Natural Foods Merchandiser
How to make over your supplements section

How to make over your supplements section

Mass merchandisers have moved into the supplements scene, tempting many natural products retailers to discount vitamins or increase ad dollars. But experts say you should first consider sprucing up your supplements aisle.

Facing a growing threat from mass merchandisers eating up market share, natural products retailers may be inclined to slash prices in the vitamin aisle or spend a bundle on advertising. But according to retail consultants in the wellness industry and beyond, that tactic could be a mistake. First, they recommend, consider a face-lift.

"You dont spend a bunch of money inviting people to a show that is no good," says Bob Phibbs, Coxsackie, N.Y.-based author of The Retail Doctor's Guide to Growing Your Business (Wiley and Sons, 2010). "I always advise retailers to get the guts of their organization in order first—including freshening up their displays. Just that can deliver a 10 to 15 percent increase in sales."

According to Nutrition Business Journal, sales of supplements grew 6 percent, to $26.9 billion, in 2009, but 29 percent of those sales came from mass-market retailers. While the natural channel saw supplements sales climb a modest 4.6 percent last year, mass merchandisers saw a 10.6 percent spike. Meanwhile, 22 percent of small natural-channel retailers reported flat supplements sales.

Could merchandising be a reason for the disparity?

Jay Jacobowitz, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based consulting firm Retail Insights, says that—unfortunately—many independent natural products retailers tap their capital budget at start-up, and leave little funding or time for refreshing their displays. Meanwhile, most mainstream retailers devote at least $5 to $6 per square foot annually to updating shelving, fixtures, signage and lighting, and have a plan in place to substantially overhaul and reorganize each display every three to five years, Jacobowitz says.

"Surveys show that before price, location and selection, women shoppers in particular want a clean, neat-looking store," says Jacobowitz. In addition, research by the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Global Market Development Center, a trade group for wellness retailers, shows that "consumers hesitate less to try new products in a more elegant retail space." They assume the retailer has been diligent in seeking out and presenting quality products.

That said, here are five ways to make over your supplements aisles—and boost sales.

1. Edit your product selection. Ask consumers what they like least about shopping for vitamins and minerals, and 48 percent say "too many choices," according to a March 2009 survey by GMDC. "[The section is] hard to navigate," says Chris DePetris, director of education and insights for GMDC. "They want the retailer to edit for them." Be sure you have a few distinct offerings and a variety of delivery systems at your discount, mid-level and premium price points. Then scratch the rest, DePetris says. Phibbs recommends slashing your bottom five or 10 sellers and using that money to assure you keep your top sellers in stock.

2. Customize your arrangement. Should you organize by condition/structure-function, brand or ingredient? That depends on what kind of store you have, says Jacobowitz. In larger, busier stores, where staff may not have time to personally explain which supplement works for which condition, well-signed sections organized by condition (digestive health, immunity, women's health, vision care, etc.) are critical. In smaller stores with a lower ratio of employees to customers (and often fewer products), brand blocking might work fine, Jacobowitz says. "The more staff I have for customer interaction, the more I can merchandize the brands I want to feature, because I have time to explain to customers what the products do and why I am recommending them."

DePetris suggests organizing by condition whenever possible. "It makes it easier for consumers to compare apples to apples," he says. Reserve brand blocking for private-label and discount brands for the bargain shopper, and createindividual endcap displays showcasing hot ingredients (such as fish oil or coenzyme Q10) with a variety of brands and delivery systems.

Also, be sure to put related conditions or categories next to one another to create what DePetris calls a "power set." For instance, put your baby-care products next to your women's-wellness products, and your mood-support products next to your sleep aids.

3. Think outside the supplements aisle. Phibbs and DePetris note that good merchandising brings a product to consumers "where they are," prompts them to put more items in their carts than they originally intended and lures them to sections they don't typically visit. The key is to think outside the box—or in this case the supplements section—when integrating products.

A few ideas:

Add non-supplement items, such as facial tissue, lip balm and throat lozenges, to the immunity section in your supplements aisles.

Use clip strips to add like-minded supplements, such as prenatal vitamins or children's vitamin-D drops, to your diaper and baby-food aisles.

Create seasonal or theme-based storefront displays (allergy relief, cold and flu prevention, sleep promotion) to lure consumers to your supplements aisles.

4. Freshen up your look. If the time has come for a complete overhaul of your supplements section, experts say earthy and creative is in, and bland is out. "You want to have it look clean and fresh without looking sterile," says Jacobowitz.

Shelving. Consider replacing clunky metal grocery shelves (originally intended to showcase large boxes of laundry detergent or cereal) with shallower (18-inch), low-profile (4- to 5-feet-high) wood-grain or dark-colored shelves. DePetris says the richer colors provide a better contrast against the typically light supplements bottles, and the shallower shelves keep the products from looking lost or out of stock. Meanwhile, the shorter shelving units allow consumers to more easily see what else is available in the department, and help the staff keep a better eye on shoppers.

Lighting. Make sure your lighting showcases packaging, makes labels clearly visible (a growing concern as consumers age) and doesn't cast shadows on products, says Jacobowitz. Phibbs recommends installing energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights in areas where more general lighting is required, but using directional floodlights to highlight displays. Feather-dust lights and check the bulbs once a month, and thoroughly clean light fixtures once a quarter. And don't forget about natural light, adds DePetris: Place a display of seasonal products by the window, where passing shoppers can see them—but take care not to put perishables (such as fish or flaxseed oils) near heat, which can degrade them.

Signage. Use colorful shelf tags to call out new items and price cuts; blade signs to further define categories; and large, elegant signs on endcaps to showcase a new or updated product or to provide consumer education (a list of sleep-enhancing supplements or an explanation of what coenzyme Q10 does, for instance).

Endcaps. Use endcaps to showcase single ingredients (different varieties and delivery systems of fish oil, for example), a particular consumer set (a new-mom series featuring prenatal vitamins, nipple balm, wellness tea and baby bath) or a seasonal promotion (a cold and flu display featuring supplements, lozenges and tissues).

Props. From large, colorful photographs of athletes in your sports-nutritionsection to soothing scented candles in your sleep-aid section to bright red balloons luring consumers to a supplements sale, props can break up a wall of bland bottles and make an entire section look more fresh. The big mass merchandisers use them all the time. Why shouldn't you?

5. Make the most of every minute. Be sure your customers get the information they need within moments of walking into your section, recommends Phibbs. "The challenge with health food stores is that they expect everyone to be a brainiac and to have done all of the research already and know what they need," he says.

Whether it's through high-tech information kiosks, like those offered by Aisle7 (Healthnotes) that allow consumers to read about dietary supplement uses, or an attentive and informed staff person, be sure no customer leaves your supplements section with an unanswered question, Phibbs says. "The minute a consumer is made to feel like an idiot, they're out of there."


Where to get your supplies

With many stores closing their doors, deals abound for retailers looking to freshen up their supplements aisles without breaking the bank, according to Bob Phibbs, Coxsackie, N.Y.-based author of The Retail Doctor's Guide to Growing Your Business (Wiley and Sons, 2010). Look for supplies at auctions or estate sales, or if you hear a store is closing, inquire about purchasing equipment. If buying new, check out the following companies. Each carries stock items or is willing to work with independents, according to the Hollywood, Fla.-based Association for Retail Environments.


Hera Lighting:


Nora Lighting:

Specialty Lighting:



Advanced Equipment Sales:

Green Store:

Magnolia River Manufacturing Corp.:


Merchandising materials

DCI Marketing:

Frank Mayer and Associates:




Association for Retail Environments:

National Association for Retail Marketing  

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