The first "conversation" really wasn't - it was part of a group discussion. So, while I feel I understand the point being made, I didn't get a chance to delve deeper into it.
The gentleman expressing an opinion was Zedrick Clark of Nature's Food Center in Berlin, Ohio. Zedrick is an amazingly bright and insightful guy that has re-built and expanded his store after a devastating fire not that long ago. (He also wrote a column for the Natural Foods Merchandiser earlier this year that showed some great tips for non-financial people trying to read accounting statements.)
Zed has said that he has seen the role of retailer shift in the recent past to be one of getting what consumers come into stores saying that they are looking for instead of consumers coming to the store asking what they should be buying. His point., as I understood it, was not for retailer to take the passive role of being order takers, but to really focus on learning ingredients and raw materials so that you can be a true help to a customer looking to make a purchase.
The second conversation was with Len Monheit, the President and Editor of NPICenter - www.npicenter.com. I find this site (and its free daily update) to be a great way to keep abreast of current news and developments.
Len articulated that due to all of the mass confusion and claims that are abounding more today than even the role of the retailer is to answer questions, give guidance and help the consumer find the best product for his or her needs. The role is to be more like a guide - with the key to being a succesful guide means being one who knows the territory.
As I thought (and am still thinking) about these conversations, I am coming to the conclusion that they are probably both "right."
There are so many people using natural and organic products today that painting them all with the same big brush is not going to give an accurate picture of them - the marketplace - and, therefore, the role that a savvy retailer will take in serving the market.
Some will come to shop having done their research and having their mind made up about what they want. Our role in that case is to help get them what they want - by knowing what products are in your store and what products your suppliers can get you (and when). Others will come in quite confused, wondering how to balance the claims of competing products they are learning about - and how to balance those against those who write off our entire industry as slickly packaged snake oil. Our role in that case is to help them make a good decision, finding the right product(s) for their needs, budget, etc.
I wonder if excelling in both of these areas - responding to specific product/ingredient requests and clarifying product/ingredient confusion - is a key for growth and success. It is often said that people shop in natural food stores to find service (as well as products). While the definition of "service" includes a willing, helpful, and customer-oriented staff - I think that this definition also includes a staff that is expert in what it carries, what it doesn't, and what is going on in its marketplace; a staff that can both respond to requests and give clarification.