Natural Foods Merchandiser

When shoppers say, ‘No, I’m just browsing ...’

Thanks to reality television and the pervasiveness of the Internet, we are becoming an open-book culture. Take embarrassing health conditions such as herpes, warts, constipation and yeast infections, for example. These once-taboo topics are being transformed into common supplements aisle chatter, or at least into mentionable issues.

In fact, public discussion of sensitive health problems is on the rise, thanks to television commercials, magazine advertisements and an ever-growing number of remedies on the market. But how retailers display and discuss these products can make a difference in how comfortable their customers feel. Improving your staff?s ability to handle such sensitive questions can certainly help everyone feel more at ease.

At the Portland, Ore., location of the integrative pharmacy Pharmaca, Cathryn Rosa, N.D., fields delicate questions daily. ?People walk in here, see a doctor in a white coat and feel comfortable to talk to me about everything,? she says. Rosa is just one of Pharmaca?s expert team of naturopaths, herbalists and product specialists who provide the public with sound health information, a level of comfort or sometimes just a friendly ear.

But one does not have to be dressed in a white coat to be queried about somewhat delicate topics. ?Ten years ago when I was just a kid working in the supplement section of a local health food store in Boulder, Colo., I got asked the same questions,? says Michael White, now a manager at Pharmaca. ?I finally had to get a name tag that said ?I am not an M.D.? because customers were basically revealing their entire medical record right there in the vitamin aisle.?

That?s just one reason why White?s store and the other Pharmaca locations each contain a consultation room where customers can sit down with a pharmacist, naturopath or herbalist and get their questions answered—in private. ?It really provides a safe space for customers to talk about what is going on with them,? says Rosa.

Doing it online
The virtually endless amount of information the Internet provides about conditions ranging from yeast infections to impotence might help loosen customers up before they come to your store, but is the Web helping or hindering natural product store sales?

One might imagine that since consumers can peruse the Internet for sensitive health topics in the privacy of their own homes, and even purchase remedies without ever leaving their living room chair, many might be turning to this more private avenue rather than going to their local health food store for help.

?Sure, lots of people buy our products online, but many more feel better going to their local store to get them,? says Linda Doby, founder of Well-In-Hand Epic Herbal Care, a natural products manufacturer in Forest, Va. Natural remedies for embarrassing health conditions such as acne, warts, head lice, herpes and hemorrhoids are Doby?s specialty. ?People want to read about these conditions and their remedies online, and then they want to go buy them somewhere where a clerk will say, ?Yeah, this is a good product,?? she says.

White agrees. ?Consumers want a certain level of confidence when buying health care products; as retailers we can provide that.?

The trick is to educate and inform consumers without crossing over Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act third-party information guidelines, or making you or them uncomfortable. ?Make eye contact, stand up straight and speak professionally and confidently,? says Doby. Knowing specific ingredients in products and how they work, and then sharing customer testimonials, is the best sales technique. Letting nervous customers know that you sell a lot of a product and have gotten good feedback on it can put their minds at ease.

?Sometimes people will lower their voice, speak in euphemisms or say they are asking for a friend when inquiring about how to treat potentially embarrassing conditions,? Rosa says. But as any practitioner, and most supplements clerks, will tell you, they have heard it all before. To them, hearing about a herpes outbreak or a nasty case of constipation is just another function of the body, and one that can be helped by natural supplements.

One great way for retailers to make sure they are up to the task of providing quality natural supplements information is to have manufacturers? literature on hand. Being able to send a customer home with a pamphlet that details the ingredients and actions of a product can provide the extra level of confidence that ensures a sale. ?I recommend sales clerks call manufacturers if they have questions about products,? says Doby. ?Like me, many other manufacturers also provide a toll-free number in case consumers want to talk directly to the company.?

When it comes to educational techniques for consumers on potentially embarrassing health conditions and their treatments, the future looks bright. ?The world of technology is bringing us product information that can be beamed to one?s cell phone, and in-store computer touch screens that are packed with printable product information,? says White. And just in case a customer needs a second opinion, your store employees will be there to assist.

What?s in a name?
When it comes to treatments for embarrassing health conditions, how we name and market them has changed a lot in the last decade. For example, in the not-too-distant past, magazine advertisements for feminine hygiene products did not even mention the product being advertised. Instead, a picture of beautiful women dressed in clean, white outfits would be adorned with some euphemism-filled text to get the point across. These days, frank commercials for tampons, yeast-infection treatments and vaginal lubricants are regular occurrences on afternoon television.

?Being straightforward is what people want,? says Doby, whose personal care company Well-In-Hand?s best-selling products are Wart Wonder, Herpa Rescue and Zero Zitz! She believes a name has to be catchy, yet convey what the product does. ?I chose Zero Zitz! because people see it and chuckle,? she says. ?I am personally responsible for thousands of chuckles, and if acne is sometimes brought on by stress, then giving someone a chuckle might mean one less zit. The product is working before they even buy it.?

Linda Knittel is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 98

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