Natural Foods Merchandiser

Building community

The more people know about the benefits of eating organic food and using organic products, the more enticing those items become. There are lots of ways for retailers to get the word out.

"It's very different today than 10 or 15 years ago," says Sylvia Tawse, president of the Fresh Ideas Group, a strategic communications firm that focuses on organics. "Organic has gone from the outside fringe to mainstream fridge. That said, there's still a lot of room to grow."

Tawse urges retailers to "soapbox less and offer the opportunity to taste and learn more."

There's a new opportunity for retailers and their employees to learn more, even before they reach out to the public.

Back to school
Six months ago, Albert's Organics, the country's largest distributor of organic produce, opened the cyberdoors of Organic Produce College. Images of ivory towers of cauliflower and a giant broccoli mascot doing cartwheels on the football field aside, the college offers a free comprehensive online curriculum of 20 lessons aimed at store employees. The interactive lessons are offered in English and Spanish. "Basically, everybody in the store needs to be a salesperson, so everyone should understand what organic is about," says Frank McCarthy, vice president of marketing at Albert's Organics. After seeing how a lack of knowledge about organic fundamentals—both philosophical and practical, such as the physical handling of the produce—was a spreading blemish on the industry, Albert's president and promotions director put their heads together and "basically compiled everything they knew," says McCarthy, "as a gift to the industry."

There are already 300 Produce College graduates, says McCarthy, with 500 more working on degrees. Next, Albert's is developing Organic Meat College for those in search of post-produce enlightenment.

Sign on
In-store signage is a simple and effective way to increase customers' organic knowledge, says Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association. "To be effective, signs must be simple," she says. A good place to begin is with signs that clearly define what the different organic labels mean, such as "made with organic ingredients" versus "95 percent" organic. As a source of information, Haumann recommends the USDA's National Organic Program's Web site as well as her own organization's online trove of data.

Information about a spectrum of organic issues can be downloaded from national organizations with permission and from the Web sites of the companies whose products you stock.

Brochures and fliers with more complex information displayed in the front of the store, or other places where they don't overwhelm products, are also potent educational tools, says Amy Barr, co-founder of Marr Barr Communications, a firm with a stable of organic clients. Barr suggests personalizing data by presenting it with a friendly, local face. "Even if you're just a mom-and-pop business, appoint 'mom' the spokeswoman and put her face on the literature; perhaps an 'Ask Mom'-type feature," she says.

An "Ask the Expert" page is also a helpful addition to a retailer's Web site, a critical tool for a store of any size. A store's Web site should also embrace the mission of a natural foods store, a place where people get more than simply the food in their cart, says Tawse. "Regardless of the size, the store should be a village meeting place, where people feel welcome, where they can find loads of information," she says. The Web site should be, too.

Taste the difference
Let the quality of organic products speak for itself with tastings at the store and at community events, where engaging, clear signs inform while the public munches. "Take advantage of Organic Harvest Month in September," Tawse suggests. "There are at least two weekends that are opportunities for tasting fairs."

Face the farmer
Inviting a local grower to the store to interact with customers is "a hugely powerful way to connect with the public and to tell the story of the food," Tawse says. Create signage featuring farmers and display it permanently with the produce they grow. "It's a way to educate and at the same time create a link between the public and the farmer," Haumann says. The same "grower profile story" strategy can be incorporated even in sections where you're not likely to find a local grower to visit, such as the coffee aisle. "You can find out the story of the co-op or farm where the coffee is grown in, say, Guatemala, from the distributor," Haumann says. "Make a sign with a picture and a brief story about the people who grow the beans. It makes the purchase personal." By personalizing the information, the education becomes more relevant.

Latch on
Take advantage of existing promotional opportunities as educational vehicles, says Barr. "February is Heart Month," she notes. "There's even a Sandwich Month.

"Any kind of health-related events are good opportunities to inform people about organics," Barr says. "Invite the Red Cross for health screenings in the store or in the parking lot. Community health activities like that are great for drawing in the public and then educating about healthy, organic choices."

Developing relationships with local schools packs a double educational wallop by reaching children and parents. Offering "behind the scene" tours and lessons to school groups is a great way to "reach tomorrow's grocery store shoppers," Tawse says. She also suggests offering to set up a snack bar at an annual school event, like an evening art show or parents' night.

In and out
Offer to be a resource about organic issues to the local media. "Invite the local newspaper in for a tour," Barr says. "They're often looking for stories: a look behind the scenes at something like how precisely deliveries must be timed to keep produce fresh. Offer to write a column, or be 'The Produce Guy' on your local radio [station], emphasizing the community health angle of organics."

"Go out and be an apostle for educating about organic," says Tawse, who, as the former public relations director for Alfalfa's Markets, was a frequent guest speaker everywhere from libraries to Lions Clubs.

"But be sure not to confuse your audience," she says. "Remember, organic is not a religion or a fashion statement. It's apolitical, bipartisan—an agricultural method based on the environmental movement.

"Many stores now are pushing the social justice ties, but that's not how the organic regulations are written now. It's really important to not confuse shoppers. Clarify. It's simple: Buying organic is an easy, weekly opportunity to vote for a healthy planet with your grocery dollars. And that's a pretty empowering message." However you deliver it.

Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Partnering with Nonprofits

Organic Farming Research Foundation
Founded in 1990 by certified organic farmers, OFRF has awarded more than $1.5 million in grants for research related to organic farming practices. Results are disseminated to farmers interested in adopting organic production systems. OFRF also works to ensure that the public and policymakers are educated about complex organic issues.

Organic Trade Association
Established in 1985, OTA offers resources to members, press and the public on its Web site, including a database of organic manufacturers, suppliers, consultants and other industry sectors. OTA also funds market research studies on the growth of the organic marketplace and acts as a voice for the North American organic industry throughout the world.

International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
IFOAM members constitute the full spectrum of international organic stakeholders, including farmers, retailers and certification agencies. IFOAM is committed to the highest principles of organic agriculture, and its Web site and conferences offer information on international organic issues and trade.

Chefs Collaborative
Chefs Collaborative is a national network of more than 1,000 members of the food community who promote sustainable cuisine and local, seasonal and artisanal cooking. The Collaborative provides tools for running economically healthy, sustainable foodservice businesses and making environmentally sound purchasing decisions.

The Organic Center
Established by the OTA in 2002 to "generate credible, peer-reviewed scientific information and communicate the verifiable benefits of organic farming and products to society," The Organic Center has funded research and works to educate consumers.

Farm Aid
Famous for its annual concerts featuring board members Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid's mission is to keep family farmers on their land. Since 1985, Farm Aid has used the funds raised by this concert and other efforts to make grants to organizations that directly support family farmers.

Ecological Farming Association
Best known for its annual conference in Monterey Bay, Calif., Eco-Farm is an educational organization that conducts innovative programs designed to "bring together growers, consumers, educators, activists and industry-related businesses to exchange the latest advances in sustainable food production and marketing."

Community Alliance With Family Farmers
Founded in 1983, CAFF's mission is to build a movement of rural and urban people to foster family-scale agriculture that cares for the land, sustains local economies and promotes social justice. CAFF offers many resources, including a farm-to-school program, a local foods guide and a sustainable cotton project.

Slow Food USA
The organization's Web site says it all: "Slow Food, founded in 1986, is an international organization whose aim is to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life. It promotes gastronomic culture, develops taste education, conserves agricultural biodiversity and protects traditional foods at risk of extinction."

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