Natur-Tyme helps central New York set its sights on health.

When asked to describe Natur-Tyme, WholeFoods Magazine’s 2011 Retailer of the Year, customers in a focus group associated the store with terms like “wellness,” “health,” “information” and “learning center.” No one ascribed to it the generic title of “health food store,” and that is likely because this Syracuse, NY natural products retailer is anything, and everything, but generic.

Owner Wendy Meyerson describes the typical reaction of first-time Natur-Tyme shoppers, which tends to involve something of a “Wow!” factor. “All the shelving is low profile, so when you walk in the door, you just sort of stand there, take a breath and go, ‘What is all this stuff?’” she says. Looking out over the 7,000 sq. ft. of retail space in their current location, customers know they’ve stumbled upon a unique and vibrant place. With operations about to pick up and move into a new, expanded, retail-friendly location a mile away in suburban Syracuse, the future is exciting for a store that has already spread its roots of wellness in every direction imaginable.

Owner Wendy Meyerson at the mic, educating Central New York on health through local radio.

Pharmaceutically Raised
Meyerson knew all along that retail was in her blood. “I always thought it would be clothing; that was my passion, not vitamins and supplements that I couldn’t pronounce,” she says. But circumstances and a family history in health and wellness have put her at the helm of Natur-Tyme, and her marketing savvy along with an ever-growing commitment to integrative medicine has taken the business to the next level.

The legacy starts with Meyerson’s pharmaceutically inclined father and grandfather. A traditionally trained pharmacist who owned and operated a drug store for over 30 years, Meyerson’s father, Stan, was put in the business by his father, right out of pharmacy school. A couple of decades into the process of running that pharmacy, also located in Syracuse, he gained an interest in natural supplements and proper diet, in part due to a family history of colon cancer and other health issues. He began to bring items like vitamins C and E into the pharmacy in the early 80s, a practice that Meyerson points out was uncommon at the time.

Stan Meyerson then purchased a preexisting, 700-sq. ft. health food store nearby called Natur-Tyme, which had been run by another family for many years. He managed this location while still running the pharmacy for a short time, before shutting it down and opening a small health shoppe adjacent to his existing pharmacy. In doing so, he continued to lay the footprint for educating central New York on nutritional supplements.

One day, a customer entered the pharmacy and asked Meyerson’s father for help in procuring dietary supplements. Individuals interested in natural supplements back then, Meyerson explains, were often calling companies themselves with requests, at a time when mail ordering and certainly the Internet were not options. Her father realized that he could provide such a service, and this eventually led to the creation of NEEDS, a mail order supplements business he ran out of the pharmacy. 

Licensed cosmetologist Ginnie O’Brien aids a customer with their selection.

Later, the pharmacy was sold, and the Natur-Tyme name was resurrected at a new location on the west side of town. NEEDS and Natur-Tyme, 2,000 sq. ft devoted to mail orders and 5,000 sq. ft. to natural products retailing, were under one roof. The younger Meyerson, meanwhile, was living her life and raising her children in Houston, TX. She would come to visit her father, but was very much on the outside looking in as he grew in the supplements business. She found herself wondering what it was all about. “Every once in a while, a box would show up with a vitamin in it. After all, I was pharmaceutically raised,” she says.

When circumstances changed and she found herself moving back to Syracuse about 13 years ago, she decided to get involved with the business, which she then came to purchase from her father in 2001. NEEDS required a different space, so the operation moved elsewhere. The lease then came due on the Natur-Tyme store, so Meyerson decided to relocate just east of downtown Syracuse, where the current store is located. They will have been there nine years this December.

While the new store was in the works, Meyerson’s father passed away in an accident, and the family largely looked to her to decide the direction of the business. Meyerson’s husband, Andrew Fox, left the manufacturing industry to take the reins of NEEDS, and the two businesses went on to cooperatively share inventory and other resources, and will again be under one roof when they move into their new 31,000-sq. ft. building at the end of 2011.

Wellness Educator Karen Fisk arranges Natur-Tyme’s organic clothing section.

“My father was a pioneer and was so ahead of his time. Nobody knew 30 years ago where the world was going to go. Nobody ever envisioned the Vitacosts of the world and Amazons of the world back then,” Meyerson says. Now, Natur-Tyme is going to be doubling its footprint, and she sees it all as the culmination of her work and her father’s legacy, saying, “The retail is my baby, and I’ve been nurturing it and growing it now for 13 years. He gave me an amazing foundation.”

