My wife is a very creative and talented person. Not only has she made our home a very cozy and comfortable place to enjoy, but she is usually the person first called when our kids and grandkids need something to be made. When our daughter-in-law opened her own beauty salon a few weeks ago, my wife not only created some of the art that adorns the walls but also the signage in the windows. When our granddaughter wanted to dress as Wonder Woman for Superhero Day at her school, she knew that her Gobby could make a cape and tiara for her outfit.
A part of all of this creativity is the procuring of supplies--and that is where I come into the story. I end up on quite a few trips to home improvement, craft and hobby stores looking for fabric, paint, applicators, wood, pipes, etc. (One time I drove home from a store with 160 feet of PVC pipe in my car!) Generally, I am a good sport about going on these adventures--and it does provide opportunities for many interesting things to take pictures of to text to friends and post on Facebook. And through it all, I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for which stores carry what products. By this I don’t mean that I know which stores carry paint, but which stores carry which kind of specialty paint needed for a particular project. In order words, I’ve gotten a feel for which retailers truly have a specialized, differentiated product mix and which ones carry the same stuff as everyone else; which ones are in a category to be a convenient source and which ones are in it to be a lifestyle source.
It can be a real challenge for a natural products retailer to have a store that contains a truly differentiated product mix these days. For the most part, the same products are available to any store that wants them. Most of these items are great products that are well formulated, manufactured to a high standard of quality, labeled and marketed well. So if you want your store to stand out, it can be a real challenge. If you want your store to be the store of choice to the core natural products consumer, it is a requirement.
I talk to many savvy retailers from the Western part of the United States about why they make the long journey to Expo East every year. The answers, while varied, always contain the element of wanting to find brands that are not widely distributed in the West yet. There is a lot of wisdom in that strategy. I want to point out two obvious things about this mindset of merchandising your store.
First, It takes an obvious and concerted effort. You not only have to be aware of what hot products are in the market that you are going to want to (and have to) carry, but you are also going to have to stay aware of new brands and products that are being introduced. Several tools that you can use to accomplish this include going to trade shows (national shows like Expo East, distributor shows, regional NPA shows, etc.), reading industry news (like Natural Foods Merchandiser), reading industry newsletters (like Natural Products Daily and Weekly) and cultivating good relationships with the brokers and reps in your market.
Secondly, this is not a goal that is ever complete. Some of the brands that you bring in are not going to catch on--either in your store or in the market as a whole--and will need to be replaced. Others are going to become big hits. While you still will want to carry them to satisfy consumer demand, they will end up being on the shelves everywhere. (These days, everywhere means everywhere, literally.) The product and the company may have all of the same ingredients and values that attracted you to them initially, but they are no longer serving to help your store be a destination for differentiated, unique merchandise. If everything that you carry is found elsewhere, why do shoppers needs to visit your store? When I say that this goal is never complete, I am not trying to put a negative spin on it. It is like you are on an eternal quest, a never-ending treasure hunt, or adventure. Each day gives you a chance to find a way to make your store stand out and provide a unique value to your community.