Steve Long sounds breathless over the phone, as if he's been running sprints around his 3,600-square-foot naturals store in Raleigh, N.C. Co-owner of Harmony Farms Natural Food Store with his wife Nancy, Long has been racing to get the store properly staffed so the couple can continue to work on their shared vision of success.
The Longs got a bit of a boost in just that direction recently after winning the Retail Store Makeover at the 2006 Natural Products Expo East. In addition to receiving a new computer and $500, the Longs got advice from industry experts and some small amount of celebrity with a feature in the March 2007 issue of The Natural Foods Merchandiser.
"For ourselves, it's been a thrill just to see us in the magazine, [and] confirmation [that] the vision and direction we have is really good," says Long, taking a 20-minute break from training new employees. He explains that it was gratifying to hear professionals in the industry assure the couple they were on the right track, something they already suspected.
"The sales are backing that up, too," Long says. "It just gave us a lot of energy knowing that indeed … we are shooting in the right direction."
In fact, Long says business is doing extremely well since they bought Harmony Farms in 2005. In 2004, he says, sales were about $522,000. This year, the store hit the half-million-dollar mark by the end of June. "If this keeps going, we'll be a million-dollar store this year, and we're really stoked about that." He gives some credit to the advice they got from consultants like Zedrick Clark, who helped them focus on their margins and offered suggestions on how to reinvent the cash-wrap area.
"They really hit on that hard," Long says of the register area, which he knew was in need of a change. "It was the very first thing we did after getting the feedback. … We bought some shelf organizers for it, so it's tiered and presented in a very organized way. The sales just took off. It's been much better." Owner and president of Nature's Food Market in Berlin, Ohio, Clark says the cash-wrap area is an important component to any store. "That is usually your first and last impression that you give the customer. The cash wrap is something that is often taken for granted," he says. "If you have a cash wrap that's perpetually dusty, dirty, that you never move things around, that [is] cluttered—those things give that impression to your entire store."
But the checkout area is not just for looks; it's where the retailer can earn additional sales and make a statement, according to Clark. He says the trend is to offer more expensive items at the checkout counter than nickel-and-dime products. "If you find the right item, it gives a nice complementary purchase, and it represents your store," he says. "Use your cash-wrap to make a statement, but use it to make some money while you're at it."
Also on the list of fixes at Harmony: store signage. A couple of artistic employees made end-cap signage, saving Harmony Farms some money while still keeping "that homey mom-and-pop feel to it," Long says, adding that they hope to add professional signs for the aisles by the end of the year if the money is available. "It's been hard to step out and do those extra creative things you have to do for your store, especially when it's an expense like that and you're so short-staffed."
In fact, staffing is very important to the image of Harmony Farms, according to Long. He says the store won't hire just anybody off the street, and it recently recruited a grocery manager to help complete its makeover, hiring an 18-year industry veteran to manage that part of the operation.
"It's a little bit different than the atmosphere of a Whole Foods or a Wild Oats or Earth Fare, in that the customers expect a higher level of attention," he says of Harmony Farms, which has been around for about three decades. Long says his advice to retailers with operations similar to his own would be to focus on customer service. "Make sure you have a staff that truly loves to help the people and care about the people."
That level of service is what Clark calls the full experience, offering a customer all the aspects of the naturals lifestyle. It's one secret to the success of some of the larger naturals chains, he notes, but one that's sometimes overlooked by independent retailers. "Nobody wins on price alone," he says. "What they win on is the full experience of a natural foods store, and offering all that, and educating your customer."
Harmony Farms doesn't rely too heavily on advertising, Long adds, because the store doesn't really have the budget. But the naturals store doesn't lean solely on word-of-mouth, either. The Longs do advertise in a regional magazine that's delivered to doctors' offices, targeting an audience that's primed for changes in lifestyle and health.
"We've gotten more customers from that magazine than in any other place," Long says. "It's paid off for us real well. … We're marching toward having all of our goals."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 72-73