If you’ve ever met Naomi Whittel, founder and CEO of Reserveage Organics, you know this poised and articulate woman understands business and how to light a fire of growth underneath a supplement brand. After all, in the space of four years Whittel has launched five brands: Reserveage Organics, CocoaWell, ResVitale, ReBody and FemBody. What you might not know, however, is that Whittel was once an independent natural products retailer herself and that this experience has been vital to her ability to expand what is quickly becoming a dietary supplements empire.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Who was your first retail customer?
Naomi Whittel: My first customer was Vitamin Shoppe. I was excited to get onto their shelves first because that established us very quickly. I went to one of the chain’s education conferences with a couple of friends and started a dialogue with some of the buyers there.
NFM: What was it that convinced them to bring Reserveage Organics onto their shelves?
NW: I think what convinced them was timing more than anything. I was the first company to come out with a resveratrol antioxidant-focused brand. All of the other resveratrol products that were on the shelf were additional SKUs within a family of products. What I brought to them was a polyphenol resveratrol blend that was authentic and grounded in science. The grapes came from organic and biodynamic farms and the formulas were developed by some of the leading scientists in this field. It also helped that 60 Minutes had just come out with its big segment on the benefits of resveratrol, so my timing, by some stroke of luck, was immaculate.
NFM: What did your retail journey look like after getting in Vitamin Shoppe?
NW: I went into Vitamin Shoppe and then in March 2009 launched at Natural Products Expo West. There were a couple of things I did at Expo West that I think really helped me to get the retailers’ attention. One was that I produced a very inexpensive video of how we make our resveratrol. I went back to the South of France during the harvest season with a videographer, and for less than $10,000, we created this beautiful view into how our products were made. We showed that video at our booth and everyone went nuts over it.
NFM: Who was your first Expo customer?
NW: My first customer at that Expo was Al Forman from Tunie’s. Al came up to me and said, “Yours is the only new product I am picking up from this show.” This meant the world to me because I absolutely adore his store—well, his old store now, because he sold it. After Tunie’s, we started to get into more independent retail accounts, and for me that is really where I want to be. At this point, we are in about 10,000 stores and about 3,000 of those are independents.
NFM: Why is it important for your products to be in independent retail stores?
NW: For one, I used to own an independent health food store called Horn Nutrition in Boca Raton, Fla. So I know how independent stores are uniquely positioned to help brands like mine grow. I have learned that a majority—about 60 percent or 70 percent—of customers who come into a store go to a person who is working on the floor to get their questions answered. This is good for us because we have a story that needs to be explained by a knowledgeable sales associate—the product on the shelf can only tell so much through its packaging. Being able to establish relationships with independent retailers has given us a strong foundation because they are able to tell our story.
NFM: How do you develop relationships with retailers and educate them about your company’s story?
NW: We have an excellent team of direct sales reps who have all been in the industry for 15 or 20 years. We also have an excellent brokerage team and a wonderful educator, who travels around the country. We offer seminars as well as online education. We do everything we can at every point to educate our retailers.
NFM: Where do you focus your retailer education effort?
NW: We focus on educating retailers on the mission of our brand, which is to create life-changing products that are based on groundbreaking science. If we can help the store owner understand that our product will help her customer in a way the customer will notice and that the customer will then fall in love with the product, we find that to be very important. We also focus on sharing the science behind our ingredients and products.
NFM: Has anything surprised you about working with independent retailers?
NW: I am constantly amazed at the level of dedication and passion I experience when working with independent retailers. These retailers truly are the heart of the natural products industry.
NFM: With increased price competition from e-tailers and mass stores, how can smaller retailers remain relevant?
NW: What makes the independent special to the customer is its ability to be nimble. Independents can bring in a larger variety of products that are tailored to meet the needs of their unique customer base, and this is important for manufacturers because what my customer in Fort Lauderdale is looking for could be completely different from what my customer in Seattle is seeking. They are also well positioned to build a strong relationship with their customers. This relationship is so incredibly special. I know from being an independent retailer that once I had established a relationship with a customer, that customer would continue to come back for years and was always open to the new products and ingredients that I shared with her.
One piece of advice I might give to retailers is to not be shy to ask for special promotions, co-op advertising or other things that will help to build relationships with retail customers.
NFM: What were some of the unique challenges you faced in launching a dietary supplement company?
NW: Our first item was a full-spectrum polyphenol resveratrol complex, and we faced a lot of challenges sourcing our organic raw materials from the South of France and then transporting them to the United States. Another challenge was developing a solid understanding of the nuances of the legal and regulatory rules surrounding nutritional supplements. These are so critically important, which is why we’ve had general in-house council in our organization for the last two years.
NFM: You launched the organization Developing and Advancing Women in Naturals in 2011. How is that going, and what’s your focus for 2013?
NW: We are working hard on the DAWN network. In 2013, we are going to expand and continue to promote female achievement through the programs we developed in 2012. Another big focus is to educate the retailer on how to sell to women. Eighty-five cents of every single dollar is spent by a woman. If we understand the female customer better and how to communicate more effectively with her, our retailers will benefit greatly.
NFM: How do you plan to share this info?
NW: We are holding three seminars in 2013. In these seminars, we will feature PhDs who are experts on marketing to women and leaders in the space who understand women and what drives their purchasing decisions. The questions women have at the retail shelf are often completely different than the questions a man might have. These seminars will also focus on helping participants better understand themselves and their strengths and weaknesses so that they can better understand their female customers and how to connect with them in everything from print and radio ads to the way the retail shelf is laid out. We will provide a lot of tactical advice for retailers.
Year established: 2009
Number of SKUs: 140