Selling brown rice, beans and Birkenstocks in ultraconservative Reading, Pennsylvania, was a tough go back in 1977. But Susanne Fiori, owner of Nature’s Garden Natural Foods and Shoes, was so passionate about promoting health and wellness that she soldiered on. Over time, Fiori’s business, especially her top-notch supplements section, took hold and grew. She brought Cindy Boyer on board in 1996, and now the two women captain a successful store and helm a weekly radio show that explores nutrition, supplementation and healthy living. Both endeavors have garnered Fiori and Boyer mad respect within the industry, among local doctors and from consumers, all of whom rely on their deep nutrition knowledge and commitment to high-quality products. We chatted with the co-owners about the state of supplements yesterday, today and tomorrow.
NFM: How has the supplement industry changed over 37 years?
Susanne Fiori: One of the biggest changes is we used to sell everything as individual nutrients—bottles of vitamin C or B complex. It wasn’t until Terry Lemerond and Dr. Michael Murray came about that we began to see synergistic formulas that address specific needs. That really changed our focus. Now we want to help shoppers find specific solutions to support precise needs, and we discourage them from buying just iron or zinc because those won’t address the underlying problem.
NFM: Has supplement quality improved since 1977?
Cindy Boyer: Science has helped improve the quality of products. But unfortunately, there are still a lot of crappy companies out there. They pop up, get marketed, get caught making false claims and then go away. It’s really important for retailers to police ourselves and be careful about what we suggest to shoppers.
NFM: How do you vet supplements to make sure you’re selling the best?
CB: No. 1: clinical research. I don’t just look at product propaganda. I love looking for research on PubMed because there’s no bias there.
SF: I also want to see manufacturing standards, how and from where raw materials are sourced and what assays are used to ensure quality.
CB: We’ve visited Gaia Herbs, Enzymatic Therapy and Natural Factors. We talk to the researchers; we see which raw materials they reject. Yes, it’s frustrating when a product is out of stock, but if it’s because the manufacturer has rejected impure raw materials, you have to respect that. The only way to ensure a therapeutic dose—and guarantee consumer results—is through standardization.
NFM: Nowadays, supplements are sold nearly everywhere. How has this impacted your store?
SF: Big-box stores sell on price, so they’ll carry inferior types of calcium, vitamin C that’s ready to expire or products coming from questionable countries. The worst possible scenario is when someone goes to a big-box store for, say, echinacea. Whether that product contains the right amount of echinacea, or any at all, is questionable. The shopper buys it, and it does nothing. Now she believes echinacea is useless. Now we have to reassure her that if she buys echinacea that has been properly grown and extracted, it can have amazing results.
NFM: Are you also feeling heat from online supplement sales?
SF: For the first time in 37 years, we’re seeing a softening in supplement sales because products are being sold online for 30 percent or 40 percent off.
CB: These products can’t sell themselves—manufacturers need brick-and-mortar stores with educated staffs to sell their supplements. But the other issue is we educate customers and then they find products online for cheaper. I think manufacturers have a responsibility to retailers who’ve supported them from the beginning. They shouldn’t allow cheap sales online while the independents pay more.
NFM: What can be done about this?
CB: Looking at any category, the perception is that big-box stores sell more. But collectively, independents sell more supplements. So we’re a stronger force, even though we’re not treated as such. If we unite and put more pressure on manufacturers, maybe we can make a difference.
SF: MAP pricing needs to be enforced, so it’s one-size-fits-all. Otherwise, small independents are going to go away, and then how would consumers learn?
Embrace your role as an independent - Follow Fiori and Boyer's lead with these 3 tips
Don’t follow fads. “You can’t carry everything, and selling fads will not ensure you’ll be here tomorrow or be respected in your community,” Boyer says. “Some stores put up Dr. Oz displays. No way would we do that. You have to be true to yourself, stick with your standards and carry products in good consciousness.”
Trumpet your knowledge. “We take a firm stand against misinformation and bad products and have very little patience for other stores that don’t,” Boyer says. “We are very fortunate in this industry to have access to top experts and education, so we owe it to consumers to use these resources and to actually look at clinical trials and pass information on.”
Be vocal with manufacturers. Frustrated with cheap Internet sales and big-box store discounts? Speak up about your value as an independent, and advocate for more uniform pricing. “I think some supplement manufacturers are idealistic about what’s going on right now,” Fiori says. “But it isn’t working. We think we have the best products and can explain them far better than any box store or online retailer.”