Ten years ago, when feeling the pinch from national competition, Outpost Natural Foods Co-op turned to its customers to figure out what made its three stores unique.
“People consistently said they loved Outpost because it was fun to shop in our stores,” says Lisa Malmarowski, Outpost’s director of brand and store development.
So the co-op dramatically revamped its promotion strategies to increase the fun factor. It worked; now Outpost is holding its own against larger in-town operators—and the stores are more enjoyable than ever, according to customers.
Putting people first
To spice up its product demonstrations, each Outpost store hired a part-time “food ambassador” to coordinate samples and cooking demos. Cooking and sampling skills are required for the job, but so are sparkling personalities.
“We’ve discovered that we can train people about natural foods, but it’s not as easy to ‘train’ personality,” says Malmarowski. “We look for outgoing people who are comfortable speaking to groups of people and have some cooking skills—not necessarily as a trained chef, but they do need to be a comfortable ‘home’ cook, like your best friend or neighbor showing you how to make their favorite dish.”
Outpost’s promotions team focuses its demos not on product sales and manufacturer incentives, but on items that further Outpost’s “fresh food” philosophy. Team members will start by thinking about which foods they want to feature (for example, the “October Harvest sampler” will be displaying squash, apples and local meat) and then analyze ways to incorporate fair-trade products to keep with the “fresh food” theme. Malmarowski says they’ll only add in manufacturer requests if the product fits perfectly.
“I think it works for us because it allows us to completely control the messages and education we want to share with our owners and shoppers,” she says. “We budget carefully and don’t count on dollars from vendors to make the program work. You’d be surprised how many samples you can get from a wedge of cheese when you cut it carefully.”
Improving employee enthusiasm
Outpost’s food ambassadors aren’t the only ones to exude positive, engaging attitudes. Every store employee—down to the part-time dishwasher—is expected to help promote the store’s fun and positive atmosphere. To up the staff’s attitude, Outpost takes employee training and enrichment to a new level.
Take “Tour de Outpost,” the co-op’s ongoing training program. Employees who complete a certain number of in-store classes, like a course on beer tasting, an intro to naturopathy or a class on food allergies called “Garden of Don’t be Eatin,’” win prizes like company T-shirts. Outpost’s other employee program offers “WellBuck Points” for healthy, holistic behaviors like volunteering or exercising. These points can be saved up to earn prizes like gift certificates to local businesses.
The education program uses cross-training so that staff is knowledgeable and excited about parts of the store beyond their individual departments. “People don’t just eat from the frozen-foods department; they eat from the whole store,” says Malmarowski. “It’s important that we all work together toward a singular experience. It’s not about my department or your department; it’s all one department.”
This philosophy extends into promotions, making them cooperative, store-wide affairs. When one Outpost store decided to run a quarterly “Meet the Locals” promotion, each department got involved by showcasing local vendors specific to those parts of the store.
Implementing exciting endcaps
When the economy headed south recently, Outpost shifted its endcap ideas from instructional themes, such as an overview of fair trade, to colorful displays that convey very strong value messages in the company’s signature playful style. Banners announce “We make frugal fun” above photos and bios of recognizable columnists who write for Outpost’s magazine, Outpost Exchange. This allows shoppers to get to know the personalities in and out of the store.
The co-op has also shifted its center-store promotions. Now, alongside displays of low-price products, store shelves showcase vibrant, innovative features of sale items or low-cost cooking ideas. Recent product displays include “Divine Wine,” which highlighted wines for under $10; and “Get Fresh,” a banner showcasing a constantly changing roster of fresh items.
All of it, says Malmarowski, has to be entertaining. “If you’re having fun, if your staff is having fun, it shows,” she says. “People want to be part of a party!”
Joel Warner, a Denver-based writer, is always on the lookout for killer food samples in the grocery aisles.