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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Converting 'crossover' consumers into lifelong natural product shoppers

Experts offer tips on how to turn new parents, gluten-free shoppers and vegetarians and vegans into loyal natural, organic and healthy product customers.

Many crossover consumers take their first step into a natural products store for a specific reason—a health condition like celiac disease or gluten intolerance, a new awareness of health issues for new moms and dads or a lifestyle change to vegetarianism. These consumers are searching for both products and education, and savvy retailers should aim not only to meet their immediate needs, but to turn them into loyal shoppers for life.

Naturals stores are already known for providing personalized education to customers, and these shoppers need it more than most. “New consumers to the channel are generally coming in with less knowledge,” says Bob Burke, founder of Natural Products Consulting, based in Andover, Mass. “Especially for new parents or those diagnosed with gluten allergies, these are watershed events that create a proverbial clean slate—people change their habits and start fresh.”

In other words, crossover consumers are ready for a change and desperate for information. But retailers may need to reach out to these shoppers in different ways and provide distinctive kinds of information for each type of consumer in order to ensure their loyalty.

Reaching out to new parents

According to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS, natural baby body care product sales in natural and conventionalstores grew 22 percent between 2009 and 2010, from $59.1 million to $71.9 million. And the category is unlikely to shrink. Rockville, Md.-based research firm Packaged Facts predicts the U.S. market for baby care supplies will increase 20 percent by 2015, to $8.5 billion in sales.

Shoppers who are new parents (in most cases, that means new moms) are looking for a lot of things at once—value, education and product information from trusted sources, to name a few. According to global market research firm Mintel, 60 percent of moms are spending more time looking for sales, discounts and coupons, and nearly 60 percent are connecting with others through social networking. When it comes to trying new products, these moms trust recommendations from other moms (45 percent) and from the Internet (39 percent) more than print advertising (21 percent).

“New moms research 85 percent of products before they purchase,” says Maria Bailey, CEO of BSM media, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and author of Marketing to Moms (Prima Lifestyles, 2002). “In addition to health factors, they’re also looking for value, and they’re looking for guidance through signage and employee education.”

What retailers can do
Swarm blogs.
Bailey suggests reaching out to new moms before they even enter your store. “Tactically, one of the most effective ways is to identify the influencers and mom mavens in a particular community and introduce products to them,” she says. She suggests creating video product reviews on your website or offering mom-oriented bloggers products for review.

Find the moms. Search local parenting magazines for information on groups that hold meetings for moms, such as La Leche League or the National Organization of Mothers of Twins Clubs. “Moms want education about organic, prenatal and first-year nutrition, and about specific products in your store,” Bailey says. “They also want a dialogue, so ask for their feedback.”

Get on the A-list. According to Bailey, finding a permanent place in a mom’s shopping cart is a challenge. “Seventy percent of women go to the store with a list, so if you want to get on that list, in-store coupons and sampling are points of persuasion.”

Create a special section. As with gluten-free shoppers, special sections can help time-crunched new moms easily and quickly get what they need. Bailey says new mothers are open to staff suggestions, especially recommendations for items like prenatal vitamins or organic baby foods, so post signs in the baby section that denote staff picks.

Grabbing gluten-free shoppers

The gluten-free category has grownalmost overnight from a tiny specialty niche to a full-blown trend. “In our 2006 survey, 71 percent of the general population was aware of the term gluten, but by 2008 that had grown to 83 percent,” says Greg Stephens, vice president of strategic consulting for the Natural Marketing Institute, based in Harleysville, Pa. “Fourteen percent of all consumers—not just health-conscious consumers—said they were trying to get less gluten in their diets, and 7.4 percent had purchased gluten-free products.”

And there are plenty of products to choose from. Data from Packaged Facts shows the gluten-free category grew 33 percent annually from 2004 through 2008, and undiagnosed celiac sufferers in the U.S. may number 3 million. Naturals stores were the first retailers to cater to gluten-free shoppers, and still hold 30 percent of the market.

“Your perspective is one of food purity and safety, and catering to special metabolic communities with dietary restrictions isn’t just an afterthought. It’s your core business,” says Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a natural products consulting firm based in Brattleboro, Vt. “Other channels will get their share of the pie, but for people needing in-depth assistance, you’re the place to go.”

What retailers can do
Reach out and educate.
“The tried-and-true approach is to locate support groups for special-needs diets, like the local chapter of the Celiac Disease Foundation,” Jacobowitz says. “Contact them and offer to speak in their meetings; discuss the purity, quality and taste of gluten-free products; and offer tastings.” You can also do a similar presentation in your store. In addition, provide new customers with a suggested shopping list and a store map to help them narrow the wider-than-ever field of gluten-free products. You can also use a store map and an overhead view of your store layout as a template for different groups besides gluten-free shoppers.

Get social. Jacobowitz suggests using social media for its immediate impact. “Your communications should focus on their health concerns,” he says. “If your prepared-foods section has a gluten-free entrée, tweet it; you’re providing newsworthy content that will keep you in the forefront of consumers’ minds.”

Catering to vegetarians and vegans

According to Natural Marketing Institute data, 5 percent of consumers self-identify as vegetarians, a number that rises to 8 percent with shoppers age 18 to 29. That’s a hefty amount of people, and the natural channel has long captured these customers. But what a particular shopper means by “vegetarian” is a tricky question in this diverse group. Some people become vegetarians for ethical reasons—they don’t approve of today’s methods of raising animals for meat. Others go veggie for the potential health benefits—perhaps their doctors recommend a vegetarian diet after a heart incident. For example, former President Bill Clinton adopted a vegan diet after having two heart stents inserted in 2010.

What retailers can do
Be flexible. “Vegans have a clearly defined dietary practice with rigid adherence, whereas vegetarian is a broad term for a variety of dietary practices among those who do not eat meat,” says Carolyn Russo Cozad, a food and nutrition advisor and owner of San Francisco-based consulting firm Bounce Enterprises. “Retailers should especially be going after what I call ‘flexitarians’—people who for health or environmental reasons want to cut down on meat in their diet.” Cozad says these consumers are likely to be less knowledgeable about vegetarianism, so they tend to be more receptive to suggestions.

Offer recipes. New vegetarians are hungry for menu ideas and are eager to experiment in the kitchen. Post recipes near the ingredients featured in the vegetarian dish. If you discount these ingredients, you’ll likely boost sales—and customer appreciation—even more.

Build community. The best way to reach vegetarian shoppers is by building community. Create forums or groups for these consumers through social media such as Facebook, suggests Cozad, or partner with existing groups to offer monthly in-store programs targeted to specific shoppers. Events might include special mega-demos, where a wide variety of vegetarian foods can be sampled, accompanied by real-time consultations with a nutritionist.

Create signs. “Shelf talkers can indentify vegan offerings because it can be difficult to determine if a packaged food is completely vegan, ” Cozad says. “Committed vegans are also environmentally conscious, so signage also can help them identify products with a sustainability or environmental message.”

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