In last month's issue, we gave you tips on how to critically evaluate scientific studies of herbs and supplements. Now that you know your double-blind studies from your epidemiological ones, the next step is to use this information to make smart decisions that will help your business. Here are some tips to get you started.
Manage your merchandise
Credibility is key when it comes to carry?ing products that impact people's health. By educating yourself on the science behind the supplements, you'll learn the difference between a fad and a product with staying power, and can then stock your store accordingly. "A retailer can have the top-notch brands, but then have some fly-by-night company that makes a hangover remedy or weight loss product that has no credibility, and consumers will think that it's all about the money and not about integrity," says Christopher Turf, a licensed pharmacist and director of integrative pharmacy at Boulder, Colo.-based integrative pharmacy Pharmaca. He suggests using your knowledge about the evidence behind a product's efficacy to make smart merchandising choices.
Dr. James Nicolai, medical director of the Franciscan Center for Integrative Health in Indianapolis, suggests retailers use the same high level of selectivity that he and his colleagues do when stocking the pharmacy at the Center. "We're the people who are going to say, 'This is good and this isn't. And I'm not going to carry anything I don't trust. So when you come here, you know you're going to get the best of what's out there and nothing else," he says. "I think that can generate more loyalty than having so many product choices [that] customers don't know where to start. Do some due diligence and put products you believe in on the shelves."
Bring in the experts
Once you're armed with the facts, be prepared to communicate them clearly to your customers and to tell them why you've made the product choices you have. "You should communicate with consumers with respect and an understanding that they're smart people. You always want to make sure that you give people real information based on real data," says Cynthia Barstow, a marketing consultant who teaches natural product and food marketing classes at the University of Massachusetts. "You don't want to make promises that aren't real. It can really come back to you if you promise something and it's not the case."
With that in mind, also remember that no matter how much research you've done, ultimately a store owner is (in most cases) not a physician. Not only are there laws governing what you can and cannot tell customers (see our October 2006 Counselor's Corner for more on the laws about health claims), but customers may in fact trust you and your product more if you make a concerted effort to affiliate yourself with people who are true experts in integrative health.
"Work with the organizations and people that have the experience and the reputation for being able to communicate really difficult science, things like double-blind studies, into consumer language," Barstow suggests. "You need to position yourself as a company that cares to know the information. And you can do that by connecting with some of these organizations, so that you're communicating over and over again that you care about [your customers'] health even though you're restricted in how much you can give them in terms of advice."
You should be able to point your customers to local and national sources of expert information. On the national level, you can connect with organizations like the American Botanical Council (www.herbalgram.org), the American Association of Oriental Medicine (www.aaom.org) and the University of Arizona Program in Integrative medicine founded by Dr. Andrew Weil (www.integrativemedicine.arizona.edu). A retailer membership with the nonprofit ABC ($250 for a year), for example, comes with a myriad of resources like HerbMedPro, which gives you access to scientific studies and publications on herbs; HerbClip, which includes online summaries and reviews of studies on herbs and supplements; and a subscription to HerbalGram, ABC's peer-reviewed journal.
On a local level, seek out nutritionists, herbalists and doctors (both naturopathic and allopathic doctors who use integrative medicine) to whom you can refer your customers. To find licensed (or eligible for licensure if not in a state that licenses them) naturopathic doctors, check out the directory on the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians' Web site (www.naturopathic.org). The American Herbalists Guild (www.americanherbalists?guild.com) has a list of its professional members, who undergo a rigorous admission-review process. To find local nutrition practitioners, you can go to the American Dietetic Association Web site (www.eatright.org), where you'll find a directory of registered dietitians.
Depending on your budget, you may also want to consider adding a nutritionist or herbalist to your staff, or even a naturopathic doctor. "If you have an herbalist or nutritionist on staff, you've gone way up in the discerning consumer's estimate," says Pharmaca's Turf. "Customers will be more comfortable if you have someone who's an expert on staff."
By cultivating a community of experts, not only can you offer that community up to your customers, but you also continue to expand your own knowledge base. "We have an awful lot of tribal knowledge because of the amount of homeopaths, herbalists, pharmacists and naturopathic physicians we have on staff," says Turf. "We've amassed enough knowledge that you don't even have to always go back to a reference."
Build a library
Another way to convey information to customers is to have a library in your supplements section with consumer-friendly books and Web resources. "Having a big library can be really useful," says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, but he advises retailers to choose the content carefully. "To what extent are these resources OK scientifically? Are they clinically reliable? Some of the older books are based on folklore and folk medicine. They may have good historical value, but may not be up to speed with recent research." Blumenthal says a comprehensive list of recommended books isn't really out there, but again, building a library is something you can do with the aid of the experts you've already enlisted. Some great online databases, according to Turf: Healthnotes (www.healthnotes.com), which provides consumer-friendly health and pro?duct information on in-store computer kiosks, and Natural Standard (www.naturalstandard.com), which gives members access to comprehensive monographs on various natural health treatments.
It's important to educate yourself on the research supporting or refuting the health claims of herbs and supplements. But it's also valuable to keep in mind that much of this science is new and that customers will almost certainly come into your store seeking information about products that may never have been subjected to rigorous scientific study.
"You can't put as much weight on traditional use as on a double-blind study," says Turf. "But customers are smart enough to know that if people have been using something for 2,000 years and it hasn't been working, they wouldn't still be using it. If it's been used for so long, there's some validity."
The key to dealing with this anecdotal information, says UMass' Barstow, is again to refer customers to the experts. "Don't be the source yourself of anecdotal information," she says. "Point to the source. A store cannot adequately evaluate anecdotal information because they don't have the access. But they can evaluate, on some level, the experts themselves."
O'rya Hyde-Keller is a Providence, R.I.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 102