Something for Everyone
The approach to natural products retailing at the previous location of Natur-Tyme, according to Meyerson, was a function of her father’s ideas. He used his lifetime of retail experience to set things up his own way. “When we moved into this new building, it was my opportunity to create my vision,” she says. But what an exceptional and influential entity that vision would lead to, she probably couldn’t have guessed at the outset.

The Natur-Tyme building was not built to be a retail space and had to be retrofitted to suit the requirements of the store, according to Meyerson, though it is a highly accessible building in a high traffic area. Starting from a place of inexperience in this industry, Meyerson and her husband wanted to create a place in central New York that people hadn’t seen the likes of before.

The resulting store does approximately 58-60% of its business in vitamin sales, and foods comprise upwards of 20%, though it does not sell produce. Meyerson attributes this decision to the competitive landscape around the store, with mass market retailers fulfilling most consumers’ produce needs. Products on the store floor are blocked out for major brands, and there are also separate women’s and men’s health sections. Twelve feet of shelf space are devoted to just fish oils, all of the green food products are placed together, and many like organizations of products can be found throughout the store.

Cosmetics. All that would usually suffice to describe many natural products stores. But, it is the slew of out-of-the-ordinary, arguably one-of-a-kind offerings at Natur-Tyme that help set it apart as a retail location. One of these special aspects of the store sprang from Meyerson’s early infatuation with cosmetics. As a self-described girly-girl, Meyerson recalls developing an early love for makeup in the retail setting, stemming from her experiences in her father’s pharmacy.

Two older women worked for him in cosmetics, selling the major brands and mesmerizing the young Meyerson as they helped other women with their makeup and perfume. “It just made such an impression on me, and I really wanted to bring that component to the health food store,” she says. People are starting to understand the impact of what is put on the skin more fully, Meyerson believes, even if this knowledge did not initially keep up with the growing recognition of the importance of natural foods and nutritional supplements.

A customer receives the in-store salon treatment from licensed cosmetologist Yu-Lee Izyk.

Natur-Tyme found a few mineral makeup vendors it could get behind, and Meyerson added a cosmetologist to the staff. There are now three cosmetologists on staff, and they counsel customers on natural options for hair coloring, skin care including acne and rosacea, and makeup application. This focus will continue and expand in the new store with an 800-sq. ft. natural salon, where staff will give facials in private treatment rooms, cut and color hair using the products available in the store and even give manicures and pedicures.

Meyerson and her staff considered a larger, full-fledged salon, but decided to keep things reasonable. The treatment rooms were a suggestion of one of her cosmetologists, and she believes they will be a success. It is something she doesn’t think has been done almost anywhere else, and something that fits the pioneering spirit her father set in motion over 25 years ago.

Clothing. Another early venture that blossomed into a mainstay of Natur-Tyme was organic clothing. It started with just a couple of clothing racks. The store started to educate customers on the concept of organic clothing, including issues like the pesticides and chemicals they can avoid, and the sustainable nature of their production. This offering enjoyed some modest success, but then, a year or two into things, a major supermarket retailer got in on the organic clothing act. Meyerson was dejected, thinking that her attempt at innovating would be for naught, yet something occurred that changed the direction of her fledgling organic clothes section.

The company from which she had been buying the clothes went under, and Meyerson began to buy out their dead inventory. The company needed money, and since she was taking clothes off their hands for 60–70% off, she was able to mark the items as such for Natur-Tyme customers. “And lo and behold, I’ve created probably one of the first organic clothes outlet sections,” she says.

The section has expanded as she’s begun to work with other companies and brokers. About 10 different vendors now supply the 150-sq. ft. area dedicated to organic clothing, which she says has transformed the front corner of her store. They’ve added a dressing room, put up wall racks, and now plan to quadruple the size of the area in the new location. She sees the concept building on itself, with the introduction of other lifestyle and household products to enhance and compliment the clothing.

A colorful endcap featuring condiments draws attention from across the store.

Product labeling. Natur-Tyme, like many stores, applies custom labels to certain product categories to help customers navigate toward their needs. According to Meyerson, this includes gluten-free, vegan and organic labels (though mostly everything brought into the store is organic these days). The gluten-free and Celiac’s community, in particular, has met with special consideration from Natur-Tyme and its staff.

Meyerson says she’ll never forget her first encounter with the mother of a Celiac’s sufferer in her store. This was many years ago, when Natur-Tyme had delved into a gluten-free realm that at the time seemed to consist of one cracker option, one cookie, one cereal, etc., compared with the 10,000 sq. ft. you could fill with gluten-free products today, Meyerson explains.  When this mother described her daughter’s plight, of not being able to eat wheat, berry, soy, rice, corn and the list went on, it had a great impact on Meyerson, a mother to two sons who thought to herself, “What if I had to do that?”

