Recently, a mega-food manufacturer did something very uncharacteristic of big business. In the name of helping to save the environment, it rolled out compostable bags for a line of its snack chips. This product is marketed to your average, mainstream supermarket shopper.

Consumers’ reactions to the eco-friendly bags were, perhaps, even more interesting. Complaints rained down that the bags were too noisy when crinkled. One viral video surfaced of an Air Force pilot measuring the bag’s crackle at 95 decibels—supposedly louder than a fighter plane’s engine. There’s even a Facebook group where haters of the loud bags can unite to grumble about their negative experiences with the compostable packaging.

So, alas, the corporate giants gave way this Fall by sending the eco-friendly packaging to the dump; the old plastic bags have made a comeback on all but one of their snack varieties. As an ironic aside, the bags weren’t pulled in Canada. Rather, the company offered earplugs to anyone north of the border that can’t deal with the noise.

Effort Is Painful

Though this elaborate escapade occurred outside our industry, I couldn’t help but think of its relevance to our products. Eco-friendly products (like organic and natural) are incredibly tied to consumer buy-in—perhaps more than any other market segments. It requires time, extra money and effort, be it through washing reusable items or composting rather than trashing. It can take a serious, committed community of shoppers to make a product successful—or a lackadaisical set to sink it like a lead balloon.

In the case of the chips, a healthy environment was no match for a little discomfort.

This story is an interesting juxtaposition to some very encouraging findings presented in this year’s WholeFoods Annual Retailer Survey (click here for more). The bottom line is that even during tough times, sales among independent natural products stores were slightly higher than last year. This is a great indicator that such businesses are resilient, and importantly, are selling products that shoppers want and need.

Data from this year’s survey also show that shoppers, though probably on a budget, were spending about as much per transaction in these stores as they did last year. Don’t take this finding lightly. These same consumers probably bought fewer movie tickets last year, ate out in restaurants less often, maybe even postponed a family vacation. But, they prioritized your store and the products it sells. Clearly, these core buyers have bought into the message of taking natural preventative measures to ensure health and wellness. Their buying habits over the past year prove it.

Something to Feel Good About

So as you think about your year-end numbers, consider that retailers in other industries saw their sales slip 4–8% in 2009–2010, while our stores experienced gains. Businesses in other industries encountered more discount-minded shoppers, while our shops found customers spent about the same amount per transaction as they did last year. And some companies had to pull product from shelves because of lack of enthusiasm (nudge, nudge big chip company), while our shoppers went out of their way to visit their favorite natural products stores, embrace our products, and remain engaged and interested in natural health—despite the white noise of the recession. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner Editor/Associate Publisher

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2010 (online 11/18/10)