Natural Foods Merchandiser

Expert advice waters Native Roots

The story of how Sara Kaplan and Matt Runkle entered the natural foods business is as unconventional as the foods they sell in their store.

The Oklahoma natives met in grad school at the University of Oklahoma in Norman; she was studying environmental geology and he, environmental sociology. The two bonded over their mutual love of natural foods and flavors.

Then, through a local farmers' co-op, they entered the delicious world of fresh produce. They thought: Why couldn't people eat like this all the time? The gears started turning, and they realized there simply wasn't a venue for people in Norman to get local foods year-round. An idea was born—they'd open an old-fashioned grocery store, but one that sold local foods and favored small farmers while providing a friendly, intimate shopping experience.

They toyed with and studied different retail models for two-and-a-half years. Runkle and Kaplan researched everything from Mexican open-air markets to Turkish bazaars, looking for what they liked as consumers and tossing what they thought didn't work. Finally, in August 2007, their dreams of grocery heaven became 3,700 square feet of grocery-store reality when the couple partnered with Kaplan's parents to open Native Roots Market on the corner of West Main Street and South Santa Fe Avenue in Norman.

The store's mission and environs are rooted in tradition, but with a modern twist. While the original structure was built in 1922, the landlord recently helped renovate the building's bottom floor to resemble the original layout. Kaplan and Runkle's goal is to sell 30 percent to 35 percent local goods, building strong community connections and helping the local economy on the way.

Now, less than two years after the store's doors first opened, Native Roots Market is the winner of Delicious Living magazine's 2008 store makeover contest. The winners got to discuss their business with three experts in the natural foods industry and then received $1,000 to help implement their advice.

“We are technically not grocers,” Runkle says. “We have no retail background in owning a grocery store at all. There really is no peer influence for creativity, advice or competition. [The consultants] were really the first serious conversation about the industry we ever had.”

With that in mind, Runkle and Kaplan turned to the experts—consultant Debby Swoboda of; Jay Jacobowitz of Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vt.; and Zedrick Clarke, owner of Nature's Food Market in Berlin, Ohio, and chairman of the board for the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association—for advice on the nitty-gritty details of running a successful natural foods grocery.

The retail reality
Natural foods stores tend to thrive in places like Los Angeles or New York, not Norman, Okla. The college town's 106,000 residents inhabit about 177 square miles—more space than Denver or San Jose, Calif. Because Runkle and Kaplan operate in what Jacobowitz calls a “low-population-density trade area”—meaning lower rent than an urban area but fewer customers—and own one of two natural food stores in town, they face practically no competition. Jacobowitz calls this a “tremendous advantage” and a great opportunity to create support for their goal of tapping into a vibrant local-produce supply. “The concept works because they put it in the right place,” Jacobowitz says. “They have already put a local baker and a local rancher into business because of their store. They're getting local sliced cheeses. People are adapting their business ideas because of the opportunity [Kaplan and Runkle] are providing.”

Getting the message out
Still, Native Roots has faced problems marketing itself to its customers. “One of our big problems is getting our story out effectively,” Runkle says. The young store's location is ripe with potential, and the owners are looking for ways to turn that potential into more customers.

Swoboda suggested creative ways for Native Roots to improve its in-store marketing and gave ideas on how to share the store's green business practices with consumers.

“They have so many wonderful messages,” Swoboda says. “They do some great things, but they weren't sure how to share that story in-store with the customer. So I'm actually going to create some templates for them and give them suggestions for where they can put these messages.”

Some of Swoboda's ideas include improved shelf talkers, new strategic locations to distribute fliers, tips for sharpening the store's website and, of course, community engagement.

“We talked about going and doing interviews with local people,” Swoboda says. She suggests they could then put the videos on the store's website or even play them on the in-store DVD players currently displaying product promotions.

Runkle keeps track of how many pounds of trash the store keeps out of the landfill each year and uses the figure to encourage employees to keep recycling. Swoboda wants to take that figure and display it to customers. Because the employees use only lemon juice and vinegar to clean the floors, Swoboda recommends that the store find a way to share its chemical-free, old-fashioned recipe with customers. And she encouraged employees to continue their practice of using discarded material for in-store signage.

Increasing identity and basket share
Clarke also looked for ways to increase the store's sales-per-customer ratio and saw potential marketing opportunities in the bulk-foods section.

“I think it is very wise right now for any store to really be looking at their bulk-food options,” Clarke says. “With the right packaging, you can really brand your store.” Clarke suggested using plastic bags with the store's logo on them for the bulk bins, and he also advised that the store start carrying a wider variety of items, such as appliances, kitchenware or personal-fitness items.

“There's a fine balance between the amount of energy you use to make the operations of your store strong and also the amount of effort and dollars you spend bringing in new customers,” Clarke says, stressing the need to increase the amount of money each customer spends. “They have a very good local selection of products, and they have a very good selection of food and produce, and one of the things is to look at higher-margin items.”

A cellar takes root
Native Roots does not have the space to store large amounts of perishable products in the store, Runkle says, but it does have a large, unfinished basement—a rent-free gift from the landlord. While looking for ways to increase storage capacity, Runkle came upon the idea for a root cellar.

“We don't have a walk-in fridge,” he says. “And so we thought about making a kind of old-school alternative.”

A root cellar is a cheap and effective way to store their produce, Jacobowitz says, plus it has other advantages.

“I'm encouraging them from a strategic standpoint to do the root cellar because it aligns with their vision and mission and it's both old and new,” Jacobowitz says. “It also supports the local aspect of sourcing products for the store. I think it's a great way strategically for them to increase the awareness of and goodwill around the brand ‘Native Roots.' ... The marketing and promotional opportunities around the root cellar are endless.”

Kaplan and Runkle plan to draw from modern and traditional sources of advice if they do decide to build the root cellar, tapping into both a green building expert's technical advice and an 85-year-old farmer's experience before going ahead with the construction.

The next generation
The first wave of the natural foods movement is beginning to retire, and the next generation is stepping up with new ideas to take their place. Runkle and Kaplan took an unconventional route to the business, but their approach has worked. Overall, their positive outlook and seemingly bottomless energy left an impression on the experts. “It is important for us to be connected with this next generation of retailers, to help them and support them, because when we're gone, these are the guys who will carry the torch to the next generation,” Swoboda says.

David Accomazzo is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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