Small-store manager juggles daily tasks—even in her sleep
If it?s Monday, chances are Heather Ewers is placing orders with vendors and distributors for personal care products. The same goes for Tuesday, Wednesday and every other workday. In fact, Ewers spends so much time ordering stock for the health and beauty aids section of Harnetts in Cambridge, Mass., even her subconscious gets in on the act.
?Sometimes I have dreams where I panic, thinking, ?I?m out of lavender cleansing cream—did I order enough??" says Ewers, Harnetts? body- and facial-care buyer.
Ewers oversees Harnetts? personal care section, which takes up half the space in this supplements and HABA store in Cambridge?s trendy Harvard Square. Harnetts carries more than 400 HABA products, from hair dye to toenail polish. Ewers works with two distributors—United Natural Foods Inc. and All Natural—and about 35 independent companies. ?Almost every free minute I have, I spend ordering,? she says.
But not all of Ewers? time is devoted to paperwork and tracking stock. Helping customers is just as important to her, in whatever form—whether it?s reorganizing her department to make products easier to reach, lending a sympathetic ear to a cancer patient agonizing over hair loss caused by chemotherapy or researching the latest clinical studies on petroleum-based preservatives. Here?s a look at three days in Ewers? work life:
Morning: Ewers places her UNFI order, a three- to four-hour process. She uses a Scan Genius scanner and handwritten lists to evaluate which products are running low. She is never seen without what she jokingly refers to as her ?sacred clipboard? and notebook, which contains her budget figures for the week and completed and blank order forms.
Afternoon: Ewers works on store reorganization, which in her section entails dropping shelves to eye level—5 feet instead of 6. She also arranges special sections within the HABA aisles. Originally, all the stock was shelved alphabetically. Now, it?s blocked by category and subsection. For instance, the facial care section is separated into products for skin conditions such as acne or rosacea. Each section has its own color-coordinated shelf paper and signs.
One hot subsection is the paraben-free aisle in the facial care set. Harnetts? paraben-free product selection has tripled in the last six months and now occupies three 5-foot tall, 3-foot wide shelves. Ewers says consumer concern about the petroleum-based preservatives, which were linked to breast cancer in one study, has forced companies to reformulate their personal care products without parabens.
?Even though there?s nothing definitive yet [about the health risks of parabens], consumers have been speaking with their wallets and not buying products with parabens. They?ve gotten the companies to change,? Ewers says.
That change wasn?t without resistance, however. ?Even as late as last December or January, company reps gave me a lot of attitude when I told them their sales numbers were going down because they still had parabens in their products,? Ewers says. ?I even had a company fax me a 25-page booklet saying how parabens are good for you—that a product with 5 percent parabens is as effective as one with 15 percent of other preservatives. But the bottom line is parabens are still petroleum-based and they might cause breast cancer, and our customers don?t want them.?
Ewers separates all but three personal care brands by subsection. The store?s best-performing lines—Burt?s Bees, Dr. Hauschka and Evan Healy, a small, San Diego-based company—have their own sections.
Evening: Three times a week for two to three hours a day, Ewers researches products, often at home on her own time. Harnetts has an extensive in-store library that she sometimes consults. She also looks up articles and clinical research online and talks to company reps, quizzing them on everything from the quality of their scientific studies to whether they?re a ?heart-based or financial-based company.?
Ewers and other Harnetts staff then photocopy the info they find and make packets dealing with everything from acne products to immune-system enhancers. Those packets are tacked to an information board where customers can leaf through them, and are also stored in filing cabinets behind the cash register.
Morning: After a day off, Ewers is reunited with her clipboard and ordering forms. She places her second, and final, UNFI order of the week.
Ewers spends the next hour on the phone talking to Evan Healy and setting up an in-store clay mask-mixing event featuring Healy?s products. Not only do store employees have one- or two-hour training sessions with manufacturers? reps a couple days a week before the store opens, Harnetts regularly schedules training and demonstrations for customers with local health and wellness experts.
?Employees recommend people they?ve ?test-driven? themselves,? such as chiropractors or nutritionists, Ewers says. One employee?s physical therapist recently hosted an eight-hour question-and-answer session and free massages for customers.
Afternoon: Ewers spends about three hours writing up orders with independent companies. She finishes her day with a two-hour shipping and receiving stint. Every Harnetts employee helps out in this department.
She finishes her day unpacking HABA customers? special orders. She gets about 20 requests a week for products Harnetts doesn?t regularly carry.
Morning: Ewers spends about two hours calling customers to tell them their orders have arrived.
Afternoon: Most of Ewers? day is devoted to customer service. Saturday is always a busy day, but this summer is ?unusually heavy,? Ewers says. ?I think it?s because the economy isn?t great so our customers aren?t traveling as much.?
Ewers says that on a typical day, she might help 15 people at an average of 20 minutes per person. ?I say hello to everyone when they walk in the door and give them a big smile, so they know I?m here if they have questions.?
Ewers believes customer service is vital. ?It?s helping an individual get their needs met,? she says. ?Sometimes I feel more like a therapist than a retailer.?
