The Granary in Sarasota, Fla., stocks supplements made by more than 100 companies. "We tend to have everybody," says store manager Earl Hughes. "In some instances it can be a little confusing to consumers." At Steve and Nancy Long's Harmony Farms Natural Food Store in Raleigh, N.C., it's a little different. "We only sell one [brand of] egg," Steve Long says.
Natural products retailers face an embarrassment of riches these days —a wealth of new products from a growing list of companies. But more choices and new trends create more complicated decisions for retailers: Should they stock their shelves with a slew of different brands or a select few? What's the best way to display products, and to help their store stand out from others?
The approaches are as individual as the stores themselves. But product quality, customer service and manufacturer support, as well as store size and niche, are key considerations, say retail consultants and store managers.
"It depends on who your customer is and who your competition is," says Ray Wolfson, president of Matrix Marketing Group in Bloomfield, N.J. "How do you want to position yourself? Are you going to be a complete store or a niche store?"
Erewhon Natural Foods Market in Los Angeles is a little of both. "I like to carry a lot of different brands," says store manager Juan Hernandez. "I try to keep enough for a good choice, but not so many that the customers are confused." Hernandez starts with a company's best sellers, "then I'll add one more. Then another. That's why I talk to a lot of vendors."
Hernandez says the 12,000-square-foot store carries a couple different brands of kefir, for example, but each brand has different flavors. He stocks five or six brands of eggs, but again, different brands for different varieties. "I have one brand for large brown eggs, one brand for large white eggs."
Hernandez is also creating a niche in raw foods at Erewhon. "I sit in the middle of two Whole Foods stores, one on either side of me, about 10 minutes away," he says with a laugh. "And there's a Trader Joe's behind me." To counter that competition, "We focus on raw foods. We carry unique products."
The store has two full aisles of raw foods: raw honey, goji berries, agave and coconut oil, to name a few. "A lot of people don't know much about raw foods yet," Hernandez says. To help them learn, the store holds monthly raw foods festivals where 20 companies are likely to participate.
Tim Sperry, president and owner of The Tim Sperry Group in Wellesley, Mass., says smaller stores should be unique to distinguish themselves from their larger brethren. "As they attempt to compete with larger-format stores —whether it's a Whole Foods or a traditional store with a growing natural products section —they have to make sure [the brands and products] fit within who they want to be."
That's key for Harmony Farms. The store is small —3,600 square feet —so every inch counts. Steve Long says he and his wife, Nancy, did extensive research and tried two other brands before they settled on Happy Hen as their sole egg offering.
For all their products —Buffalo Guys for meat, much of the Organic Valley dairy line, a dozen major supplements manufacturers —they say they talk to the manufacturers to make sure the products are "true to natural and organic ways, that they allow their products to be tested. It's important that there's an openness."
"Our goal is to make sure our customers can trust that just because it's on our shelf, it's great quality," Long says.
That's a good way for small stores to distinguish themselves, says Debby Swoboda of Debby Swoboda Marketing Solutions in Stuart, Fla. "Bigger stores can't get in touch with all the products they sell because they sell so many. So smaller stores can really focus on the quality of the product. They can say: ?This brand fits the standards I believe in.' "
At The Granary, owned by the Natural Retail Group, a division of United Natural Foods that owns 12 retail locations, supplements take up fully half of the store's 18,000 square feet. The store dedicates four staff members to its supplements department.
But the store still has to be selective about which products it carries. "Space is a huge issue," says Granary manager Hughes. "We almost have to discontinue a product to put in a new one." Deciding between products is a balancing act, he says. While customers might ask for a particular brand, "it's difficult for us to carry everything in a particular line."
That's tough for any store these days, especially smaller independents. Consultants say a mixed approach of category and brand management is best. While the trend is moving toward solutions —?Where do I find a remedy for my allergies, or supplements for bone health or products that are gluten-free?' —it's also important to carry known brands. "With a smaller store, you have to be selective," Swoboda says. "Look at what's moving. Carry a couple of top brands." In the frozen foods section, it might make sense to stock lines of popular brands such as Amy's together, she says.
On the other hand, Sperry says, a store could carry a variety of lesser-known ethnic food brands that might not be available everywhere else. "It's easier to differentiate yourself in lesser-shopped categories," he says. "But if you don't have Kashi Go Lean in your cereal aisle, you're going to drive customers away."
Says Matrix Marketing's Wolfson: "You have to have your popular brands. But then, also find some really quality items that don't necessarily sell as well, but add that pizzazz and that feeling of supplying something special to your customer. It gives the appearance that you are an expert in that category."
Making sure the store's staff is well versed in the products it carries is crucial. That depends in large part on manufacturer support, say retailers and consultants.
"You have to support your brand," says Hernandez at Erewhon. "Tell me about the nutrition. What is your product going to do for me? You have to do demos. You have to bring me samples. I require my vendors to do training in their product. If my staff is going to sell your product, customers are going to have questions, and I want to know how to answer them."
The supplement companies The Granary does business with "have personnel available to sit down with our staff. We have conference-call training sessions," Hughes says. "When customers walk in here, we want them to know we are their supplement expert."
Harmony Farms holds monthly store meetings to "take advantage of training manufacturers offer so the employees can understand the products on the deepest level," says Long, who encourages his store manager and staff to call company reps any time a question arises.
"Without training, even if you have the best products at the best price, if the staff doesn't know about them, they can't sell them," Hernandez says. "If a customer comes in with a list, I'll go with you through the store. I'll tell you what I know about a product, what's best for you."
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 12,15