Meyerson did, in fact, have to try the gluten-free lifestyle herself a couple of years ago, when doctors suspected she had a gluten-intolerance, in what she calls a life-changing experience. She came to recognize that the community needed to be se rved much more. In addition to having a registered dietician (RD) on staff to serve general needs, another RD is employed to serve the celiac community. This person meets with customers in free one-on-one appointments.

About five years ago, Natur-Tyme began another labeling program, which separates HBC products into four steps. Little feet labels are applied to the products, with step 1 denoting a hybrid product. “We respect our customers who want to stay in that category; they’re doing a little bit better than maybe what would be in the drug store,” Meyerson says. Step 4 usually indicates a certified organic, whole food, sustainable item. The program is something of which Meyerson is proud, because it was an early entry in a growing movement. Whole Foods Market has followed the trend, and Meyerson is delighted to see the conversation taking place in the health and beauty products industry, about differentiating between brands and their products.

The In-Store Experience
Though she is often behind the scenes, Meyerson enjoys interacting with customers as they learn about what the store has to offer. “My favorite thing is when I happen to be out on the store floor and I see a customer come in for the first time,” she says. Watching as people take a deep breath after turning the corner and beholding the whole of the retail space at one glance, she often tries to ease their trepidation. “First time here?” she’ll ask with a smile. When they wonder how she knew, she responds that the look on their face said it all.

In-depth customer service is the hallmark of Natur-Tyme.

These newcomers, many of whom may be stepping into a health food store for the first time, are led through the store and given direction. Other first-timers to Natur-Tyme are veterans of other health food stores, and so the looks of respect they give are gratifying to Meyerson. She credits much of the welcoming atmosphere to her employees, stating, “I’m very, very lucky that we find the right fit of people, who love to give good customer service, and who want that opportunity to serve our customers.”

In fact, ‘“Meyerson describes her employees as family members, a sentiment you’ll often hear emanating from successful business situations. Employee turnover is very low, she says, and the interaction with customers has the feel of true partnership. “You’ve got your customer that runs in, grabs a bottle and runs out, but the average customer can spend an hour to two hours, talking to the staff, interacting and learning,” says Meyerson.

Part of this customer loyalty results from the heightened expectations people have for the Natur-Tyme experience. Living up to those expectations doesn’t always pan out for every customer, and that can be frustrating, Meyerson says. She loves receiving customer feedback, negative and positive, because it is a primary way to learn and grow as a retailer. She says, “Sometimes, somebody will say something whether it’s a complaint or a comment, and I’ll stop and I’ll go, ‘Oh my God, I never looked at it that way. How many other people look at it that way?’ Meyerson feels honored that customers are comfortable enough to call or e-mail her when something didn’t go perfectly, and she sees all such feedback as part of the process of learning from the perspective of the customer.

A team of Wellness Educators and RDs on staff at Natur-Tyme stands at the ready to help shoppers address their health concerns naturally. “The whole foundation of Natur-Tyme, as you can imagine with my father’s history, is education and empowerment,” Meyerson says. This is borne out when someone meets with a Wellness Educator for their free 30-minute session, blocks of which are often booked solid three weeks in advance.

Attendees visit booths at “Achieve We11ness in 2011”, this year’s name for the store’s biggest event.

One Wellness Educator, Carol Blair, has dedicated herself in particular to working with customers that have cancer, helping for instance to minimize the negative impacts of chemotherapy through natural supplements. Meyerson hopes to somehow expand these types of services in the new store. They also counsel people dealing with autism or wanting to lose weight, and Meyerson notes that cases run the gamut from wanting to stave off wrinkles to having been given weeks to live. “It’s so powerful to see that spectrum of people that come into this store,” she says.

Through relationships she has formed with local health practitioners, Meyerson is able to spread and help foster the message of integrative medicine in which she has come to believe. The store offers customers a list of practitioners that support the use of natural products, such as perhaps a cardiologist that supports CoQ10. This is based on recommendations made by fellow customers, as the store staff could not make such a recommendation. Also, many area doctors that are aware of Natur-Tyme’s work encourage their patients to visit the store. The shift toward the acceptance of integrative medicine that Meyerson’s father sought is coming to fruition more every day.

