Natural Foods Merchandiser

Make the most of manufacturer trainings

Retail Reflections

Natural products retailing, many would agree, is often a mission-driven business. Each store must define for itself its purpose and goals and then conduct business accordingly. At our store, Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., staff trainings are integral to fulfilling our mission of helping our customers. Frequent, in-depth trainings by knowledgeable educators enable us to provide our staff with the latest nutrition and personal care information. This increases staff confidence to communicate information directly to our customers, and increases sales.

We've been able to observe many manufacturers' educators throughout the years. The best trainings occur when speakers know their subjects well. A thorough understanding of the product—and how staff can practically apply this information on the sales floor—is essential. To facilitate this, before speakers present, let them know that your staff has various levels of knowledge and their presentation should accommodate that. Also, encourage store trainees to raise questions—and sometimes even objections—to the material to reduce any skepticism about the products, the company or the health approach the company trainer is promoting. This approach ensures that the trainees will more likely be enthusiastic about the information they receive, will discuss it with other staff and, most importantly, can ethically deliver that information to the customers.

Part of the value of training comes from learning the language the trainer uses—often it's just the right words to share with customers to instill confidence in their purchases. The clear and concise information one gets from the best trainings is the kind that staff can easily communicate to anxious and time-starved customers.

During a training, you want to make sure that presenters emphasize what is great about their product but without dwelling on where the competition is lacking. At our store, we make it clear that we need trainers to focus on their own companies' products and view on health rather than speak negatively about their competitors. It is up to us, the retailers, to listen to our customers and then determine with the customer (without, of course, diagnosing or prescribing) the best products and lifestyle suggestions.

Let manufacturers know ahead of time that you like your staff to sample what they sell. One of the best ways for staff to see the efficacy of a product—and to be able to truly stand behind it on the sales floor—is to try it. Samples that trainers provide are immensely valuable. Best are samples that the staff can pick out for their own use, or for a friend or family member with a specific health issue. A successful experience with a product dramatically emphasizes the integrity of that product.

For retailers, perhaps one of the biggest challenges to conducting trainings is finding the time to take staff off the sales floor. Pricing, fronting, putting away orders, cleaning, back stocking and breaking up boxes all demand staff time and energy. Most importantly, we need to always have enough staff on the floor to serve the customers. It can seem difficult to take employees away from daily tasks to attend trainings. At our store, we start with the premise that an hour or so of training can yield many more hours of successful sales and positive customer interactions. We feel that employee education is well worth the sacrifice of staff time on the floor.

Finally, a benefit of staff trainings that is frequently underestimated is the potential for an enhanced relationship with the companies that offer them. Companies are more willing to offer greater promotional considerations—and are encouraged to maintain, develop and improve their trainings—when they get support from retailers. Done well, it's a partnership among all participants, including researchers, manufacturers, sales representatives, distributors, trainers, retailers and, ultimately, customers. Like everything we do in retail, success is based on our service and commitment to those who shop with us.

Michael Kanter is co-founder of Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass. Contact him at [email protected] or 617.492.4452, ext.301.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 20

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