Natural Foods Merchandiser

Retail excellence: Healthy Solutions

Targeting crossover consumers, such as gluten-free and vegetarian consumers as well as new moms and local athletes, helped this successful ski town business get out of a slump in sales due to the sluggish economy.

Healthy Solutions opened its doors in 1994 in a remote 300-square-foot space below the groomed slopes of the popular Colorado ski town Steamboat Springs. It didn’t take long for the store to get noticed, which inspired a move in 1996 to a 3,000-square-foot location on Steamboat’s bustling main drag.

But after years of rapid growth, the store suffered a slump in sales, dipping 20 percent between 2007 and 2010 due to a sluggish economy, a construction project in front of the store and a cutback on advertising. How could the store turn things around?

Thanks to new offerings and marketing efforts aimed at gluten-free consumers, vegetarians, new moms and local athletes—in other words, crossover consumers who first venture into a natural products store for a specific need—sales are on the rebound. “I feel really positive about [the future],” says Pat Carney, co-owner of the store with Linda Carlton.

Casting a wider net

Focusing on gluten-free customers was a logical move, considering that several long-time employees, including Carlton, suffer from celiac disease. Healthy Solutions is primed to become a one-stop shop for
gluten-free specialty items—and advice. “Our big emphasis is on education. Someone with celiac can come in here and we will answer their questions and show them around the store,” Carlton says. “We also have gluten-free skiers call ahead before packing for their vacation. They are so happy to know we are here and they don’t have to bring their food with them.”

Another store strategy to serve gluten-free customers, as well as vegetarians: About a year ago, Healthy Solutions scaled back its struggling full-service deli to a largely gluten-free and vegetarian grab-’n’-go deli and bakery run by a local dance instructor and chef, Nicole LeDuc. Rather than simply standing behind a counter making sandwiches-to-order all day, the grab-’n’-go format affords LeDuc the time to get creative with recipes, offering daily innovations that encourage repeat customers. The deli also attracts hurried business folks passing by, which wasn’t necessarily the design goal but has been an unexpected boon to sales.

“We are not just a granola-head hippie store,” Carlton says. “We get people in three-piece suits, athletes, tourists, moms and people with dreadlocks.”

To bring in new moms who are focused on health for their burgeoning families, the store recently added a pregnancy, postpartum and breastfeeding section, featuring Earth Mama Angel Baby Organics Postpartum Re-covery Kit and C-Section Recovery CD, along with a broad selection of healing salves, bath herbs, breast soothers and teas.

To cater to the area’s competitive skiing community, Carlton and her staff have reached out to local coaches to find out what they recommend to their athletes. New store additions include noni juice, Ajmera Coco Energy Coconut Water and Natural Vitality Energy 28 sports drink.

And to lure other crossover consumers who may be unfamiliar with natural offerings, Carlton offers a 100 percent money-back guarantee on every product in the store. “It gives customers the confidence to try a new product,” she says.

Marketing and customer appreciation

Selling the store

Carlton says the biggest mistake she made during the economic downturn was to cut back on advertising. She went a year without taking out an ad in the local newspaper. “We definitely took a hit. I will never do that again,” she says.

But now she’s making up for it. The store runs twice-weekly newspaper ads highlighting its gluten-free and vegetarian eats, as well as its new postpartum products and sports supplements. And the owners recently hired a social media specialist who blankets Facebook and Twitter daily with images of LeDuc’s culinary creations, recipe contests, news articles about celiac disease and promotions on specialty food items. When the local Safeway and City Market ran out of organic beef broth, Healthy Solutions ordered it and spread the word via Facebook and Twitter, which attracted even more crossover customers. “We are really creating a buzz,” Carlton says.

Keeping customers coming back

Tweets and Facebook posts aside, the face-to-face interactions in the aisles keep crossover customers coming back, Carlton says. For that she credits a staff that has been with her for more than five years. She pays them more per hour than most stores within 120 miles, offers them products at cost and never forgets a birthday. “We take an interest in their lives, and we always say thank you,” Carlton says.

Her advice to retailers: Treat your customers with the same appreciation.

“New customers want to be heard, and they are looking for a place where they can feel comfortable, not intimidated, and get their questions answered,” Carlton says. “Be that place."

Healthy Solutions' grab-'n'-go menu items:

  • Butternut black bean chili
  • Vegan broccoli cheddar soup
  • Spiced pumpkin stew
  • Spring rolls with cilantro, tofu and veggies, with peanut dipping sauce
  • Superfood salads
  • Marinated tofu wraps
  • Quinoa corn muffins
  • Orange-cinnamon granola
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