When Cheryl Hughes entered the natural products business, she was amazed. "I was dazzled by the things that worked," she says. Her background as a florist meant she had a lot to absorb when she took over the store in Antelope Valley, a remote area north of Los Angeles on the edge of the Mojave Dessert.
In the early '80s, before The Whole Wheatery took off, "Few people even knew about echinacea. Much of what I learned came from customers. They'd tell me what they used, what worked for them, what foods they preferred to eat," Hughes says.
Now, as The Whole Wheatery celebrates its 20th anniversary, she relays the secret of her store's longevity. "I listened," Hughes says, to clients and industry pioneers such as Linus Pauling, nutritionist Carleton Fredericks and her mentor Gladys Lindberg, who opened one of the first Los Angeles health food stores in the late 1940s.
Part of the store's success is seemingly contradictory: continual change combined with constancy. "The key to our business is that nothing in the store ever stays the same," Hughes says. It's grown from 1,900 square feet to 10,000 square feet through three expansions. End caps change, products come and go, displays are revamped, but something critical endures. "We still have that small-store attitude. Our soul and heart have not changed at all," she says.
"We have always been very consumer oriented, very customer-service friendly," Hughes says. What sets The Whole Wheatery apart is follow-through. If a customer has a question, employees search tenaciously for an answer. Available to help are staff nutritionists and resources such as a Healthnotes kiosk, which the store adopted as soon as the service was developed. "I heard about it at Expo about nine years ago and immediately said, 'I absolutely must have that,'" Hughes says. She also stocks books, magazines and free publications. The store Web site is another source of information on foods, products and in-store promotions.
Educational resources make for better, more informed customers. One staff nutritionist, for instance, teaches a class that includes a store tour and a stop at the produce section to discuss the health benefits of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. The Whole Wheatery also offers free lectures by health and healing experts, visiting industry types "or anyone who is willing to make the trip," Hughes says. The store welcomes local chiropractors, massage therapists and aromatherapy practitioners to speak.
"Education is the cornerstone of our industry," she says. The retailer has the responsibility, she believes, to educate consumers about all products, both new and traditional. Hughes recalls when manufacturers flew store owners in to learn about product lines, manufacturing, quality standards and to meet the faces behind the company name. It greatly enhanced the retailer's ability to discern quality products and pass the information to customers.
Hughes is dedicated to in-store sampling, active demonstrations when possible and passive samples all the time. "If they taste it, they will buy it," is her mantra. Her store is filled with covered platters overflowing with snacks, sliced fruit and sweet things. Self-serve beverages, such as juice, tea and coffee, are also available.
Six years ago, Hughes vowed to bring organics to Antelope Valley, and to do it in a way that respected the conservatism and economic vagaries of her hometown. Hughes's action plan? "To provide organic produce at an affordable price," she says. That effort included education and abundant sampling. "I needed my customers to taste the difference between conventional and organic."
Despite her store's relative isolation, Hughes has played a front-and-center role in the industry. In fact, Hughes was instrumental in bringing organics to national attention. She was the chairman of the Organic Trade Association's Good Organic Retailing Practices Committee, a group that made the organic standards recommendations later adopted by the OTA. "I like to give back to the industry. It's an incredible network of which to be a part," she says.
As for her store, she hopes it will one day acquire the "certified retailer" seal. The Whole Wheatery has the setup to begin certification, such as separate refrigerators to avoid commingling. But for now, her produce section is 98 percent organic, the renegade 2 percent being bananas. "We use so many bananas, and organic are not always available."
One huge draw for her customers is Natcheryl's Café, a full-service restaurant for a sit-down lunch. Once a month Hughes keeps the café open late for an evening of live jazz.
The store itself includes a separate Beverage Bar offering cappuccino, smoothies and juices. There also is a deli section featuring a selection of freshly prepared foods. Leftovers are donated to local shelters.
Overall, Hughes attributes her success to paying attention to customers and trends. "What sets us apart are little things. For one, we are welcoming to anyone who enters the store. Sometimes something as simple as really listening to customers can make the difference between a satisfying experience and one that is less so," Hughes says. And although she buys spots in the newspaper, local television and radio programs, positive word-of-mouth advertising, she acknowledges, is the best way to increase business.
Hughes also pays careful attention to what's happening to the industry and the world of retail at large. "We try to stay always on the cutting edge," she says.
One example was her early adoption of hand-held scanners. "We had them way before most other retailers did, and they really helped us to have a point-of-sale system. The scanners enable us to scientifically track inventory, know what sells, what doesn't and what gets stolen."
And for retailing innovations, Hughes ventures beyond natural products for inspiration. "If Nordstrom or Target is doing something that might make us more competitive, we steal the idea from them, too. I am open to ideas from staff, from consumers. We are a single store. We need to try anything that will give us the competitive edge," she says.
And next month, customers will get to celebrate 20 years of business with Hughes and her staff. "We will be having promotions, in-store giveaways and special tastings throughout the month." And savings. The first weekend of April everything in the store will be 20 percent off. To make it even more celebratory, Hughes commissioned woven tapestry bags decorated with The Whole Wheatery logo and a wreath of California poppies. "It's a time not just for the store to celebrate," Hughes says, "it's for the entire Antelope Valley."
The Whole Wheatery
44264 10th St. W.
Lancaster, CA 93534
Web site: www.thewholewheatery.com
Retail space: 10,000 square feet
Annual sales: More than $3.2 million
Best-selling departments: Supplements (40 percent of total sales); grocery 25 percent)
Barbara Hey is a freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 162