What makes you decide to shop in a store? If you need diapers for the baby, maybe you don’t need to get in the car and drive to a brick-and-mortar location. You know the brand, style and size you need, and you can save time and possibly money by simply going online and finding the best deal. Today, shoppers have begun to choose the channel they shop based on which products they need, and when they need it. Commodities, those everyday consumables like diapers or single-serve coffee brew cups, are increasingly coming from online sources, as consumers realize they don’t need to waste time and gas, fight traffic and brave bad weather, just to replace ho-hum everyday products.

This new behavior, enabled by efficient, reliable, convenient online service, is reshaping the retail universe. Virtually every retail category, from household furnishings and supplies to entertainment, recreation and even food, is seeing at least some migration to the Internet and away from bricks-and-mortar. Large department stores, electronics retailers, clothing outlets, sports specialists; literally every major retailer with a physical presence is reporting slower growth or outright sales declines from fewer shopper visits.

Independent natural products retailers actually face a double-whammy: competition from the recent explosion of new, aggressive, well-funded brick-and-mortar players plus all the online migration of commodity items. What’s an independent to do?

Make Mine Memorable
I always have fun in seminars around the country when I ask independent natural products retailers this question: “How many of you believe your store is a unique brand, separate from the products you carry on your shelves?” It no longer surprises me that most retailers do not raise their hands. This is a mistake. To prove it, I remind these independents of the customer they all know; the one who has forgotten what product they bought from you last month, but knows it comes in a “little green bottle,” which triggers a wild goose chase as you and your employees try to reconstruct the conversation and identify the mystery item.

Every retailer in the room laughs at my story because they know it’s true. The customer doesn’t remember the product or its brand, but does remember you and your store. What does this tell you? From a brand marketer’s perspective, your store has an extremely strong brand identity.

So, in a commoditizing world, where shopping trips will increasingly be optional, where consumers will venture out into the brick-and-mortar world only when they don’t know exactly what they need, when there’s a special occasion, when they are not feeling well and need some personal attention, or when they simply want a pleasurable experience, will your store be on their radar?

To help ensure that it is, take a look around you. When was the last time you refreshed your paint, your ceiling treatment, your floor surface or your lighting fixtures? Is the first thing your customers see a half-empty produce case? You can do better than this, and pretty soon, you’ll have to. WF

Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Insights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a comprehensive marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 37 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 1,000 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at jay@retailinsights.com. Listen to Jay speak at NPA SOHO Expo on Thursday, December 4, at 7:30 p.m. Jay will be speaking about “2014 37th Annual Retailer Survey by WholeFoods Magazine,” covering key findings and analysis from the survey. He will be exhibiting at Booth #406.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2014