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Customers Go Cuckoo for Kokomo Store

Hilary Oliver

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Customers Go Cuckoo for Kokomo Store

When Joan Anderson married Jack Konold, she gained more than just a husband. She was bringing a new dimension to Sunspot Natural Foods in Kokomo, Ind., which she had opened 20 years before.

When Jack entered the picture, he quickly realized what a strong relationship Joan had built with her customers. On one of his first days in the store, says Jack, an elderly woman tapped him on the shoulder and informed him, ?You had better treat Joan right, because we love her.?

Joan?s attitude toward her customers gained her a very faithful base of patrons in the first two decades of the store. But Jack?s focus on marketing has helped Sunspot stay in the game despite stiff competition from large corporations. When Jack became Sunspot?s chief executive a year after marrying Joan, he saw it as a ?little mom-and-pop granola store.? Like other small-store owners, he worried that without more concern for the bottom line, they wouldn?t be able to keep up with large corporations moving stores into the area. But the challenges didn?t come solely from the outside.

?Some of my own employees thought it was sacrilege to look at it as a business,? says Jack. But Jack points out that without more business skills, these ?true believers? would be having a difficult time staying competitive with large naturals chains.

Jack points to his active membership in the National Nutritional Foods Association as an important part of running a successful store in the natural foods industry. ?Being connected really helps,? he says. ?I?ve met the best and brightest in the industry.?

Finding support in NNFA, Jack is adamant that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the pharmaceuticals industry are going after the supplement industry and the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. ?Without support, they?re going to do away with DSHEA,? he says. Jack says that getting the word out to customers about their rights being in jeopardy and contacting officials are two important actions naturals retailers can take.

It?s that level of customer service that differentiates Sunspot from other stores, say the Konolds. ?If everyone is selling the same products, what makes you different?? asks Jack. ?We really do put the customers first. If something is better for our customers, we?re going to find a way to do that.? The Konolds have found that providing great customer service begins with hiring great employees. ?Concentrate on the best employees and what makes them so good,? Jack says, ?and then look for those qualities in potential new employees.?

Sunspot has a rigid list of questions for prospective employees and a 90-day introduction period for the employee and employer to learn about each other. At the end of the 90 days, if the employee does not display the qualities Sunspot is looking for or does not feel like the position is right for him or her, the employee can part on friendly terms. The store also sticks closely to a set of rules for managers and employees to keep a high level of professionalism.

As Sunspot has grown from its modest beginnings in a country farmhouse, it has also required an updated image in order to serve a greater number of customers. When the store began to feel competition from national naturals chains, the Konolds began to consider what could make them more competitive.

?So much is in the atmosphere,? Jack says. ?It needs to feel clean and bright. There must be a flow to the store to make people go through.?

Jack points out that to compete with chains, locally owned stores also must actively seek out new customers and make them feel welcome in the store. Part of this is advertising, and part of it is making the store feel comfortable for people who perhaps have never been in a natural foods store before. One way the Sunspot staff has learned to appeal to a broad audience is through its in-store music. ?When we started out, we played whatever we wanted,? says Jack. ?But most mainstream customers don?t want wacky music. We need to make the customers comfortable.?

The store also modernized with the launch of a Web site, which features products, coupons, news stories and an ingredients glossary. But Jack explains that the Web site is a touchy subject. It looks professional and useful, but it has been difficult to maintain and does not seem to be widely used by customers. But as a 21st century retailer, Jack sees the Web site as a necessity.

Through their attempts to appeal to a more mainstream crowd, Joan says, the key has been to stay true to their ideals. ?We have to be genuine, not pushy, with each customer. Each person who comes in should be treated like a king or queen.?

It is that ideal that gave Sunspot its name. Joan explains that she hopes customers feel warmth and hope in the store, the way people feel in the sunshine. ?I want people to feel happy, warm and loved, like somebody cares about them.?

The store features a treasure chest filled with tumbled stones, perfect for running fingers through. Wind chimes, a crystal display and aromatherapy products make the store feel relaxed and fun.

The Kokomo store has been so prosperous that the Konolds opened a second store 50 miles away in West Lafayette, home to Purdue University. Learning the differing needs of customers in the more blue-collar town of Kokomo and the college town of West Lafayette has stretched Sunspot in new ways. The Konolds have found differences both in educational needs and demands for product mix between the two stores. The Konolds hope that with the right staff and dedication to customer service, the new store in West Lafayette will bring the same feelings of warmth and hope that the Kokomo store has brought to its customers for almost 30 years.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 5/p. 58

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