Natural Foods Merchandiser

Four days in the life of a broker

If you're looking for Cheryl Raff, try behind the wheel—laughing.

Raff, a broker with Burbank, Calif.-based New Connections Marketing Group, puts 2,000 miles a month on her car. The trunk is stuffed with boxes of homeopathic remedies. Demo kits take up the backseat, except for the spot carved out for Raff's 2-year-old, Simon—and fortunately his legs are short, because another stack of boxes crowd the spot where his feet will go in a few years.

And the laugh? It's how you'll find her in an unfamiliar store. Raff has a laugh that could stop a train, and she uses it often.

Her job is a whirlwind of activity with a singular purpose: to help her clients sell more product. She has a lot of constituents: independent retailers, chains, distributors and more than 42 lines, including Amy's Kitchen, Nature's Path and Stash Tea.

"Brokers are like the concierge of the food industry," Raff says. "We're at the bottom of the food chain. Everybody is our customer."

She agreed to let The Natural Foods Merchandiser follow her around metro Denver to get a feel for what her job entails.

Stores rely on Raff to police displays, educate employees about new products, keep shelves stocked, and boost margins with free fill. Manufacturers rely on Raff to make sure their products are in stock, promotions are being carried out correctly and problems are worked out. Distributors rely on Raff to help take care of their stores.

"And free labor," she says. "Everybody loves the free labor."

In a chain-heavy state like Colorado—with 22 Vitamin Cottages, 14 Wild Oats and seven Whole Foods—brokers' attention inevitably gets drawn to chain stores. But "if a small retailer has a set and calls us, we do try to make it happen for them," she says. While some small stores and co-ops refuse to let her in the door, she can offer hip-pocket deals, shipper deals, case stack deals, holiday and show deals—as well as "merchandising experience, ranking reports and free labor," she says.

Because several clients are coming to Colorado this week for a United Natural Foods Inc. tabletop show on Thursday, it's an unusually busy week out in the field. Normally, Raff starts her day at 5 a.m. and finishes at 10 p.m., sending e-mail and returning calls while her son sleeps. But that often means free time in the middle of the day to play or do errands or bring cookies to day care.

"I did have back-to-back 18-hour days a couple of weeks ago, and that was tough," she says.

Although Raff's main responsibility is to represent supplements lines around the state, she also services New Connections' grocery lines at stores near her home in northern Colorado. She starts the week off on a positive note at 8 a.m. Monday, doing a freezer reset at Vitamin Cottage in Fort Collins.

"I kicked stuff out," she says with a grin. "I got to put the full line of Amy's in." A little finesse with the different-sized packages of frozen entrees and pot pies allows Raff to add an extra face-out per shelf.

Admittedly, adding products from a hot-selling line like Amy's Kitchen isn't all that difficult. But the good-looking display, some free stock—and free labor—earns Raff points from the store manager that she may be able to leverage for a less popular line down the road.

Eight o'clock is actually a civilized hour for resets. More and more, Raff finds herself showing up at 4 a.m., when stores are closed and work can be done quickly. What's her strategy for getting what she wants in a reset? "Say 'hi' to everyone. Bring coffee," she says. "The person sweeping the floor could be your buyer tomorrow."

Raff knows her way around the new Whole Foods Market in Lakewood, Colo. "I helped set this store," she says. "I spent three weeks here."

Today, Raff is traveling with Judy Homer, a sales rep from Botanical Labs, and Leslie Ellis, brand manager for Botanical's Herbs for Kids. They're making a swing through Colorado—one of 24 states in Homer's territory—to visit stores, do training and try out some prototype packaging, among other chores.

Today's free labor means Raff covers the floor while the department manager and her team spend an hour with Homer, going over 19 new NatraBio items. "This way, Judy can do a good thorough training," she says.

Team members get a break, a snack and a chance to learn something new. Many are new to the naturals world, so they're more likely to recommend products they hear about in a face-to-face training.

"I got a much stronger understanding of homeopathy," one employee says later.

Looking quite at home, Raff stands at the intersection of two aisles in the Whole Living section. She helps track down water-filter cartridges, celery seed and the massage therapist. Someone asks about soap; a man wants to know where the elevator is. Raff has been helping people since her first job at Ranch Market in Torrington, Wyo., she says, and has always liked it.

Not every interaction leads to a sale for one of Raff's lines. "I always tell them I'm not a Whole Foods employee, but here's what I think," she says. Nevertheless, she still scores sales for one of her clients: Two customers walk away with bottles of Zand's arnica lotion, The Rub, and one goes home with Zand glucosamine liquid.

Once Homer's training is done, Raff turns her attention to stock levels. She has a quick conversation with the supplements manager about a problem: too many units of an expensive cleanse kit. They negotiate a trade; six units go out to the car, six go to the employee break room and a cartful of NatraBio remedies in new, bright packaging comes in the front door.

