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Merchandising for special diets: gluten free, dairy free, vegan and more

Learning from other retailers—and veteran special-diets shoppers—can help you set up your store to appeal to gluten free, vegan and dairy free shoppers.

Melaina Juntti

February 21, 2013

9 Min Read
Merchandising for special diets: gluten free, dairy free, vegan and more

Shoppers with special diets vary vastly in terms of which products they seek, how much patience and shopping time they have, and the amount of assistance they want and will request. A seasoned dairy-free eater might ask where you keep the coconut spread, grab a tub and happily be on his way, while a new, eager-to-learn vegan might request an aisle-by-aisle tour of every animal-free product you carry.

Meanwhile, a gluten-intolerant shopper adept at reading labels might be fine perusing the soup aisle for her favorite corn chowder and then getting gluten-free muffin mix from the general baking section. But then a time-strapped dad of a kid just diagnosed with celiac disease might come in cranky, unsure of how to find foods his child can eat and seek a designated gluten-free section where he can quickly grab suitable items.

Even though these customers and their expectations run the gamut, they all have one key thing in common: They’re coming to you. Whether it’s your stellar selection of hard-to-find products, exceptional customer service, reputation as a special-diets resource—or all of the above—that have drawn them in, they’ve chosen your store over myriad other retail options.

So how can you cater to so many different needs, especially when one shopper’s delight may be another’s dismay?

First off, remember that you can’t make every customer happy every single time. And because you have a bottom line to keep in mind, it isn’t always feasible to please everyone entirely. But by paying close attention to common customer concerns, queries and compliments, and weighing those against how your store size and layout impact purchasing and product availability, you can develop an effective strategy that’ll make the most shoppers happy while maintaining healthy sales.

It might take some trial and error, and you might find that what used to work well just doesn’t anymore—or vice versa. But learning from other retailers—and veteran special-diets shoppers—can help you set up your store.

Here’s how some of your colleagues are merchandising gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan products in their stores.

Gluten free

No category has exploded in recent years quite like gluten free. You’ve likely seen consumer demand for gluten-free foods, as well as the number and quality of products available, skyrocket. How have you handled this upswell? Have you carved out a designated gluten-free section or do you stock these products in their respective categories?

Roots Market in Clarksville and Olney, Md., has gone with a gluten-free section for years. “In the early 2000s, we created a separate aisle to merchandise these items because of the growing awareness of gluten-related health problems among our customers,” says owner Jeff Kaufman. “This allows them to shop with confidence, knowing they’re making safe, healthy decisions for their families. Our stores have dedicated and well-signed gluten-free grocery aisles and freezers.”

On the other hand, Kimberton Whole Foods, a four-store chain in Pennsylvania, found that sectioning off gluten-free items wasn’t the best way to go. “We used to have a gluten-free aisle, but it was too confusing for customers,” says owner Terry Brett. “They’d look in the soup aisle for gluten-free options and couldn’t find any.” Kimberton has since switched its approach, now integrating these items throughout the store and labeling them with easy-to-spot green stickers. In addition, Brett says the larger stores have two endcaps dedicated to gluten-free dry goods, which means some products, such as pastas and cereals, may be duplicated within category and on an endcap. And while Kimberton doesn’t have a dedicated gluten-free freezer case, all frozen gluten-free items are displayed together for easy identification. With these setups, Brett believes he’s found the best balance between easing customers’ shopping experience and successfully turning products.

Tony Bush of Rainbow Acres in Los Angeles follows the integration philosophy for special-diet products.Rainbow Acres in Los Angeles has always mixed gluten-free products with the rest of its inventory, mainly because its 2,800-square-foot retail space limits how items can be arranged, says owner Tony Bush (pictured). But the store still makes it easy for gluten-free shoppers to find foods. “We get shelf talkers from distributors that help customers identify products, and we make our own signage when those aren’t provided,” says Bush, adding that he and his staff are always willing to spend as much time talking with gluten-free shoppers as necessary to help them find fitting products for their way of eating.

Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wis., also takes the integration approach. Along with clearly labeling gluten-free items, the store provides gluten-free shopping lists to help customers locate potential purchases and offers occasional gluten-free cooking classes and samplings to help broaden shoppers’ product and ingredient knowledge—and in turn trigger more sales.

Whether you determine that sectioning off gluten-free foods or keeping them within their respective categories—or doing both—works best, the reigning mantra for success is clear signage and labeling. Most gluten-free shoppers already plan on spending extra time scrutinizing product labels, and so they appreciate being able to spot potential purchases quickly and easily.

