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Natural Foods Merchandiser
Adrienne Smith, Senior Food Business Reporter

Business as unusual: Moving to the 'new normal'

How do we navigate the future of business when we’re struggling to understand the present?

"Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, then it’s not the end." This Indian proverb (or John Lennon quote of debatable origins) has become somewhat of a mantra this year, one plagued by the many uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic in which we find ourselves, unsure of whether this is still the beginning or somewhere in the middle. Sadly, it’s not yet OK nor the end.

On a personal level, we’re still processing stress, grief, illness, fear and isolation—even as things continue to inch toward improvement in many places. On a professional level, we’re trying to figure out what the eventual "new normal" might be.

It has been inspiring to see how natural products retailers—some of the most important figures on the front lines of this pandemic—have persevered in the face of some of the most difficult challenges ever faced. No doubt your internal discussions have been full of what-ifs and why-nots and on-the-other-hands. Maybe you’ve concluded your best way forward is to have several plans based on different contingencies.

Of course, the effects of the pandemic have varied greatly from place to place and even store to store, as states, cities, towns and communities have adapted to changing circumstances. For some natural products retailers, the onset of the crisis in March brought booming sales that in some cases rose by as much as 300%. At the same time, for many, losing the deli counter and in-store foodservice, limiting store capacity, offering only curbside and delivery service, supplementing employee salaries and reducing store hours offset any sales growth.

One challenge common to retailers across the country was the breakdown in supply chains, which still makes it hard to keep shelves stocked with some products customers have been clamoring for—notably immunity supplements, paper products and pantry staples like beans and rice. To address these issues, many stores have had to get creative and diversify their suppliers, in some cases sourcing directly from brands, restaurant suppliers, and even local producers and farmers. That may turn out to have a positive impact on how this industry is served in the future. 

Another positive thing to come out of this crisis has been the new and different ways that retailers have been reaching out and communicating with customers. Online platforms such as social media have allowed stores to host events including virtual cooking classes and web talks about supplements, nutrition and other pillars of our industry. These will, I hope, lead to new channels for customer and community interaction in the future.

So, what does all of this mean? We don’t know. None of us do. Several months into this crisis and we still can’t say for sure what life will be like on the other side. We can hope that the world will begin to look more seriously at some of the issues that our industry has been championing for years, such as the health of this planet, the nutritional implications of the food we put into our bodies, and the ethical and environmental implications of the way that it’s produced.

Let’s just hope we keep momentum going on issues this industry has championed over the years: organic certification, the elimination of single-use plastics, waste reduction, transparent sourcing and the push for more plant-based diets, to name a few. We should feel proud that we in the natural products industry are uniquely poised to help steward people toward health, wellness and, we hope, a more egalitarian future as we emerge from this crisis—OK in the end.

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