Natural Foods Merchandiser

How to educate your customers on supplements

Knowledge is the key to selling supplements. Retailers need to understand exactly how the products they’re selling work, as well as be able to clearly impart this information to their customers. After all, the supplements’ benefits aren’t as simple as how they react with our taste buds.

“If you are seeking out a supplement, you are looking for a specific health benefit,” says Andrew Shao, PhD, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Washington, D.C.–based Council for Responsible Nutrition. “You don’t care about taste, palatability or smell.”

But how do you best educate your employees and, in turn, your customers on supplements? First, use our “Supplements A to Z Guide” for information on individual herbs, vitamins and minerals, and then take these suggestions from Shao that are tailored for retailers with limited time and resources.

Schedule classes.
Organizing classes for employees, customers or both is a great way to impart information to as many people as possible, says Shao. Curriculums can be designed around types of supplements, health issues or the latest scientific developments. Supplement vendors will likely be more than happy to provide scientific information about their products, but that runs the risk of students becoming overwhelmed with data and potentially sacrificing some objectivity. Instead, Shao recommends turning to a few impartial online resources:, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website that’s chock-full of info on supplement regulations and ingredients;, home of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, focuses on the research behind the products; and, a wellness campaign launched by CRN that emphasizes the use of supplements alongside diet and exercise as part of an healthy lifestyle.

Invest in computer kiosks.
Ten years ago, the cost of informational kiosks that customers could use to find information on supplements and other products was out of reach for many natural retailers—but not anymore, says Shao.

“If you can invest in the equivalent of a PC, you can also subscribe to a scientific database like Health Notes for a reasonable cost,” he says. The value such a kiosk will provide to your customers—plus the burden it will take off your employees—will make the investment well worth it. “It removes sales clerks from having to be 100 percent accurate about what they say about the supplements,” says Shao, since now than can immediately access objective, third-party information.

Educate honestly.
However you choose to impart information to customers about supplements, above all else Shao recommends being as honest as possible about the products’ the benefits and shortcomings, while still remaining within the parameters outlined by the Federal Trade Commission. Encourage consumers to discuss supplement regimens with health care professionals, suggest they thoroughly read and follow supplement labels, and steer them toward products you know and trust and away from magic-bullet options that are too good to be true.

“The retailers have to hold themselves accountable to some extent,” Shao says. “That way, they’ll maintain a high level of credibility with their customers—there’s too much to lose if they make mistakes.”

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