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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Lessons from the Retail Store Tour

Click here to see more photos of the Retail Store Tour.

This morning I felt like one of the kids loading a bus and destined to be schooled. But the subject at hand wasn’t math, science or reading. Instead, I spent the day studying retail.

The Retail Store Tour is an Expo tradition in which local natural products store owners host visiting retailers, manufacturers and distributors who want to get a glimpse of another operation in action. “I love going on these tours to see the products, the store layout, the merchandising, especially with a guide to walk you through it,” says Mark Stayton, sales manager for Martindale’s Natural Market in Springfield, Penn.

Tour guides Summer Auerbach, chief operating officer of Louisville, Ky.-based Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets, and Cheryl Hughes, CN, owner of the Lancaster, Calif.-based The Whole Wheatery, led our group of 120 participants through four unique stores in southern California: Santa Monica Homeopathic Pharmacy, Co-opportunity, Rainbow Acres and Mother’s Market and Kitchen.

Denise DeGidio, manager of the Main Street Market in Rice Lake, Wisc., was on board to check out new personal care products. “I want to clean up our beauty section,” she says. “I also want to find a new makeup line. I feel like coming here helps me stay ahead.”

DebraTropp, chief of the farmers market and direct marketing research branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found the tour visionary as well. “It’s good to see what’s happening in California, so then I know what the next wave will be,” she says. What’s in store? Pasture-raised meat and raw foods.

Each store had strengths worthy of emulation.

Santa Monica Homeopathic Pharmacy. “We treat staff like family,” says owner Bob Litvak, whose parents started the one-of-a-kind store in 1944. And staff members treat customers just as well. Homeopaths, nutritionists, Chinese herbalists and pharmacists (all called “technicians”) work one-on-one with customers, making suggestions rather than prescriptions, and referring them to third-party studies and books. “I like that they bridge the gap by pointing customers to literature,” says Carie Cave, who is helping a Kansas City-based Price Chopper build a natural products store within the store.

Co-opportunity. To carve out its niche in a competitive market, this 9,000-square-foot co-operative focuses its inventory on organic, local and seasonal products and stocks plenty of items from small, independent businesses. Once a month, the store offers 10 percent discounts to members. This year, Co-opportunity will remodel and expand what’s already an impressive deli. “It’s interesting to see a really big co-op,” says Degidio, whose co-op is about 1,200 square feet. “I’d love to carry more [raw products].”

Rainbow Acres. After more than 30 years in business, owner Howard Pollack has become a legend in the natural products industry. And business continues to boom. Yesterday was the store’s biggest Wednesday ever, according to Pollack. To keep pace, Rainbow Acres offers closeouts (for example, Nature’s Gate changed its labels and so Pollack scooped up the old stock and put it on sale), does wholesale private label products (for example, nuts and such are packaged and distributed nationally) and sells homemade baked goods (the aroma wafting through the store made my mouth water). Visiting retailers appreciated Pollack's store savvy. They attributed Rainbow Acres' success, in part, to the store's unique location, situated between upscale and downscale neighborhoods. And Pollack; his charisma draws in customers, and his prices keep them coming back.

Mother’s Market and Kitchen. Although Mother’s limits in-store photography, one word can describe the store: big. Get the picture? The store is large enough to have several aisles devoted to wheat- and gluten-free products, a hot bar, deli, juice bar, salad bar and more, more, more.

And at the end of the tour, I think that’s exactly what we wanted … more, more, more. For a photographic tour, check out the Retail Store Tour Gallery.

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