A Health Extravaganza
The media and marketing efforts that have helped the store grow are immense, and constitute a lesson in reaching a target audience within a community. For starters, the 12-year anniversary of the Natur-Tyme sponsored radio program, Nutritional Insights, was just celebrated. Originally a broadcast delivered by her father and a local chiropractor, the microphone fell into Meyerson’s lap 10 years ago.

Local practitioners offering free massages proved a popular attraction.

She’d secured the then red-hot Dr. Atkins to come on the program, and her father thrust her into the interviewer’s chair, which she’d previously expressed no interest in. “My father said to me, ‘I’m going to be in Florida that week; you do it,’” she says. After working the show with her father at first, she now flies solo every Sunday from 10 to 11 A.M., on the top talk radio station in the area. The live shows typically feature one guest speaking about one health topic, followed by call-ins from eager, loyal listeners.

Meyerson suggests that any store given a similar opportunity should take it, especially in smaller media markets where one’s voice can be heard louder. “I’m not saying it’s not an investment of money, but if you work well and create the partnership with the radio station, you get so much. It pays for itself tenfold, so it was just a huge thing that helped Natur-Tyme grow,” she says. Meyerson also worked in the past with the local PBS station to produce two television programs on integrative medicine, a thread she hopes to pick up again in the future.

When it comes to marketing, every base is covered. Natur-Tyme’s direct mail newsletter, which reaches 19,000 homes, is its communication pipeline. The mail piece is a major tool in promoting the many successful events Natur-Tyme hosts throughout the year. Meyerson also appears weekly with another featured health segment on morning drive-time radio, and Natur-Tyme runs television ads, works with alternative newspapers in the region, and now has a presence on all the major social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. They even sell tickets to events, many of which are free, from their Web site via PayPal.

The store’s biggest event, which has become renowned throughout the industry, is its “health extravaganza.” It just went off without a hitch for the 11th straight year. It’s turned  from a humble event in the parking lot of the old store to an all-day exposition, which in one recent year drew 2,000 people to the New York state fair grounds. It is a signature part of Natur-Tyme’s calendar that has people lining up in the early morning, ready to learn about and enjoy natural products. “I have been so blessed by the many vendors that have supported me in this venture, I could not do it without them,” Meyerson says.

Pastry chef Maria Giacona demonstrates how to make spring-themed cakes at an event.

This year’s event, dubbed “Achieve We11ness in 2011,” featured cooking demos at one end of the building, yoga classes in the basement, food vendors on the third floor, and supplement and HBC companies educating attendees about their products from booths. “The beauty of the event is it sort of takes on its own energy,” Meyerson says. The store also hosts a Glamour Gala in the fall, which allows women a night out to learn about natural makeup and gear up for the holiday shopping season.

An event that took place in May paired a local oncologist with the founder of a mineral makeup company to educate people about skin care for the summer. According to Meyerson, there is something going on every other month that draws hundreds of people. “There is a beautiful synergy when a plan comes together, an event is created, then its tentacles go out and its plug and play,” she says.

A successful and wildly popular in-store venture for Natur-Tyme has been its Wellness Rewards program, which offers customers a $5 coupon for every $200 spent on products. Customers carry an electronic key tag tracking their purchases, and carry around their bonus coupons like money in their wallets. Meyerson says about 400 new people have been signing up each month. Along with being asked to join Wellness Rewards, every new customer receives a recyclable bag filled with  coupons from vendors and other goodies.

Meyerson feels blessed that she was able to inherit the foundation her father gave her, and to take Natur-Tyme to the place it is today. Her advice for replicating that success is simple. “Intuition and following your instincts have got to be the guiding force,” she says. Retailers have to look creatively for solutions to help their stores grow, because the next big product craze might not come.

They must also be demanding of their industry partners, and be willing to go in a different direction when better opportunities present themselves. “You’ve got to find partners who are willing to take the journey with you. I’m looking for added value every single place I go, just like my customers expect added value from me,” she says. She cites the example of her recent decision to have an HBC line contract manufactured for her after she was successful with a vendor’s similar brand, but the business relationship did not work out.

At the new store, Natur-Tyme will be bringing back the community room that it had to cut for space in the current location. In deciding what to do with the extra square footage, Meyerson settled on lending the space to customers, instead of having another row of cereal options. She describes it as a place to feel empowered and to become educated on natural products, and equally to lay back and enjoy tea or a smoothie. She declares her intentions and her hopes, for the community room and the future of Natur-Tyme itself: “I’ve got to find a reason to have them come for us, because they’re looking for breathing space, for camaraderie, for like-mindedness. That’s what I’m hoping that this store is going to bring.” WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2011