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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Customer-centric retailing makes lifestyle detectives of employees

Customer-centric retailing makes lifestyle detectives of employees
For Betsy’s Health Foods in Houston, personalized nutrition means offering personal attention. Taking customers' health, and budget, to heart, employees act as lifestyle detectives, sleuthing the whole person for the best results.    

Betsy Billingslea used high-tech tools to solve her own health problems, but when it comes to personally serving others in her health food store, it’s all about high-touch.

Betsy, a former registered nurse, used natural foods and supplements to overcome great personal health challenges. In fact, advice offered in Eat Right For Your Type by Peter D’Adamo, ND, mirrored her health solutions to such an extent that she regularly touts his book.

But for Betsy, personalized nutrition really means offering personal attention. That’s why she adopted the motto, “Taking your health to heart,” when she opened Betsy’s Health Foods in Houston in 1993.

 “We put that on the door because that’s what we felt we were all about—people’s health—not only in an emotional way with our relationships but also in a physical way,” Betsy says. “We just thought that embodied our philosophy.”

The retailer’s motto changed slightly when daughter-in-law Ramona Billingslea joined the business and suggested adding “budget” to the slogan, which now reads “Taking your health and budget to heart.”

“With the times, we decided we had to let people know that we were thinking of their money also,” Betsy says. “Sometimes you can be known as a boutique store and people think of you automatically as high priced. To get them in the door, we had to let them know that we were competing, but also taking their health to heart.”

The philosophy permeates Betsy’s Health Foods. Here, Betsy and Ramona share their thoughts about how Betsy’s high-touch environment drives success for the small Texas natural products store.

Hiring and training

When shoppers step into Betsy’s Health Foods, they’ve been trained on what to do, says Ramona. “They take two steps into the store with their list and just stand there because they know that within two seconds somebody’s coming who’ll gladly take the list and go around the whole store and pick everything up that they want and set it right in front of them.”

This kind of service is enabled by a two-fold approach. Betsy says it starts with finding employees who have “a spirit to serve.” Once hired, employees follow Ramona’s training curriculum, which is designed to emphasize and promote good service.

“Service with heart is what we want our employees to provide,” Ramona says. So all employees go through “Heart Coach” training during which staffers learn about the store’s service philosophy and how to approach sales with heart. As part of the ongoing program, they connect in regular group discussions.

“We have the Heart Coach every single week with three groups, and it’s something they look forward to,” Betsy says. “It’s a review as well to let us know what we could have done better to make that customer more comfortable, more informed. It also helps if we have a customer that may not be as happy. We discuss how we can correct that, how can we not take that personally?”

The “Mentor Training” program covers the products side of the supplement business.  “It teaches our employees the product in such a way that they are problem solvers with the products,” Ramona says. “They know the structure-function claims with the products and they know which structure-function claims or products complement each other. And they know which questions to ask about what is wrong with the person, what the person is experiencing so that they match the person to the product that’s ultimately going to support that structure-function need. There are times we will say, ‘No, you can’t buy that product.’ But even that builds trust with the customer.”


Betsy describes the family business as an educational store and sees positive changes in natural foods retailing with outlets such as The Dr. Oz Show and the Internet opening avenues of information.

“We’re all about how do we reach the people that were unreachable before,” she says. “When people come in and they are so comfortable with us, then they tell their friends. They’re being inundated with all this information and we feel like we are so blessed to be this little oasis in the north side of town where people can come and we can work with them and discern what is necessary and what isn’t. We have such an opportunity to teach wellness, to teach diet. It’s not just supplements. It’s exercise, it’s good nutrition, mental as well as physical, it’s what you are eating and how to be happy.”

She even recognizes the positive side of more large health food stores making their way into her market.

“This is good for us because customers can go in those stores and they can find the foods and all of the vitamins and things, but they still don’t get the education. We’re good partners with Whole Foods and all of them.”

As far as competition is concerned, Ramona points out that “those who go on the Internet to get the cheap price aren’t our customers anyway. Our customers are the ones who want good service, want the knowledge and want the relationship.”


These relationships extend beyond a product-buyer connection.

“We’re in a niche that’s always personalized,” Ramona says. “We’re always building relationships with customers. We know our customers. We’re the kind of store where people come in and tell us about their vacations, we know about the grandkids. We’ve been personalizing since we opened the door.”

It’s that whole-person approach that makes the difference, they say, for the customer’s health and for Betsy’s Health Foods.

“We provide personalized care through getting to know them, through listening to their story—we are detectives,” Betsy says. “When I went to nursing school, we were always told listen, listen, listen, write down everything you hear about a patient. Well in the store, we say, ‘Be a detective.’ We’re not trying to treat, we’re trying to be a detective about this person’s lifestyle.”

Such care presents challenges in the regulatory environment of supplement sales and with the growth of new traditional medicines and American’s prescription use, Betsy says. But she sees great possibility in that future.

“We have a responsibility as health food retailers to not only embrace the law but to embrace that customer in a way that we are going to be able to further their education and help their health, to make it synergistic with everything we—and they—are confronted with.”


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