Natural Foods Merchandiser

Cutting-Edge Stores Hold on to Ideals

If there?s a common thread in the hottest business trends in natural foods retail, it is this: Smart store owners and operators embrace new ideas while holding on to the industry?s ideals of human interaction, clean food and community focus.

Consumers want loyalty rewards, but naturals consumers don?t like to have their purchases tracked. You won?t see self-checkout kiosks or on-site gas pumps at naturals stores (at least none NFM knows of), even though those are two of the hottest trends among conventional supermarkets. But squint and you?ll see familiar trends: providing convenience, extending and reinforcing the store brand, bringing efficiency to operations, creating marketing buzz, and holding the line on price.

Store-level organic certification: It can cost more than $2,000 per store, but independent naturals retailers are joining big chains and supermarkets in taking the time and spending the money to achieve organic certification. It?s the final link in the organic chain that begins on the farm and continues through processing and distribution, to stores, and finally to consumers. ?We?ve seen some of the smaller stores do it, if they can use it as a competitive angle,? says Will Fisher, vice president and chief marketing officer at NSF International, which acquired organic certifier Quality Assurance International. ?It kind of helps them fight the big guys.?

Internet presence: ?Multichannel retailing? is the norm now, according to a Forrester Research report that found that 65 percent of consumers research products online and then buy offline. The practice accounts for $100 billion a year in offline sales, and while big-ticket items like electronics and home improvement products top the list, health and beauty products ranked 11th. Are you making it easy for a person in your town, who wants to buy products you sell, to find you and connect you with the merchandise and services you offer? Does your Web site link to information about the brands you sell? Does it have your hours, your phone number and a map? Are you registered with the popular search engines? Is your store?s Web address plastered all over your signs, marketing materials and even your register tapes? Do you collect customer e-mail addresses and put out a regular e-newsletter? All are proven ways to get more business from your existing customer base, without spending a fortune.

Store as community: Clubs and groups do more than take up space in your community room. They also create loyal customers with a feeling of connection to your store. Members of one such group meet at the A&S Natural Health store in Greensboro, N.C., to track their progress through the Maker?s Diet, reports Garden of Life distributor Alicia Dickinson of Greensboro. The group meets where their plan?s suggested foods and supplements are sold (Maker?s Diet author Jordan Rubin is also the founder of Garden of Life). It spells convenience for the customer and sales for the store.

Why not try to organize a recipe swap for serious foodies, a play group for mothers of toddlers, or a condition-specific class for allergy sufferers or cancer patients wondering what they should eat?

Private label: From the cheapest grocery staples to the most expensive meats and supplements, everybody?s doing it to extend their brands and offer value pricing to shoppers. Organic private-label lines are popular among mainstream supermarket chains, including Kroger and Ahold USA. Private-label manufacturers tell us that such programs can work for even the tiniest of stores, but if your own store brand seems too big a challenge, both Tree of Life and United Natural Foods Inc. offer extensive private-label lines. UNFI just expanded its Woodstock Farms and Natural Sea lines and added case-ready organic and natural meat under the Grateful Harvest label. ?We?re trying to bring them in at a lower retail than mainstream brands,? says sales director Adriane McWeeney.

Pop-up stores: The trend toward temporary stores is a perfect fit for naturals and organics retail?after all, what is a farmers? market but a temporary store? Target first brought mass attention to the concept when it floated a barge full of Christmas merchandise at a riverside pier in Manhattan. This year, Method cleaning products opened a store in San Francisco?s Union Square in August and closed it in November. Method co-founder Eric Ryan called it ?a focus group with a twist.? He told the East Bay Business Times the cost was equivalent to a billboard in Union Square. ?This is not a direct business, but a way to direct people to our retail partners ? We come to a city, create buzz for a limited time and go away.?

Niche stores: Too much competition in your trading area? Needs that aren?t being met? Time to focus. In Newtown, Conn., Pam and Mike Davis are opening Our Green House, which will sell natural products for the home. Although Kathy Thorpe also sells Dr. Hauschka skin care, French milled soap and local chocolate at her Boulder, Colo., store, Six Persimmons, the store?s focus is on traditional Chinese medicine. Thorpe?s husband, David Scrimgeour, practices acupuncture and mixes his own herbal formulas in treatment rooms at the back of the store.

Innovative sampling: When it comes to demos, think outside the food-on-toothpicks box. If you visited the show floor restrooms at Expo East, you participated in a massive sampling program for EO Essential Oil Products, whose lavender-scented liquid soap filled the dispensers. EO co-founder Brad Black reported a steady stream of retailers visiting the EO booth to say how much they liked the product and how nice the bathrooms smelled. They?d given away every sample of EO HandSoap by midday Sunday. Call it ?word of nose.?

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 12/p. 20, 26

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