Sometimes the things you can't see matter most.

Have you ever let shoppers preorder a Thanksgiving turkey? If so, you probably know the agony and embarrassment of out-of-stocking your customer ’s main course the Wednesday before the holiday. This may be the most vivid example of a retail food store screw-up beJay Jacobowitzcause a fresh, preordered Thanksgiving turkey is probably the single-most emotionally valuable (more on this later) product you can offer your customers all year long.

Real Things
As an independent natural products retailer, you spend your days handling and managing many real things, things you can see. Products, cash registers, order catalogs, refrigerators. From before the time you open your doors each morning to long after you close, your to-do list is filled with real, tangible tasks that, if you don’t manage them properly, will disrupt your business, upset your customers and fry your staff.

You have to finish your order before the deadline or there will be a bunch of very visible, ugly black holes on your shelves tomorrow. You must rotate your inventory with every new order that comes in or you’ll wind up throwing away outdated merchandise, literally pouring real money down the drain. You have to make sure you don’t run out of register receipt tape, or you’ll shut down your cash wrap during the next peak shopping period, killing sales and irritating good customers.

Anyone who has run a retail store knows these things happen all the time. And, flubbing up any one of these very important everyday tasks can make your life as a retailer rather hellish. That’s why you pay undivided attention to them.

What’s Important, and What’s Critical
But even though you perform all these very important, highly visible everyday tasks perfectly well, you can still get crushed by your competitors because you forgot to take care of one task that you probably can’t see: figuring out what makes you different. And just because you can’t see what makes you different doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Even though it is invisible, knowing what makes you different from your competitors is more than important; it is critical for the independent natural products retailer to succeed today.

Here’s an illustration. The library at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, looks like any other college campus building. The square brick and glass structure sits calmly beside a duck pond surrounded by pleasant greenery and campus walkways . I f you look more closely, however, you’ll notice that every other floor of the building is dark and empty of books. Why is this?

During the design phase, the building engineers failed to take into account the weight of the books. When it first opened and was fully stocked with books, the building began sinking into the ground next to the duck pond. While the designers, engineers and architects addressed every important visible detail— flooring, walls, windows, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems—they forgot about something that was more important than all of these, something they couldn’t see at all: total building load.

The designers weren’t wrong to pay attention to all the very important physical aspects of designing the building. But the designers failed to look up from their everyday tasks long enough to see where their overall efforts were taking them. If you believe your job starts and ends every day with managing the unending string of highly visible, very important tasks on your to-do list, you are in danger failing to take care of what’s critical to your success: managing the overall direction of your business.

Emotional Value
If you are like most independent natural products retailers, you’re used to customers specifically asking to speak with you or your key nutrition person about a personal nutritional or health concern. At times when you or they are not in the store, customers who expect to see you may decide to wait and come back at another time when you or your nutrition staffer is there. If you were just selling products, customers wouldn’t want or need to speak to anyone in particular.

But you are selling more than products; you are providing comfort and knowledge, reducing stress and increasing hope in those who want to take more responsibility for their health. The emotional value of these intangibles goes far beyond the retail sticker price.

Even customers who aren’t shopping specifically for health, but who appear to be just buying food—like the mom who preordered that all-natural Thanksgiving turkey from you—are shopping to fulfill an emotional need. Feeding self, feeding family; nurturing. The emotional value cannot be expressed in the $40 or $50 price of the turkey. We only get a glimpse of the true value of the service you provide in its breach: There is no amount of money that will assuage the upset from a ruined holiday family gathering.

As a food retailer—and as a retailer of health food in particular— you serve in an emotional realm, regularly and routinely transforming the fear of your customers into hope, calming their concerns with your empathy, and helping bring their aspirations for a healthier life to fruition. Is the total emotional value of your services fully reflected in the selling prices of your products? Certainly not!

Moving Toward your Strength
Shoppers who want to buy natural products have more choices today than ever before. Supermarkets, neighborhood corner grocers, convenience stores, natural pharmacies, Internet marketers, multi-level direct sellers, mail order companies and holistic practitioners are all jumping on the natural bandwagon.

Driving this explosive growth are the 60 to 70 million U.S. households that are beginning to express interest in natural for the first time. As these households deepen their pursuit of proactive well being, our industry will continue to grow for many years to come.

The shortest path to growth for independent natural products retailers is to be and become more of who you already are. This means you don’t need to hire a pharmacist, start an e-commerce web site, add another 10,000 square feet to your store, or bring in a bunch of conventional products to attract more mainstream customers. It means you need to focus on what you do best; what you already do better than any of these other outlets: interact individually with every customer.

The retail playing field is wide open for your type of customer-centric business model. Few other retail channels, with perhaps the exception of pharmacies, will take on the risk of allowing their employees to engage in an unscripted conversation with each customer about nutritional and health concerns. This is your strength.

Visible Distractions
Over the past few years, many independents have been burned out by customers who come in for education, but shop elsewhere for cheaper prices. In addition, the grey area in the law that permits you to tell your customers about the beneficial effects of natural products on the normal functioning of body systems—but not about their effects on disease—suppresses your impulse to create a standard approach to communicating your knowledge to customers that your staff can emulate.

The burnout plus the legal fears have a created vacuum on the sales floor of the retail store. Nature abhors a vacuum, and this one has been filled by information technology. Many independent retailers have told me that they’ve installed a point-ofsale system and started a Web site and are now spending most of their time in the back room managing these—important and highly visible—tasks.

Meanwhile, the sales floor has been left to front-line employees who don’t have the knowledge of, and now are not getting the guidance and training from, the owners who are the only ones who possess the culture and soul of the store.

I’ve taken more than a few calls in the last several years from good, longterm independent retailers who’ve told me that their sales are down since they changed their work habits from being out front on the sales floor working directly with customers— which is how they built the business in the first place—to being in the back room sitting in front of a computer screen managing data.

My heart goes out to all those independent retailers who certainly deserve a reprieve from the seemingly constant whining and ingratitude of price-focused customers. And it is not easy to design a reliable communication method that legally, yet effectively, conveys your nutritional knowledge to customers. But being emotionally available for your customers is the—intangible, invisible—task that is critical to your success as you ride the next wave of natural industry growth. You’ve got to be more of who you already are.

You’ve got to get your second—maybe third or fourth—wind. You’ve got to look back and remember why you got into this business in the first place, and recommit to those values. You wanted to help people. You wanted to share your knowledge. Share these emotions with your customers and your employees again. Rededicate yourself, and more of your customers will trust you with their Thanksgiving turkeys. 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 holistic consumer marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 34 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 900 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. Jay is next scheduled to exhibit at Natural Products Expo East in Boston, MA, October 14–16. He will be at booth 3239. He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at


Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2010