"It's my job to make sure all the stores are happy," she says. "When new lines look at you, they go to the retailer. References come from the retailer."

Raff's already printed out a homemade color key for the Zand lozenge demo kits, which are big bags of assorted flavors in bright wrappers, with no way of telling what flavor is which. "It would be nice if it were laminated," the supplements manager says, "and put on a chain so I could hang it from the shelf."

Raff cocks an eyebrow at Homer, who already knows it's a problem. "Blue is either blueberry or menthol," she says. "That's pretty drastic when you give it to a kid."

At the end of the afternoon, the health and beauty team leader tells Raff that she's passed her name along to the owner of an apparel line who's looking for a different broker. The team leader's worried that the apparel set isn't getting serviced very often and is impressed with how often Raff shows up and how hard she works.

"And that," Raff says on her way out the door, "is how you get lines."

First order of business is setting up a case stack—more Amy's Kitchen—in Fort Collins. Then Raff's on the road to a Vitamin Cottage an hour away in Arvada, where she and Homer discover NatraBio products in outdated packaging.

While Homer and Ellis try different shelf positions for the prototype Herbs for Kids wellness kits, photographing the ones they like, Raff's out to the car for new stock, then on her hands and knees in front of the clearance shelves, stacking the old product, and marking it with yellow clearance stickers.

Homer appreciates Raff's willingness to wade in and do what it takes to help her lines get better placement. "We saw the old boxes and boom, she's down on the floor and it's done," she says. "I probably talk to Cheryl two or three times a day. I feel like I'm the only client she has, and I know that's not true."

Around 11 a.m., Raff, Ellis and Homer arrive at another Denver-area Whole Foods for a scheduled training, but someone has called in sick. Two team members stand with their backs to the visitors and turn down an offer of snacks.

"I haven't even clocked in yet," the team leader says. It is clearly not a good time.

Raff knows him from another store. "If we work with him, he will listen to us," she predicts. Sure enough, he tells them to come back after 2 p.m. That gives Raff enough time to drive south to Sunflower Market and check in with the HABA manager there. "I wanted to see whether you like the Zanergy," Raff asks and the woman says yes and seems pleased to be remembered.

"People like free stuff," Raff notes later. Handing out samples gives underpaid retail employees a chance to try the merchandise. "The next time someone asks for an energy booster, she may say this works for her."

How many samples and free fills does she hand out? Three pallets at a time, delivered to Raff's house by semi and stored in a Tuff Shed. "And that's just the car stock," she says, laughing. Merchandise for sets is another matter.

Brokers like Raff provide valuable marketing feedback to vendors too. At Sunflower, Homer notices that the $4-off coupon for Zand Cleanse Kits is stuck between boxes instead of clipped to the front of the shelf. "The clips don't work," Raff tells her. The hole in the coupon is drilled too small. Homer leaves herself a voice mail reminder.

The climate at Whole Foods has improved when Homer and Raff return at 2:30 p.m. While Homer sits down with the department manager and some team members for training, Raff catches up with a former colleague, who is handing out samples of a nutrition product.

At the UNFI tabletop show in a Holiday Inn ballroom near Denver International Airport, Raff admits this day is mostly about the meet and greet. Since last year's Expo West, she's pared more than 70 pounds off her petite frame. Many people don't recognize her until she laughs, and she loves it.

Losing weight's not easy for someone who spends a lot of time in the car, let alone someone who's constantly around food products. To stay on her eating plan, she plotted trips that passed a minimal number of drive-throughs. Another line she reps, Lesser Evil popcorn snacks, was a huge temptation. "I only carry what I absolutely have to have," she says with a laugh. "I cannot have it in the car."

The UNFI show features about 150 vendors. Buyers from the national and regional chains are out in force, along with owners and managers of small stores and co-ops. Retailers are lured by the show specials, as much as 40 percent off, and a seminar with retail specialist Danny Wells.

Behind their table of herbs and supplements, Homer and Ellis are writing orders. Across the aisle is another New Connections client, Radius Toothbrush President Kevin Foley. Two rows down, other New Connections reps are handing out samples of Amy's salsa and Nature's Path bars.

Gathered together in one room, the food business begins to look like a small town, where everybody knows everybody and Raff seems to have worked with everyone at some point or another. She needs to leave at 3 p.m. to pick up Simon. It looks like snow.

Friday will be spent touring stores with Foley. Raff would love to show him the stores with beautiful toothbrush displays, but resigns herself to spending most of their time on stores that need a bit of help.

It hasn't really been an average week, she admits. But then, "Nothing is average anymore."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 14, 18, 20

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