About a decade or so ago, when Internet buying was starting to get really hot, I remember hearing of an experiment. A man tried living for a year without leaving his house, even banning face-to-face contact with anyone. The challenge was to see how easy it would be to buy everything he needed to live—from apples to toilet paper—online only and to communicate only through e-mail, chat rooms and other Web services.

As odd as his foray seemed at the time, it underscored how easy and all-inclusive Internet buying had become. Of course, with the advent of tablets, smartphones and the modern super-savvy e-commerce sites, shopping online is even easier today.

Grocers, as we know, have even gotten into the game. A recent Packaged Facts report predicts online grocery sales will reach almost $100 billion by 2019, stealing 12% of U.S. shoppers’ total grocery spending (1). This includes home delivered goods, items ordered online for store pickup, and those locker-style pickups from the likes of Amazon Prime Pantry.

With all this online competition, should you be shaking in your boots? No way, and here’s why.
Shopping Trends
Independent natural products stores are a rare and special breed. They sell products that truly lend themselves to a personal touch for these reasons:

Immediacy: A key reason people visit stores in person is that they need something immediately. When time is of the essence, who wants to wait for throat-soothing teas, GF bread for tomorrow’s lunch or after-meal enzymes when supplies are low?

Quality: While buying supplements and herbal formulations does not faze your customers in general, buying them online from an unknown source may skeeve them out—regardless of the prices. Who’s bottling it? Is it fresh? Is the manufacturer reputable? Smartphones still aren’t brainy enough to know all those answers, but I bet your staff is.

Expertise: Your opinion (and that of your staff) matters so much to shoppers. Personally, I have never left my favorite health food store without getting (or overhearing) advice about products. There’s so much to learn about good health and the thousands of ways to support it, but you’ve made it your mission to keep up with the latest information and to share it with your clients. Shoppers know and respect that.

Humans: Humans crave human interaction. From your tasting events to your lecture series to your friendly cashiers, many people appreciate a good shopping experience, ambience included.

I spoke with NOW Foods’ Dan Richard, and he told me about 500 independent retailers go out of business every year—but that can change if stores do something different than they did yesterday. Something as simple as negotiating with vendors for better pricing or working with a distributor on a reset can make a world of difference. The trick is to highlight everything that makes you special for your shoppers to see—customer service included. The WholeFoods 2014 Retailer Survey shows that stores are operating with greater efficiency than ever before, and that great customer service is making a positive impact on sales—especially for smaller stores. Again, this is a service with which the Internet can never compete.

Amazon Is on to Something
Did you catch the October announcement from Amazon? The e-commerce behemoth is opening its first retail store in New York City this holiday season. That’s right, just steps away from the iconic Macy’s in Herald Square you will soon find an Amazon store front. While it will offer New Yorkers the chance to pick up online purchases in person, there will also be the opportunity to buy merchandise like the company’s smartphones from a salesperson who can talk them through their purchase. Sound familiar?

If this development is any indication, perhaps we may see renewed interest in in-person shopping—especially if stores have something special to offer. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher

1. Packaged Facts, Online Food Shopping and Grocery Delivery in the U.S.: Future of Food Retailing, October 2014.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2014