Natural Foods Merchandiser

Stores should play host to the happy customer

Selling Smart

When I was 23, I traveled through the foothills of the Himalayas and met a nomadic Tibetan herder and his son. The day was late and the two invited me, using gestures, to join them in their tent. I was given a soft blanket to sit on and was served a portion of yak stew from a small pot. Having no language in common, we spent the meal smiling and nodding. It was a memorable experience of hospitality that I did absolutely nothing to deserve. I ended up presenting them with a new electric headlamp in my gratitude.

Maintaining a customer-centered retail operation in your natural products store depends on cultivating such a culture of hospitality. In your store as in your home (or tent), you manage all aspects of your guest?s experience—clearing clutter from around the space, adjusting music and lighting, laying in refreshments that you think the guest would like. As Paco Underhill notes in his landmark work, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, 2000), ?You can?t know how much shoppers will buy until you?ve made the shopping experience as comfortable and easy and practical as possible.?

Customer comfort and loyalty depend upon the following four components: layout, staffing, managing the details and tracking.

Layout. The staff at Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee has combined many of Underhill?s precepts with their own experience and intuition to create a comfortable retail environment in their three stores, according to Lisa Malmarowski, director of brand and store development. Outpost created a very clear ?adjustment zone? inside the store entrance where visitors can transition from the outside world to the store without feeling trapped, and a wider-than-normal last aisle to give shoppers a sense of expansiveness as they head to the registers.

Some customers ?Fly and Buy,? while others ?Mull and Mill.?
P.J. Hoffman, retail services consultant with United Natural Food Inc.?s Eastern region, notes that department layouts depend on knowing which categories consumers will shop quickly and which ones they will need to browse. Hoffman calls them the ?Fly and Buy? versus the ?Mull and Mill? sections. Many retailers have made the mistake of treating bulk products like grocery sections in regular aisles. A shopper who is frequently interrupted or jostled while trying to mull and mill for bulk products will definitely be less likely to shop the section again and may even abandon the store in favor of a retailer that will allow her or him the freedom to shop comfortably.

Staffing. Having a superb and welcoming space does you no good if it is populated with insensitive employees. Your store?s customer service performance is only as good as your worst individual performer. Although staff training and management may be a complex process, Outpost has found that to ensure success, the best way is to start with a sound foundation. All staff members at Outpost go through a significant O Week (orientation week) during which they receive extensive product education and instruction on the details of friendly, efficient service.

Some stores have had good success with defining the elements of a positive customer interaction for their staff. Whether this is formal scripting (?Were you able to find everything you were looking for today??) or a checklist of points that must be hit with each customer (greeting with a smile, an inquiry about service, a thank you with a smile and an offer to help with grocery bags), formal policies provide insurance to help those staff members who have not yet internalized the culture of welcome. Hoffman cautions that such strategies must be coupled with an ?awareness of the uniqueness of each customer.? Some shoppers just want to be left alone, so staff need to be coached on recognizing the ?back off? signs.

Managing the Details. Again, when a guest walks into your home, you are sensitive to her or his needs, big and small. You typically offer your guest a beverage, just as Wall Drug made a name for itself by offering free ice water to transcontinental travelers. If your visitor has a child with her, you pay attention to the child and offer something to engage him.

Ocean Beach People?s Organic Food Market in San Diego meets the needs of its youngest shoppers by offering them a play area in full view of most of the store. Assistant manager Evanthia Basilico notes that the store also offers kids a free piece of whatever Fruit of the Month the store is featuring. What?s more, the store stocks stickers at the register, which are very popular with young patrons. Outpost Natural Foods has a full-blown Kids Club with membership buttons and hats for kids who participate. When kids wear their buttons to the store, they receive a fruit snack and lots of hoopla. Children in the Kids Club get a card and a free frozen treat on their birthdays. All of these tactics make the stores destinations that kids are enthusiastic about.

In Outpost?s ?Call Ahead? program, staff will pick an order and deliver it curbside.
For older patrons, stores with even a little bit of spare space should provide seating at spots throughout the store. Ocean Beach provides this seating, as well as electric carts for seniors. Hand baskets are stacked low enough for a person in an electric cart to help him- or herself. The store offers a 10 percent discount to seniors and operates a limited shopping and home delivery service for some longtime store members with mobility problems. Outpost is unable to do home delivery but has a ?call ahead? program so that staff can pick an order and deliver it curbside.

For those with special food needs, stores? offerings can range from high-touch strategies to do-it-yourself tools. Basilico thinks that Ocean Beach?s policy of having a staff member in each department at all times ensures that persons with a particular food allergy or need will be able to find the products they are looking for. Outpost maintains a credentialed nutritionist in the store, who is available to give new shoppers a store orientation or to answer specific questions. Other natural products stores provide complete listings of, for example, gluten-free products, accompanied by shelf tags.

For immigrant groups and other non-English speakers, the organic produce and bulk beans and grains of a typical natural foods store may be more familiar than packaged products in other types of stores. Sometimes all these folks need is a little bilingual advertising to let them know they are welcome. Beyond that, a picture?s worth a thousand words. Try to ?show? instructions with visuals if you have a significant number of non-English speakers. An independent retailer in the Upper Midwest, which has bulk tofu and tempeh bins, began showing pictures of the handling and storage process to make the products more accessible. Sales to both English speakers and non-English speakers increased.

Tracking Success. Even the best of intentions sometimes miss the mark, at least by a little. Natural products retailers, like everyone else, need feedback from the people who matter most—actual customers. Customer comment cards strategically placed throughout the store are a great start, but these are only likely to capture the most egregious or creative opportunities for change from the small segment of shoppers who take the time to fill them out. Periodic use of customer surveys and mystery shoppers can track progress of a few important variables over time, including overall satisfaction.

A recent survey of natural products consumers by The Natural Foods Merchandiser revealed that the average shopper is purchasing natural, organic and health products through 10 different retail formats. Pay attention to building a customer-based retail operation around a strong sense of hospitality and you are liable to dramatically increase both wallet share and customer retention. You might even find yourself with a nice new electric headlamp.

Sherwood Smith is vice president of The Intelligence Agency, a marketing consulting firm in Traverse City, Mich. Reach him at 231.932.0400 or [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 2/p. 18, 20

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