Natural Foods Merchandiser

Social networking tweets into business

Jennifer Zoga’s natural foods store in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood had yet to open its doors or sell one dollar’s worth of product. But local shoppers were already abuzz about the store, offering suggestions and even design ideas for the store’s layout.

For the August opening, Zoga prepared by doing what many owners dream about: She built a loyal, interactive customer base without having a storefront and with minimal advertising costs.

She did it by using the power of Twitter, Facebook and a blog to keep local residents informed as she secured permits, approved blueprint designs and designed her staffs’ uniforms.

“I have been able to ask questions and suggest ideas through social media, and people have been eager to provide feedback and start a two-way dialogue,” Zoga says. “The results have been tremendous, especially when I am able to show potential investors that I already have a loyal following. It really gives me credibility and generates excitement about my commitment to customer service.”

Zoga’s story is just one example of how natural product brands and grocers are leveraging social media to generate consumer loyalty, engage shoppers in conversation and ultimately increase sales.

Changing the face of advertising
The traditional method of advertising—placing a one-way message in front of as many potential customers as possible—has been turned upside down with the rise of free social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Consumers now want to be spoken to, have their opinions heard and get special deals for interacting.

Facebook, a free online community that requires only a working Internet connection and a browser, enables consumers and businesses to create custom profiles while populating them with pictures, videos, updates and links to third-party sites. A major value for businesses is the ability to engage consumers in two-way conversation, while educating them about products, special events and upcoming news.

Twitter, currently the second-fastest growing social-networking platform behind Facebook, is a micro-blogging site where users can send 140-character messages to their followers, also allowing others to see what they are posting. Like Facebook, Twitter requires only a working Internet connection and browser, and businesses can use Twitter to monitor online conversations about their products, answer consumers’ questions, provide Twitter-only specials and link to new products.

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Driving sales through social media
Sara Russert is a natural products customer. She shops at local markets, researches her produce selections beforehand and talks with friends about her favorite dishes. But Russert also is among a growing segment of shoppers who use Twitter to keep an eye on PCC Natural Markets, one of her favorite natural products stores within the greater Seattle area.

“Just awhile back, while reading PCC’s Twitter feed, I learned they had received a new shipment of locally grown asparagus, and I felt inspired to get some,” Russert says. “I skipped the market by my house and went to PCC because I knew it was in stock and I wanted to support them.”

Though it is still too early to determine the exact return on investment of PCC’s social media efforts, Laurie Albrecht, director of marketing for PCC, says she has seen a spike in the chain’s website traffic since it began social networking to reach customers. Satisfied- customer comments also are on the rise. Ricardo Rabago, PCC’s social-networking specialist, is the driving force behind the store’s online efforts. He says he understands customers like Russert and works to give them the information they need to make informed decisions.

“Our first goal is to provide exceptional customer service, the same type of service we would provide on a store level,” Rabago says. “It gives us an opportunity to listen and produce the information our customers need to take it to the next step. If they buy something afterward, that’s great.”

Brands, like Odwalla and Reed’s, and retailers, including Whole Foods Market and Santa Monica, Calif.-based Co-opportunity, have been integrating social media into their marketing and customer service models. Since it is not uncommon for consumers to go online and publish comments about new products they’ve purchased from a local natural foods store, brands and retailers are now able to monitor the online conversations their customers are having.

“Being able to listen in on the conversation about Odwalla in an unfiltered way is invaluable,” says Jason Dolenga, brand manager for Half Moon Bay, Calif.-based Odwalla. “Before, consumers had to pick up the phone, call, tell someone what they were thinking and have full engagement. But now we can just listen to people talking about us, saying things like, ‘I’m drinking an Odwalla.’ ”

Should you do it?
When beginning the process to determine if social media is right for your business, experts say the first step is to spend a few weeks and monitor the current online conversation consumers may be having about your shop or brand.

“Once you’ve figured that out, make sure to listen and see where you can provide value. If your company culture doesn’t fit, don’t do it,” says Corrin Arasa, president of e2 Marketing, a New York-based social-marketing company with several natural foods clients.

One of the best ways to monitor the online conversation is by setting up a Facebook account and searching the site for keywords pertinent to your business. Another is to search Twitter with a free third-party application called TweetDeck (, and use the program to break down consumer messages.

The next step is to devise a plan of action. “People should have a strategy,” says Sally Falkow, social-media strategist for Expansion Internet Marketing, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm that counts Reed’s among its social-media clients.

“You’re not going to get sales if you’ve got a bull at the gate,” she says. “You need to really become part of the community and become part of the conversation. It’s like walking into a cocktail party. You wouldn’t try telling someone something that they would give you the cold shoulder about.”

Business owners also should ask around to see if any of their employees are passionate about sites like Twitter and Facebook. Mack Graves, CEO of Panorama Meats, a Vina, Calif.-based organic, grass-fed-beef supplier, was approached by one of his employees who thought the company should be on Facebook.

“I realized she was right and this was the 21st century, and consumers who buy our product are educated, upscale, inquisitive and want to know everything about our animals and how we treat them,” he says. “Social media was a great way to reach them.”

When Panorama recently began supplying grass-fed beef raised in Wyoming to Whole Foods’ Rocky Mountain stores, the company was able to use its Facebook page to tell local consumers about its meats, and even direct them to their local Whole Foods store.

“We just had to do it and I’m glad we did,” Graves says.

Tim Shisler spends his time playing in the mountains near his Boulder, Colo., home.

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