Natural Foods Merchandiser

A Flavor Focus Sells Store To Foodies

Natural and organic foods consumers have always wanted food that's nutritious, easy to prepare, good for the environment and the communities that made it and perhaps even produced close by and in small batches. But recent trends in retailing have increased traffic in many stores, and these days more and more shoppers are picking products with another criteria at the forefront: flavor. Customers enjoy food primarily for its taste, and although they can appreciate various added-value attributes, the final decision is most often made with their palates.

With these customers in mind, it may be time to revisit some in-store strategies and determine if they can be adjusted to capitalize on this sales potential. By looking at product selection and aesthetic and finding more ways to put food in folks' mouths, retailers can make their stores more appetizing to those who choose food mostly for the taste sensation. Retailers can take advantage of opportunities to market gourmet organic, nonperishable items, which carry high margins, and to highlight the departments with organic and natural product mixes similar to their gourmet counterparts.

Neil Stern is a partner with MacMillon/Doolittle, a retail strategy and consulting firm in Chicago that works primarily with mass and specialty foods clients. In the last decade he has watched two distinct segments of the food world—natural/organic and specialty/gourmet—move together. "A lot of times, if you go to a store," Stern says, "you may not be able to tell whether [it] was once a gourmet store and now has natural products or if it was the other way around."

The blending of attributes and characteristics is obvious among consumers as well, Stern says. The breadth of their buying decisions has widened, and although some come for gluten-free products or as a pledge to their environmental ideals, others come purely because they want products that taste great. "The [natural and organic] retailer has to acknowledge that all these people are shopping in their store."

Taste-first consumers are already interested in much of the natural foods product line, but the packaging aesthetic may be lower key than a similar gourmet product they're familiar with, so merchandising is important. Revisiting strategies behind product selection is another way to cater to these folks, Stern says. "A lot of small- to medium-sized natural [products] retailers have rigid standards in terms of what can be included in the product mix and what can't. I think the bigger issue is not so much what you include and don't, but how you provide the information on those products."

Stern sees the flavor shopper as being most concerned with clear product labeling. They might not think products with refined sugar are horrible. What's distasteful to them, and problematic for a naturals retailer, is if it's tough for consumers to understand ingredients. As long as the label's easy to evaluate, providing a few extra product options might turn some of these special products customers into full-basket clients.

The aesthetic of a product mix is important to shoppers at Draeger's, a specialty foods retailer in San Mateo, Calif. People who buy for flavor expect excellent presentation, says Ken Manley, specialty foods buyer for the three-store chain. "If a customer can't get past [how it looks], then it doesn't matter how good the product is."

But attractive labeling or not, Manley says that in-aisle tastings are still the best method for marketing high-end products. Manley works with vendors and schedules at least a dozen demos per week, because, he says, "Customers will only spend so much on an item they don't get to taste."

Demos are critical when it comes to taste-first consumers, and creative presentation is an important part of any taste promotion. Some companies, such as Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Suray Promotions, have realized the potential of in-store demonstrations and taken the marketing approach to new levels.

"What we didn't like about many of the demos that we used to see was that they were very one dimensional," says Steven Nanula, senior vice president and partner of the boutique marketing firm. "Somebody comes up and tastes a product, but there's never education involved, other than word of mouth from the demonstrator."

In response, Suray created targeted and in-depth demos on behalf of its retail clients. Staff members are given handouts and information on the added value of products, be it organic, nutrition or other. The presentation is run professionally and product is available during peak traffic hours. Demonstrators wear aprons, hats or chefs' coats to distinguish themselves. Suray also puts metro shelving behind the demo tables so the setup functions as a merchandised display of nonperishable products. "It creates what we call an endcap approach," Nanula says.

Suray is a specialized marketing company, but the strategy is basic. It uses the smell and taste of cooking food to lure consumers, and then it uses that opportunity to educate them about the inherent quality of whatever it's promoting.

The demos include center-store products, an added dimension that is important to clients such as Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets. One thing Wild Oats retailers had found was that customers tended to shop the periphery of their stores for perishable items, such as meat, produce and seafood. One of Wild Oats' goals in working with Suray was to introduce taste-sensitive customers to its high-quality nonperishable products. "We want to introduce people to the products in our store by actually giving them that taste sensation," says Sonja Tuitele, public relations manager for Wild Oats.

Active demos create a food presence in the store. To take demos up another notch, consider offering cooking classes, which are great for marketing the store to flavor folk. Many naturals retailers do cooking demonstrations and offer cooking classes, but revisiting presentation with respect to taste-oriented consumers may make the classes more valuable to your store.

Draeger's clientele is rich with amateur cooks so the store manager offers up to six cooking classes per week. But, according to Manley, the classes aren't just for education, they're also for entertainment and marketing. Stores look for cookbook authors and television celebrities who shoppers may know—definite pluses for promoting the events. Store traffic always picks up by much more than the class total, because, he says, "Big name chefs bring foodies in the store."

To get in on this culinary attraction, natural and organic foods retailers must acknowledge that for some of their customers—flavor rules.

And flavor doesn't have to come at the expense of nutrition or other values. "The biggest change is more of a philosophical one," consultant Stern says, but adds that an adjustment in philosophy is nothing to take lightly. He uses ice cream as an example. Retailers need to determine if they're committed to providing only natural alternatives, eschewing national brands and being committed to products with the least amount of sugar, or are they willing to allow indulgences in their product mix.

Stern emphasizes another opportunity, aside from cashing in on gourmet purchasing dollars. If your store is attracting taste-based shoppers, by teaching them the added value of organic, you may build a new cadre of truly loyal shoppers.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 30, 34

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