They're coming to your store—it's practically inevitable. Every year, more Americans are diagnosed with some form of cardiovascular disease, and chances are savvy patients are going to consider the natural route to heart health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 61 million Americans suffer from CVD. Heart disease isn't discriminatory: It affects the young and old, men and women (though significantly more women die from heart attacks than men). And according to the American Heart Association, CVD is the No. 1 killer in the U.S.
Many of these millions are getting the news from their doctors: Either change your diet immediately, or else face high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure or a host of other conditions. For some, this will mean a stop at their neighborhood natural products store.
How can retailers reach out to these crossover consumers—natural products neophytes looking to make radical life changes? Take a page from the Boy Scouts: Always be prepared.
Matters of the heart
"When someone is diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, they're scared. There's no other word for it," says Keith Mercer, vitamin consultant at Hoover's Essential Health, a natural products store in Altamonte, Fla. "And that goes double if they're not familiar with the naturals world. So as retailers, it's our job to walk them through the process, to make them aware of the kinds of choices they have, what the pros and cons of various treatments are. We really need to make an effort to understand what they're facing."
In other words, the savvy naturals retailer should be extremely well educated in matters of the heart.
"Consumers really do have high expectations for their grocery stores, and you can create the greatest loyalty when those expectations are met," says Cynthia Barstow, president of Seed to Shelf, a sustainability marketing firm, and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "So if somebody comes in with heart-health issues, you'll already have developed some broad strokes to help that consumer. You can have printed materials that give a general outline of what sorts of products and dietary changes might be necessary. It's all about building loyal relationships—if you can give the consumer what he or she needs in a clear and concise manner, they'll appreciate that and they'll keep coming back."
The key, Barstow says, is being proactive. Instead of reacting to customers' concerns on the fly, you should provide ready-to-use information. "Printed materials are a good way to educate the consumer, but I also really recommend making the most of your Web site," Barstow says. "There, you can present your store as a resource on heart-health information, not just a place to get products. Have an icon on your home page for heart-health information. Have links to studies and articles that relate to the topic. All of this will help strengthen your relationship with the consumer."
Not only that, but it will build awareness of CVD—even among those who are not yet afflicted or diagnosed.
"The problem with CVD is that you don't know you have the disease in most cases until it is too late," notes Baldur Hjaltason, sales manager for EPAX, a Norwegian manufacturer of marine-based omega fatty acids that have been shown in studies to have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. "Therefore, intake of certain [supplements] is important as prevention on a long-term basis. It is especially recommended for those that are in risk groups due to bad diet, smoking, are overweight and also have a family history of CVD." Daily heart-health supplements are also a good idea for men and women who are middle aged and older, he says.
Another way to help your customers who are concerned about heart disease is to go beyond the usual retail channels. "One thing I would do is develop a relationship with a local doctor or health facility," Barstow says. "You should really try to understand what consumers are looking for, what their diagnosis means. Developing that relationship with a local doctor or heart-health clinic can help you know what you're dealing with specifically, in your community. That doctor will be able to tell you the kinds of problems he's seeing and how he thinks they can best be dealt with."
Sharing information with your local doctor or clinic can be a two-way street as well. "A doctor is getting bombarded with all kinds of materials, but if they have a brochure from their local, independent natural foods store, the doctor can refer patients to that," Barstow says. "In that way, it becomes more personalized. In a way, that's getting the consumer right there at the point of purchase, so to speak—right when they're being diagnosed."
Keep it simple, but don't dumb it down
Retailers may need to approach cardiovascular life changes differently with crossover consumers than with their dedicated, more educated shoppers. For instance, you may need to speak differently, both Mercer and Barstow say. "There may be some beneficial products—fish oils, omega-3s—that a new customer might be grossed out by," Mercer says. "But that just means that you have to be ready with the right information."
And that information needs to be delivered in a sensitive manner. "If you were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, how would you want to be treated?" Barstow asks. "You wouldn't want to be [talked] down to, but at the same time, you definitely don't want to be overwhelmed with all kinds of information. So it's a matter of finding simplicity and clarity, but doing that in a smart way."
Tyler Wilcox is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 21