Because the Boston area has so many cancer specialists, Ewers works frequently with cancer patients. ?We talk about issues like how to help the body survive chemotherapy. You?ve got to spend time with those people; you want to make sure they?re heard both mentally and emotionally.?
Other topics she frequently deals with include skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema and, perhaps because she has sapphire-blue tresses, hair dye.
Ewers says customer service is one of her favorite parts of her job. ?It?s going to sound corny, but I really do believe it—my job is all about helping people, healing people and caring about people.?
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based writer and editor.
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Wild Oats manager experiments with holistic health format
A customer rushes into the holistic health department at the Wild Oats store in Superior, Colo., frantic to find something to ease the pain her daughter is feeling after just having had her wisdom teeth pulled.
With a little help from Noah Solomon, department manager, the mother picks up some arnica gel, a homeopathic remedy to lessen bruising and swelling, and an herbal tincture to stop inflammation as an alternative to pharmaceutical pain relievers and narcotics.
?She didn?t want her daughter taking the prescription, so these made her happy,? Solomon says. Knowing exactly what vitamins, minerals and supplements he has in the department is all in a day?s work for Solomon. It?s his job to order thousands of health and beauty aids—one-third of the store?s total inventory—to stock the products that fly off his department shelves, especially on the weekends, he says.
But product knowledge is not all that?s in a day?s work for Solomon. Take a look at what he does for three days on the job at this supernaturals store.
Morning: Solomon gets in around 7 a.m., checks overnight communications and makes sure the department?s shelves are stocked and ready for a higher-than-weekday sales volume.
Afternoon: Solomon and another staffer spend six to eight hours walking around the sales floor helping customers and noting what seems to be selling well, from glucosamine to sports nutrition and healing supplements.
?Holistic health? is the trendy new name for the traditional health and beauty aid departments at Wild Oats stores, which did very well for the quickly expanding grocery store chain this year, says Sonja Tuitele, a Wild Oats spokeswoman in the Boulder, Colo., corporate offices.
?Holistic health is one of our top-performing departments this year. It?s a great driver for us,? Tuitele says. ?So if we can drive more people to shop there, we will.?
Wild Oats? Superior store is its flagship, which can be seen in a glance at the holistic health section.
The 2,500-square-foot store-within-a-store is right next to a community room and prominently features health and exercise equipment—a new addition—along with more traditional best-sellers like nutritional fish and flax oils in a refrigerated case in the corner, protein powders and supplements, and enough personal care items to please the pickiest of preeners.
With computers and chairs at a wood kiosk in the department and health reference books nearby for looking up remedies, Solomon tries to entice customers to stay.
Employees help customers print out information they find on the computers or copy pages from the books, Solomon says. A full-time registered dietitian pops in and out of the department as she travels regionally from store to store.
Morning: Financial reporting marks the first day of the week. Solomon spends about three hours looking at the ratio of product orders to purchases, figuring out what did particularly well, what bombed and deciding what to keep and what to change for the coming week.
Solomon orders at least 50 percent of the department?s products on Mondays using Order Dog, an Internet-based ordering service, which he estimates has cut ordering time at least in half since he started using it more than a year ago.
Afternoon: Employees get instructions from Solomon about what to do after he leaves, from cleaning to stocking to handling special projects.
At least once a week, Solomon or another worker re-merchandises a section. Calendars and journals are the latest featured item. Solomon moves them to a spot next to the exercise equipment for the back-to-school, preholiday rush.
?This is still a concept department. It?s larger and we have more space to promote things like exercise, yoga and Pilates,? Solomon says.
Low shelves (about four-and-a-half feet high) in the department and throughout the store have led to better customer service and increased sales, Tuitele says. And two holistic health employees roam around to better help customers, she says.
Morning: Solomon usually places a morning order for vitamins and supplements several times a week, in addition to Monday?s ordering blitzkrieg. After deliveries come at 11 a.m., Solomon or someone else in his department stocks shelves.
Afternoon: Since Solomon is also in charge of all nonfood displays around the store, he spends about two hours checking such merchandise outside his department. Midafternoon, Solomon handles invoices and bills.
Evening: Solomon stays late on Tuesdays to change all displays in the store to coincide with Wild Oats? newspaper advertising, which comes out Wednesdays.
Twice yearly these displays feature merchandise related to contests—customers can win an inflatable kayak in the summer and a snowboard in the winter.
Solomon spends a lot of his time changing product offerings and displays to keep up with what?s in the news.
Hoodia, a diet extract from a cactus-like plant, is the latest example, he says.
To build customer loyalty, Solomon will special order products his store doesn?t carry or drive to another Wild Oats store to pick up something he doesn?t have for a customer, admitting that competition is fierce with Whole Foods stores and other nearby natural foods retailers.
?Some people are all about the competition, but to me, it?s all about the industry and helping people with their health,? Solomon says. ?I like to think in the department that I control, that our service sets us apart.?
Beth Potter is a Denver-based freelance writer.
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