NONFOODS: In search of natural growth

Pure essential oils, natural herbs, homeopathic remedies, and aromatherapy candles are no longer solely the domain of diehard practitioners of holistic health, thanks to a new in-store concept developed by Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats.

Launched in May at the natural grocer's flagship store in Superior, Colo. and now installed in four units, the Holistic Health Center is designed to encourage mainstream shoppers to try natural personal care products -- without getting lost due to a lack of knowledge about what may seem a foreign and even intimidating category of products.

For Wild Oats' core customers -- who comprise about 50 percent of the retailer's base -- shopping the old personal care section "was no big deal," says Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications. "They knew which products they wanted and had no problems finding them. For mainstream supermarket shoppers, however, who are perhaps not as knowledgeable about the category, the huge array of products could be overwhelming."

This latter group of consumers is essential to Wild Oats' growth strategy, so the challenge was to help mainstream shoppers overcome their shyness about the unfamiliar.

The Holistic Health Center is the latest incarnation of an effort that began when new management assumed control of Wild Oats in 2001. Extensive customer research revealed that some customers were intimidated by the way the chain had been merchandising its natural HBC products -- in a center aisle. While these shoppers were interested in the products, they felt uncomfortable browsing the aisle to investigate the unique benefits of each item. "If these people are looking for a product to meet a specific health need, they don't like grocery carts squeezing behind them," explains Tuitele. "They want to linger; they want access to information. It just wasn't that private and intimate a setting."

Wild Oats' initial response was to develop the Natural Living section, which used lower shelving and a design that would encourage browsing. From that foundation the Holistic Health Center added attentive service and customer-driven education.

The section offers multilayered messaging to address shoppers' varying levels of experience with natural products. Those who are very knowledgeable about the choices before them need only glance at the shelf labels to find what they need. For shoppers who need more in-depth information, Wild Oats provides an abundance of pamphlets sorted by product type or need.

"For an even deeper and more comprehensive level of information, they can speak to our folks in the store," notes Tuitele. "We gave the Holistic Health Center employees a variety of training, both vendor-supported as well as through our training department. This includes very extensive product knowledge training, to help them learn details on the various items we carry, because they are quite different than what you would find in a conventional grocery store."

Added to this is what Tuitele refers to as "natural selling" training, which taught the HBC employees not only to be customer-service-oriented, but also sales-focused. "They were trained in a similar fashion to [the way] sales associates at a makeup counter in a department store are trained," she says. "They learn to recommend complementary products, such as recommending a specific toner to go along with a moisturizer."

Accent on education

Finding such personal help should be easy, since two employees are assigned to staff the centers during store hours. Each center also employs a full-time nutritionist, who is available to provide health consultations and screenings.

The nutritionists give scheduled lectures on timely health topics, and the health centers host other in-store educational events as well, featuring guest speakers such as health experts and supplier representatives.

For shoppers who want to self-educate, the departments are equipped with kiosks from Portland, Ore.-based Healthnotes that allow shoppers to search for and print out recipes and product information. Two flat-screen TVs in each department play health and wellness videos that are also sold in the section. "This allows us to provide shoppers with information in a way that's not intrusive," says Tuitele. "You can have the video playing, which customers can watch if they're interested, or else they can review videos at their own pace."

All this emphasis on service and consumer education might sound like a bit much, but the approach is justified given the sheer number and variety of products available. The center merchandises more than 8,500 SKUs covering all aspects of health and personal care. Most fit specific needs and come from small vendors that are probably unfamiliar to mainstream consumers.

"We do all natural body care, all natural makeup, personal care products, luxurious bath products -- such as bath salts and balms -- and aromatherapy candles," says Tuitele. "Then we have a whole library of books: cookbooks, health books, diet books, and also yoga tapes and CDs, which usually include world music or relaxation music. Then we have exercise and yoga videos, as well as yoga mats and accessories. Many of the personal care products are from small vendors like Zia, Avalon, and Dr. Hauschka -- which is one of the higher-end brands we carry."

Wild Oats sets rigorous standards for the personal care products that make their way into the Holistic Health Center. All vendors receive a book that lists all of the ingredients that the company doesn't allow in the products it sells. Neither animal testing nor artificial ingredients are allowed -- the focus is strictly on natural health.

The focus is also on quality and value, according to Tuitele. The section carries many natural products that are of equal or better quality to items found in department stores -- and often at half the price, notes Tuitele, who is herself a natural product convert. "I have dry skin, and living in the Colorado climate is not good for that," she explains. "I used to buy an Estee Lauder product for my face that cost around $75. I get the same result from Zia Ultimate Moisture, but it costs only $35 for the same-size lotion."

Worth a try

But while Estee Lauder is a well-known brand, getting mainstream customers to try lesser-known brands might require sampling. The department offers testers for skin care products such as lotions, oils, and cosmetics.

In addition, Wild Oats encourages suppliers of products that can't be sampled in the store -- such as toothpastes and soap -- to provide trial sizes shoppers can take home. During busy times, manufacturer reps might be on hand to solicit trials of their products and offer coupons.

"Trying organic food is not as big a step for [mainstream consumers]," says Tuitele. "It's something they are more accustomed to. But getting them to try natural personal care products requires extra education. That's why the Holistic Health Center is set up more like a department store. It encourages shoppers to sample product, which is a step closer to getting them to purchase the product."

Another tack the company has taken to spread the word about its natural HBC offerings is to reach out to doctors.

"The frustrating thing is that physicians and people in the medical community are not trained about the difference about the quality of natural personal care products," observes Tuitele. "They're quick to recommend going to a drug store and buying some product in bulk, just because that's what they are used to. Our head of product standards is helping us in this area -- she has a Ph.D. in food science and human nutrition, and has written articles for the ADA -- and we have marketing coordinators in our stores who are reaching out to the medical communities."

The bottom line of all this education and effort is that the centers contribute to healthier sales. "From a business side, if every Wild Oats food shopper puts a Holistic Health Center product into their basket, we grow total basket size anywhere from $5 to $10 on average, and margins are much higher, too. That's why we are making such a large commitment to this area."

Although Tuitele won't release exact figures, she says that in the four stores that have the department, category sales per square foot have jumped anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent.

With that kind of growth, it's only natural that the Holistic Health Center will be a permanent part of every new Wild Oats store.
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