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June 1, 2023
Traditionally, independent natural products retailers have supported a much broader range of brand owners and producers than conventional grocers do. Even so, many are now realizing that they can do a lot more to advance diversity on shelf. Ideally, they'd love to widen their vendor rosters and ensure they're extending equal opportunities to people of all races, genders, cultures and abilities—they're just not sure how. New Hope Network solicited some sage advice.
Commit to diversity. I think the first step, even though it sounds obvious, is to truly have the intention to diversify your vendors. Ask yourself whether you really want to see representation on your shelves—and understand why. Oftentimes expanding diversity gets framed as an altruistic thing, but it's also the right business decision. At the end of the day, our country is so diverse, with so many different ethnicities, cultures and cuisines, and almost half of the population identifies as a person of color. Retailers who are dedicated to diversity also create a competitive advantage in terms of who is attracted to shop with them.
Demystify the path to shelf. Retail is very complex, and there is so much information that an entrepreneur needs: review calendars, slotting fees, understanding who is responsible for buying in a given category. Retail is also competitive—as it should be—but it also needs to be an open competition where everyone has a shot. Therefore, the most important thing retailers can do to diversify vendors is to eliminate some of that hidden knowledge. Be transparent about how to get on shelf, and make that information public and accessible. Posting who reviews categories, how to submit materials, how you prefer to receive samples, etc., on your store website is a great start.
Help brands succeed on shelf. Once brands get on shelf, you want them to stay there and thrive. Minority-owned brands tend to be undercapitalized and more local in nature. Hopefully, that won't always be the case, but it is today. So any support you can give them to help drive trial and velocity is great, even if it's just sharing knowledge or setting really clear expectations. For instance, you could say, "here's what a good promo plan looks like" or "this is how often we'd like to see you on sale" or "here's what drives velocity the best." Then spotlight these brands through your digital channels to really get them in front of shoppers.
Define diversity. Every retailer needs to define what diversity really means to them. What does it look like on your store shelves? And are you viewing this just through the lens of the manufacturer, producer or brand owner—or also through the lens of impact? Along with having a diverse set of brand owners and producers on shelf, a second way to look at this is through climate impact. Underrepresented populations are so impacted by our decisions around climate that we can't really separate the two. So when considering a product, does it have a positive or negative impact from a climate and production standpoint? Or does product A have a more positive impact than product B?
Reflect your community. Start by evaluating whether your product assortment is reflective of the demographics of your own backyard. Here in Minneapolis, for instance, we have the largest Somalian population in the U.S., so if I ran a store, I'd ask: Am I selling products that meet the needs of that community? It's not just about who owns the brands or where the products come from either—it's also about serving diverse communities. So look at the makeup of your own backyard and ensure that a percentage of products on shelf are relevant.
Step outside of "systems." As the supply chain continues to reorganize itself coming out of the pandemic, and now that we better understand its vulnerabilities, the opportunity for experimentation at shelf has really opened up. However, experimentation can be difficult because we've overburdened ourselves with systems—POS systems, distribution systems, etc.—so you've got to be "in the system" to get on shelf. Can you step back and say, "5% of my mix may not fit into the system, but I'm willing to put in the energy to make it work"? Also know that while diversifying your mix, there may be margin implications. Be willing to take these brands as loss leaders so they can actually afford to be on shelf.
Make your intentions known. One night in 2020, I did some outreach to a local Black chamber of commerce group that puts out a directory of Black-owned businesses. I just said, "Hi, I'm a business owner and would like to carry more Black-owned products," and shared our vendor information and product standards. I woke up to hundreds of comments, applications and friend requests. This small effort started many new relationships, and we brought in 30 new vendors in the last six months of 2020. Those vendors drove traffic, so it was a win-win. Just putting it out there that you're looking for diverse-owned brands makes people feel seen and shows that you're making the effort.
Mentor and guide. Though my outreach, I realized that part of our role is to help entrepreneurs get retail ready. Many make products and sell them to friends but don't know how to take the next step. Sometimes their products are ready to go; other times we'll say, "You're not ready yet, but here are some local resources to help you get ready." Sometimes their ingredients don't quite meet our standards, so they'll ask what they can change or how they can develop something that will work for our stores. Be a mentor or guide, whether by helping them work out issues, making sure they're clear on processes and expectations, or coaching them on retail math basics, such as markup versus margin.
Educate and spread awareness. As part of improving our cultural awareness as a company and spreading that awareness to customers, we created more standards around gift items. For instance, before, we carried a lot of Native American–inspired items, but we decided that these products must come from Native American–owned companies. We also reached out to indigenous awareness groups for guidance. In some cases, we switched vendors. We also quit carrying certain items, such as sage bundles and dream catchers, which we realized were appropriation. Even though these products sold well, we want to be one step ahead and educate shoppers on our decisions.
Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and NewHope.com. Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music.
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