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NONFOODS: That old familiar feeling

When shoppers familiar with mainstream supermarkets hit the main aisle of the Nutrition & Body Care department of Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare's stores, they might be surprised to feel right at home among the hair coloring, deodorant, shaving cream, and feminine hygiene products, all at eye-level, and with a generous amount of space allotted to each category.

Products like these are prominent at Earth Fare for a reason: They immediately send the message that when it comes to personal care, the natural and organic retail space isn't so foreign after all, and "conventional" consumers ought to feel comfortable venturing further into the department.

That's exactly the reaction Troy DeGroff, Earth Fare's director of sales and marketing, is looking for, and why he developed the merchandising strategy for this department.

"We have merchandised key categories that we felt were needed to attract mainstream customers -- even before sales justified it," he says. "We have given those categories more shelf space. We're one of the first natural foods companies to do a full four-foot section of feminine hygiene. While that's not the 16 feet you would find at a regular store, there are basically only one or two natural brands. We block it out in multiple facings, and now some of the feminine hygiene products are among our top 10 best-selling personal care items every month. So we've really built sales in that department by drawing awareness to it, by putting them at eye level, instead of ankle height like most natural foods retailers do."

The same goes for natural hair color products, for which DeGroff, who managed Earth Fare's personal care business before being promoted to his current role, dedicated a four-foot section. "We put that very consciously in a four-foot section next to all of the natural shampoos, and we usually try to put that down at the end of a main aisle," says DeGroff. "When you see all of those faces of women with different hair colors, you immediately know that this is the aisle you're supposed to go to for hair care products. And the category continues to grow. The mainstream consumers are starting to switch over."

Even the physical space itself has been remodeled to add to the comfort level and make the department friendlier and easier to shop for the mass consumer. Gondolas have been lowered so that everything is at eye level or below, and so that staff can more easily spot shoppers who may need some assistance.

More than a 'pill in a bottle'

Increasing the mainstream shoppers' comfort level is important, particularly with personal care products, because for the uneducated it can be a difficult section to shop. "There are some cities, such as Charlotte, where we recently opened a new store, where people are used to natural food shopping in a big way," says DeGroff. "Charlotte is a large metropolitan area, where people come from all over the country. They visit and are ready to shop all areas of our store. In other locations it's been more challenging. These are the places where a person's idea of healthy food is a pill in a bottle. That's why mainstream supermarkets that are getting into natural and organic grocery are still avoiding natural HBC products."

Supplements are a good example. According to DeGroff, to get a supplement that has enough nutrients in it to provide therapeutic value, such as a food-grown nutrient, or a formula that really has a substantial amount of nutrients in it, a consumer would have to buy something for which the daily dosage can be anywhere from three to nine tablets. While this may be too much to swallow -- pun intended -- for mainstream supermarket customers, with the right information from trained staff, they can come to understand, accept, and often buy.

The same goes for skin care products. "A product that's clean and actually going to nurture your skin is going to cost a lot more, and it's going to take somebody in the aisle to sell it," says DeGroff. "The pharmacist near the HBC section isn't going to be able to sell Annemarie Borlind or Zia skin care products. Maybe they can sell a chocolate exfoliating mask from Ecco Bella, but they aren't going to be able to explain why someone should pay $50 for a high-end organic German facial care product."

To make sure its employees can do this, Earth Fare requires that all Nutrition & Body Care staff -- ranging in number from two to 12 per store -- attend at least one vendor-sponsored training seminar each week. "We also offer them the option of local health school dietary classes through a reimbursable education program," says DeGroff. "They have the option of sourcing things themselves -- we don't have a standardized program. But there are key vendors that we have come in and educate the staff. This way they know the products inside out, and when new products are launched, they know how to sell them, how to explain their benefits to customers."

Earth Fare also provides HealthNotes kiosks and reference books for those customers wishing to do their own research.

What they sell

Not that every product in Earth Fare's Nutrition & Body Care department is expensive. Some are comparable to mainstream products in price: The company's March flyer, for example, advertised Kiss My Face Moisture Soap at $2.99 a bottle -- $1 off the regular price.

Representing approximately 18 percent of overall sales, the Nutrition & Body Care department includes all-natural personal care products, nutritional and herbal supplements, bulk herbs and spices, books, and sundries -- which can be anything from a yoga mat to a neck pillow to incense to candles, with a few housewares thrown in for good measure (basically complementary items, like candle holders).

