carts alongside traditional purchases at naturals stores. Why the change? First and foremost, says Wolf, who later served as president of the Organic Trade Association, consumer trends have shifted more toward a one-stop shopping experience. Rather than buying eggs at the neighborhood co-op, then crossing town to pick up fresh trout from the market, and doubling back to the drug store for dish soap and vitamins, time-crunched customers now look to get as much shopping done as possible at one locale.
Secondly, as the nation becomes increasingly educated about the importance of buying local, organic and all-natural products, more customers seek out Earth-friendly options across the board, from pesticide-free produce to biodegradable cleaning supplies to seasonal items such as organic Halloween treats—all of which can be found at naturals stores.
Success of the naturals industry is also a component. As demand for their products grows, many naturals companies now have more money to put toward marketing, which boosts their sales within such stores. Many manufacturers have been able to push their operating costs down, allowing them to market their products to the booming naturals stores, according to Amy Barr, co-founder of Marr Barr, a Longmont, Colo.-based strategic marketing and communications agency specializing in nutrition, health and sustainability.
But even before these changes occur?red, certain seasonal products, such as sunscreen and insect repellents, tended to fare well in naturals stores. Joe Wallen, a nutritionist and owner of the Florida-based small natural products chain For Goodness Sake, claims DEET-free bug deterrents have sold well in his Naples, Fla., location since it opened in 1984.
While some seasonal items are long-time favorites and others are just beginning to move, industry experts and market researchers agree that seasonal merchandise is very important for a retailer to offer. "Seasonal products create a lot of in-store excitement," Barr says. Research shows that if customers think a product will only be available for a limited time, they're more likely to purchase it, she says. Plus, an ever-changing lineup of goods keeps shoppers alert, in-tune and actively scanning shelves.
So how can a retailer determine which products will fly off the shelves and which will collect dust? In the case of seasonal items, one of the oldest laws of retailing applies: Know your customer base. If a majority of your clientele lives in high-rise apartment buildings without patios or decks, all-natural grilling charcoal isn't likely to be a hot seller. Nor will kids' organic cotton sun hats if your store is surrounded by retirement communities. But if you're located in an area jam-packed with young families, chances are that stocking stuffers and natural Easter egg dyes will sell like crazy.
There are myriad ways to pinpoint what types of products customers are interested in—or could potentially be turned on to. Lakewood, Colo.-based naturals chain Vitamin Cottage uses velocity reports to reference past sales movement and track customer requests. Debby Swoboda, president of Debby Swoboda Marketing Solutions, suggests asking for customer feedback via online surveys, holding educational seminars to gauge interest in topics such as organic gardening, and talking with shoppers about their interests and opinions while bagging their purchases.
Once you have a hold on your customer base, you'll have a better idea of which items will sell. To help navigate product options, Swoboda encourages buyers to create a yearlong marketing calendar that is broken into different monthly themes, such as Organic Harvest for September or Earth Month for April, and to work at least 90 days ahead of that schedule. That way, when visiting a trade show in September, you can look for items that will suit your customers' needs come December, and chat with those vendors about planning special promotions, displays and interactive programs aimed at engaging the customer. Swoboda says vendors are often eager to support an organized, forward-thinking retailer in additional ways, such as donating gift baskets for drawings or offering in-store product samplings.
After choosing which seasonal items to carry, the next step is making a product worth its shelf space. "If you have a product and you stick it on the shelf, but there's no excitement created about it and nobody knows about it, nothing happens," says Swoboda, who suggests compiling products into themed displays to help them garner attention. She offers the example of placing some summertime juices on an end cap with protein powders and shaker cups. Similarly, you could hand out an autumn pie recipe and place canned fruit, raw sugar and pie tins on a noticeable table.
Vitamin Cottage Marketing Director Nancy Flynn agrees with the in-store themed approach. "End-cap displays are a great way to market seasonal products," she says, "pulling items together with a theme such as picnic supplies or holiday dinner ingredients." Flynn recommends placing these displays in high-traffic sect?ions of the store and at register stands to remind customers what they need—even if it wasn't on their shopping list.
Still, the inherent problem to moving seasonal merchandise is that, alas, all seasons come to an end. "The challenge lies in moving these items before the season moves on," Flynn notes. According to Swoboda, retailers often make the mistake of letting a product sit on that end cap until it sells. "What happens is the product gets old, there's no excitement, people see the same thing and the interest is gone," she says. Instead, Swoboda suggests, after having the product on an end cap at a discounted price, the retailer should move it back to a shelf at a still-reduced—but not as low—price. You might also try placing the product in a few different spots throughout the store.
Though seasonal merchandise is becoming easier to sell in naturals stores, it does not come without challenge. If trends continue, customers soon won't consider going anywhere but their favorite market for all grilling, gardening and grooming needs. But until then, a little foresight in your marketing plan will go a long way in preventing products from overstaying their welcome on your shelves.
Melaina Juntti is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 58, 62