You've done all you can afford to make your store environmentally friendly—and chances are you spent a good amount of money in the process. But in addition to helping the Earth, your shrinking carbon footprint could mean big business. New research from the Natural Marketing Institute shows that more than 80 percent of American adults value sustainability on some level. And they're probably aware that some stores try harder than others to take a load off Mother Nature.
Sometimes, though, your most eco-friendly efforts aren't readily apparent to shoppers: It can be difficult to tell the difference between unsustainable wood floors and renewable bamboo, plastic versus compostable flatware or coal versus wind power. Now's the time to make sure your shoppers know all you do to be eco-friendly. Here are some tips for telling your store's green story.
Show them the signs
Signs are cheap and easy to create and can do much more than guide your customers to the restrooms. Jay Jacobowitz, president of natural products consulting firm Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vt., recommends using signs to indicate the green building materials you've used. "You could have a sign on the floor saying, ‘You are walking on a floor made of recycled materials,'" he says. "Anywhere where you have a significant green investment, go ahead and point it out to the shopper at the point of contact." Make sure all your sustainability signage is of a similar design. "If you're really looking to promote green, you need to create some sort of consistent campaign that has a certain look to it, so when a consumer is walking down an aisle and they see a certain sign, they know that this product is green," says merchandising consultant Debby Swoboda, founder of askDebby.com.
You can also get creative with signage locations. Even a coffee table can be a vehicle for green messages. At the Denver location of natural and organic personal care store Origins, the company shows off its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification and use of recycled materials by placing samples of the materials next to background information underneath the glass top of a coffee table surrounded by comfy chairs. As customers pause to sip the store's tea, they get an education in the company's green efforts.
Be creative with shelf talkers
Shelf talkers are a quick and effective way to communicate with your customers. Ellie's Eco Home Store in Boulder, Colo., opened by Eco-Products founder Steve Savage, has 12 signs on the wall identifying the criteria the store uses when purchasing products, such as "energy efficient," "rapidly renewable," "improves air quality" and "local." Then shelf talkers call out each such product. "What we wanted was a key to identify to our customers why we bought our products," Store Manager Carly Marriott says.
Involve the customer
Try to make shopping at your store more personal than an in-and-out experience. There are many ways to educate and involve the customer, Swoboda says. You could put an environmentally oriented statement at the bottom of your receipt or host a town meeting where your customers can discuss ideas about how to lessen their environmental impact and suggest new ideas for your store. " ‘Did you know?' is a great thing," Swoboda says. "You educate the staff and you encourage them to share their knowledge: ‘Let's focus our message on green this week.'"
Ellie's Eco Home Store plans to host weekly community education programs to help get the word out about environmentally friendly products and causes. Milwaukee-based Outpost Natural Foods Co-op also hosts events that promote green ideas. For example, one store celebrated its new solar panels by throwing a "solarbration" complete with a ribbon cutting and a hybrid car show. Afterward, people went for test drives, flew kites and exchanged ideas to help the environment. "On that day, our traffic increased significantly," Outpost spokeswoman Margaret Mittelstadt says. Outpost has also hosted a two-week film festival featuring documentaries about sustainable causes. "It's really fun to do these kinds of things with the community because [customers] respond so well to it," Mittelstadt says. "It's a win-win situation."
Direct some charity and philanthropy toward sustainable efforts. "Sustainable community outreach could be as simple as giving to the food bank or lending store labor for what needs to be done in the community," Jacobowitz says. Outpost, for example, contributes volunteers for local river cleanups and for years has worked with local energy utilities to help promote renewable energy and conservation programs. "Back in 1999, we were approached by [Wisconsin energy company] We Energies to see if we were interested in one of their new programs called the Energy for Tomorrow program, which at the time was trying to let businesses offset a portion of their bill to help develop renewable technologies," Mittelstadt says. "We were the first business to sign onto that program." Since then, Mittelstadt says the company has participated in a number of energy-saving programs, which has helped inform people of Outpost's environmentally friendly values. "We hope to promote their programs because it's the right thing to do and it fits so nicely with what our organization does."
Keep it honest
Green hasn't always been in fashion, but now that it's the trend for retailers large and small, customers are becoming savvier about what truly hurts and helps the environment. For example, carrying reusable bags used to be something unique to tout, but now everyone has them. So what if your store doesn't have much to brag about, environmentally? There's no reason to start greenwashing, according to Jacobowitz. "The independent natural products retailer enjoys a green halo because of the industry," he says, and unless you've really spent some time trying to help the environment, "It might be better to say nothing and let the green halo exist without calling attention to it." But taking real steps toward sustainability are likely to pay off. "Today, shoppers assume that you are doing everything you can to be green," Jacobowitz says, "and if you're not, then you're at a disadvantage."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXX/number 1/p. 12