The all-natural personal care category includes soaps, lotions, hair care products, aromatherapy, essential oils -- of which Earth Fare carries an extensive selection -- massage oils, feminine hygiene products, deodorants, toothpastes, and cosmetics. "A lot of people don't think of natural food stores as a source of cosmetics, but we have a 12-foot cosmetic counter in our stores," points out DeGroff. "There are no artificial colors in any of them."

The color red, for example, can be made by using iron oxide or from an extract from a particular bug called a cochineal. While it may seem strange to those unfamiliar with the insect, it was used to create a deep-maroon pigment for years before the advent of artificial colors.

And artificial colors are something Earth Fare won't touch. The retailer has an approved ingredient list, and category managers evaluating a potential new product must review and approve its ingredients before putting it on the shelf. Artificial ingredients are nowhere to be found.

There has been much debate as to what exactly makes an organic personal care product (See Progressive Grocer, Oct. 1, 2003). In reality, no clear-cut criteria exist -- at least none that are official. (By contrast, the USDA certifies organic food.) Because of this lack of universal standards, the term "organic" has been abused by some CPG companies that use the word as a marketing term. "Some claim to have organic ingredients, but you don't get to them until the bottom of the ingredient list," notes DeGroff. "I think consumers are smarter than that now. They're doing their research, and once they come in and study these products further, it raises the bar on what they'll accept as natural."

And the natural personal care manufacturers are responding by following increasingly stricter standards themselves. "The European Union has come up with a standard in what makes an organic personal care product; U.S. manufacturers are looking to this as a guide," says DeGroff. "Avalon is one of the first to clean up its products according to European standards, as is Jason Cosmetics. I'm sure more will follow."

The candles in the Nutrition & Body Care department are for the most part soy-based natural candle waxes -- vegetable waxes that burn cleanly and don't emit particles into the environment. Although the section carries some candles that contain a certain amount of paraffin in them, those products are quickly being phased out.

Candles are merchandised in the department because of the therapeutic value of the essential oils they contain, and the accompanying impact on price points. "When they're scented, they're scented with essential oils, so they tend to be higher-priced, more like a gift-shop candle," observes DeGroff. "So, rather than shove them down a grocery aisle where somebody can't talk about them with a customer, we like to keep them near the aromatherapy and essential oils so that the nutrition and body care staff can talk about them and explain to people why they're a higher-ticket item."

The book selection includes natural food retailer standards such as Prescription for Nutritional Healing, as well as books on how to treat particular ailments naturally through diet or herbs and supplements. Of course, cookbooks are a mainstay. "Lately we've been picking up some really fun, specific cookbooks to match some of our monthly merchandising themes," says DeGroff. "Books on preparing meals using chocolate in the recipes, or educating people in using different kinds of citrus, or using tea in cooking -- some fun cookbooks that are really specialized."

The monthly merchandising themes began this year as a means of creating product solutions around specific themes, in addition to educating shoppers about items available in other areas of the store. In January the theme was wine and chocolate for Valentine's Day shoppers. End caps throughout the store were decorated with roses, and featured products from various departments tied into the theme.

End caps in the Nutrition & Body Care department featured Shoyeido's Love Incense, which is packaged in a red box; chocolate from grocery; Ecco Bella's new chocolate facial care line; chocolate-related cookbooks; and the nutrition manager's choice of heart vitamin.

DeGroff plans to expand on this cross-merchandising strategy by opening up more space in the front of the store, where a variety of products can be tied together. "This kind of merchandising helps to bring the nonfoods products into the other areas of the store, and in front of the customers," he says. "It's all about educating consumers and raising their awareness."

To that end, Earth Fare plans to increase its focus on the education of its staff, including more formalized training and working more closely with nutritionists -- possibly even placing one on retainer -- as well as expanding its private label line into personal care items. "We already have private label supplements," notes DeGroff. "They're USP pharmaceutical-grade vitamins produced by Vitamer. We're exploring the idea of selling food-grown PL vitamin, as well. They're lower potencies than you'll see in a traditional vitamin, but more easily absorbed into the body. To create them, you feed the vitamins to a living, fermenting yeast, where it becomes a part of the yeast's cell structure and it becomes food again, and I think that's going to gain in popularity."

Personal care items, however, will take some more investigating. "We'd like to do a private label personal care line, but we don't want it to be cheap like some that are out there," he says. "I would want it to be the highest-quality ingredients, the most efficacious products in it, the purest essential oils -- at an affordable price. It has to be that way for it to have the Earth Fare name on it."
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