Natural Foods Merchandiser

Customer's best (and worst) shopping experiences

NFM recently interviewed natural products shoppers to find out what some of their best—and worst—experiences have been, and how retailers can learn from them.

What shoppers want
"I cook a lot of ethnic foods, which is hard to do in Iowa. I'm often in Washington, D.C., for work, so I venture out to find exotic stuff I can't get at home. My favorite naturals store isn't my favorite because of the selection or the prices—it's because the people who work there aren't snobby. The employees don't look at me like I don't belong there, and when I asked where I could find tahini, the person at the counter didn't smirk or jump to correct my pronunciation. Most of the places I've been to have had some obnoxious hipster behind the counter who treats me like I'm a low-res life form when I ask what or where something is. The salespeople at my favorite store are always nice and welcoming to every kind of person ho walks in their store—they treat everyone the same."

—Annie Moroney, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

"As a recent transplant to Chicago, there were lots of places to try out. When I discovered my favorite place, I was hesitant because it looked small, overpacked and jumbled. But when I actually started shopping, everything seemed to be in a logical order, and I had no trouble finding anything. And every shelf is clearly labeled, which was nice because sometimes I don't always know what I'm buying—I just know it looks interesting and I want to try it. For instance, they label the different oils by what kind it is and what region of the world it comes from, which is nice when I'm cooking Thai food and can't remember the name of oil I need."

—Rachel Myeroff, Chicago

"Honestly, my best shopping experience was when they had my favorite organic breakfast burritos on sale for $1.50 each. I bought 15 of them. I always see cereal and seasonal items on sale, but never frozen and premade stuff, which is mostly what I buy."

—Rachel Shippy, Madison, Wis.

"Living in Manhattan, most of the grocery stores are tiny, but there's a new natural foods store in my neighborhood that has plenty of aisle space, so you don't feel rushed to get out of someone's way or feel guilty for blocking an intersection with your cart. They also have an amazing seafood department, which I find essential since I don't eat red meat or poultry."

—Kamala Nair, New York

"The juice and coffee bar at my store always makes me excited about doing my grocery shopping. They give you cute, recyclable cups and cup holders for your cart. It's a little something special to make the mundane more enjoyable."

—Jessica Smith, Cleveland

"One natural foods store in my area has quickly become my favorite health and wellness space. They offer yoga and holistic classes, but the products are what bring me back each time. Everything is made from sustainable materials and the packaging is eco-friendly. And with some of the products, a portion of the profits goes to support various charities. I guess it makes me feel like my shopping isn't in vain and I'm contributing to something worthwhile."

—Natalie Dragoi, Woodmere, Ohio

"My favorite [store] is family-owned, and they maintain close ties to the local farmers. I feel that as important as it is to buy organic food items, it's just as important to buy local and support the community."

—Mary Dentinger, Solon, Ohio

What shoppers hate
"Recently, I went into a store that just opened up in my neighborhood. It was very clean, bright and new-looking, so I couldn't wait to explore it. However, as soon as I walked in, I was bombarded by not one, but two, salespeople. There weren't many other people in the store, so I understand if they were bored or they were just so excited about it opening, but I just wanted to move around on my own. I didn't need a tour guide or an infomercial on every product."

—Peter Gratzke, Montreal

"I switched grocery stores because of the shopping carts. I used to go to Whole Foods because it was the only place to get organic stuff within a reason?able driving distance. But everyone in my suburb shopped there, so the carts were always dirty, wobbly and covered in something sticky. Now I drive to an out-of-the-way place because I don't want to wipe off dirt, banana mush and newsprint from the toxin-free stuff I just bought."

—Katherine Long, Columbus, Ohio

"This one market had tons of little stands and kiosks marketing trendy food. I couldn't find any of the basics, like tomato sauce! It was all 'Sunchokes from Israel—the hottest new vegetable!' and 'Pomegranate-blueberry-green-tea-fountain-of-youth juice!' That was pretty annoying."

—Erin Merhar, Westchester, N.Y.

"The deli had pans of tuna and pasta salad that were crusty on top. They looked like they hadn't been flipped or replaced in days. I definitely did not buy anything, or go back."

—Marie Scanlan, Louisville, Ky.

"I walked into this lovely little bakery and coffee shop that advertised using only natural products. I was so excited—there was a long line, so it had to be good, right? When I got to the front, there were several flies in the pastry case. I'm sure the bread was fine, but the idea of all those bugs laying their eggs on it was nauseating."

—Tahira Rehmatullah, New York

"I needed to find some cheeses for a wine-pairing party, and the salesperson didn't know what she was talking about. I asked her for cheeses that would go well with an oaky chardonnay and an acidic red, and after she showed me something I knew wouldn't go, she said she didn't know, and that the person who would know wasn't there."

—Ginger Bernardi, Chicago

"One store was unwilling to let me exchange or refund a box of trail mix I bought. It tasted awful! I returned it the next day, so it's not like I ate half of it and decided I didn't like it. I was so mad, and I told them they'd better rethink their policy. What happened to the customer being right?"

—Hikari Bunya, Queens, N.Y.

Annie Schoening is a New York-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 66,70

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