Take it from Shauna James Ahern, author of the cookbook Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef (Wiley, 2010): “At my local grocery store, anything that’s gluten free has a bright orange tab stamped on it that you can see from all the way down the aisle,” she says. “Even though I always double-check labels to be sure, it’s great to have a quick way for my eyes to locate a package that could be gluten free.”

Dairy free

For many natural products stores, dairy free isn’t as popular as gluten free, but shoppers seeking these items are still a vital sector to serve. Kaufman says Roots’ dairy-free shoppers most often ask for soy- or coconut-based yogurts and alternative milks and cheeses, so the store has separate refrigerator cases for these products. Willy Street Co-op doesn’t have a special section, but it groups together all nondairy goods within a category and attaches signage to all dairy-free prepared foods to alert customers to dishes they can buy.

As with gluten free, labeling and signage are key for nondairy items, especially if you frequently change up your product selection or shuffle placement. Jessica Stirling, a dairy-free eater and author of the Dairy Free Betty blog, says that although a designated nondairy section would provide her the easiest shopping experience, she doesn’t expect stores to have them and therefore just appreciates when product placement remains consistent and there are labels or tags to call out dairy-free items. That said, it’s imperative to label correctly, so as to not mislead customers.

“Lactose free doesn’t equal dairy free, yet I sometimes find products labeled dairy free that are really just lactose free and still contain dairy ingredients,” Stirling says. Like many dairy-free shoppers, she checks labels religiously regardless of signage but finds visual callouts a big help.

Vegan and vegetarian

Unless you’re a dedicated vegan or vegetarian retailer, it’s less common to have entire sections dedicated to these categories. Rather, putting shelf tags or labels on particular products that are peppered throughout the store seems the preferred way to go. And vegan and vegetarian customers, who are also avid ingredient-label scanners, tend to appreciate when such products are marked accordingly. This not only makes potential purchases more visible, but it signals that a retailer respects and promotes meat- and animal-product-free diets—which many have chosen for reasons beyond just health.

“It’s always a thrill—and a big help—to see vegan imprinted on a label, shelf or sign,” says Colleen Patrick-Goodreau, author of The 30-Day Vegan Challenge  (Ballantine Books, 2011). “It makes me want to buy that product even more when a company shouts it loud and proud.” She says she’s also more likely to support retailers that offer a variety of plant-based milks, ice creams and other vegan products.  

But again, because you can’t be everything to everybody, it’s essential to determine whether your customer base largely seeks out vegan and vegetarian products. While Rainbow Acres carries these items, Bush doesn’t place emphasis on them, believing he can reach more customers by focusing on other products instead.

“I don’t always make vegetarians happy, but that’s just not who I am,” he says. “With such a small store, I’d rather appeal to more people and help them start to lead healthier lifestyles.”

Roots Market, on the other hand, chooses to champion vegan items. “Veganism is near and dear to Roots’ ethics, so we make every attempt to provide healthy alternatives to dairy and meat—and include signage for vegan items,” Kaufman says. “We keep frozen products that contain meat in an entirely separate section.”

Whichever route you go for merchandising gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and other special-diet items, communication and clarity are crucial. And even if a certain customer isn’t satisfied with your setup on the outset, your exemplary customer service will go a long way toward making his or her shopping experience shine.

The Specialty Diet Forum at Expo West

This year, Natural Products Expo West includes a half-day retailer seminar focused on serving the specialty diet market. Sessions take place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, March 7, in Platinum ballrooms 2 and 3 at the Anaheim Marriott. There will be 15-minute networking breaks after each session. Cost is $195, with lunch and full conference pass included.

8 to 9 a.m.: Keynote Address
Speaker: Robyn O’Brien, founder of AllergyKids Foundation and author of The Unhealthy Truth (Three Rivers Press, 2010)

9:15 to 10:15 a.m.: Successful Merchandising: Avoid Commingling and Cross-Contamination
Speakers: Jaclyn Bowen, general manager of Quality Assurance International; Pamela MacDonald, owner and founder of Pam MacD’s Gluten-Free Market;
Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness

10:30 to 11:30 a.m.: Social Media and the Special Diets Community
Speaker: Carolyn Scott-Hamilton, executive producer, creator, host and writer of The Healthy Voyager web series and radio show  

11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Luncheon
Speaker: Kristin Bauer, actress in HBO’s True Blood and animal rights activist

About the Author(s)

Melaina Juntti

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 Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music. 

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