Finding Natural Customers

Retailers can benefit by finding ways to peak the interest of holistic customers.


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Suppliers of all stripes seem to have no trouble filling the market with products aimed at the growing demand for green, sustainable, natural and holistic. So for many storeowners, finding natural product lines is simple. The challenge is finding customers to buy these products and getting them into the store.

Given the growing profile of all things natural in today’s economy, it would benefit just about every business owner to develop sensible strategies that identify the holistic customer, communicate clear messages to this customer and provide products that meet the needs of this important segment.


Developing a Natural Market

When developing a market for the natural category, it is important to first define what the store means when using the term “natural.” What, exactly, is a natural or holistic customer? More to the point, what is the definition of that customer in the context of the local market? This is an important distinction, because some communities take “natural” to extraordinary lengths; other markets are more conservative.

A retailer’s sensitivity to his or her customers is critical to making smart purchase decisions for the business. For example, herbal and botanical oils and blends that claim to promote general emotional and psychic well-being in cats and dogs (often associated with “energy charts” based on birthdates) might present a progressive, novel choice in some markets. Customers familiar with the underlying concepts might love to see these products available in their community.

On the other hand, in another market, customers might be more likely to scoff at such ideas and treat the product with skepticism, no matter how well store employees are equipped to explain and sell. However, the same customer might be highly motivated to choose a treat that is free of chemical preservatives.

The bottom line: know the store’s customers and develop a purchasing strategy that acknowledges the values of the community but lets the retailer introduce new concepts and cultivate demand for new products.
Once an honest evaluation of a store’s customers–both existing and prospective–is established, survey product offerings and decide whether the store’s merchandise mix is meeting the needs of customers and providing multiple points of entry for the shopper, in terms of selection and price points.

This might be trickier than it sounds. If a store sells natural and holistic products alongside traditional merchandise categories, then the retailer needs to determine how to present each category.

Does one create an “all-natural” section in the store and fill it with a variety of foods, treats, chews, toys, collars and leashes? Or does one let natural products share the same shelf space along with traditional lines? Consider whether there is a risk that the all-natural products might compete with other products in the store that sell well at healthy margins.

How the selection of natural products is presented will affect the degree to which customers see the store as an “all-natural, holistic” pet store. By that I mean if a retailer is successful with traditional products and offers only a small selection of self-identified “natural” products, then the public isn’t likely to see the store primarily as an all-natural source.

If, on the other hand, a retailer sees untapped potential in the market for those natural customers, then they would want to elevate the profile of the all-natural merchandise selection and re-enforce that brand message with in-store signage and information-rich displays.


Reaching Out to Find Customers

Communication carries enormous importance when trying to cultivate customers for natural and holistic product lines. In today’s popular consumer milieu, the idea of natural conveys a much larger narrative subtext. “Natural” means social responsibility, economic sustainability, stewardship of the planet, a personal commitment to physical health and, yes, even spiritual enlightenment.

In that regard, natural products often suggest stories that customers very often will want to share. Employees must be trained to communicate on this level with customers. They’re going to need to know more about how certain products are made, why that’s important, how it differs from traditional methods and even a bit about the science of it all. Today, “natural” is still new. It needs explaining so people can fully grasp the value.

To reach out to those new natural customers, develop message strategies that can be executed across everything the store does, whether it’s a big  operation or a small, independent mom-and-pop business. Advertising, discount coupons, a website and all point-of-purchase (POP) executions can help re-enforce the message to help build a community for people who want to consciously spend on renewable, natural products.

Beyond communications strategies that target pet owners, remember that the customer being sought out for the all-natural section can be found outside the typical pet owner demographic subset. To reach them, move out into the community by getting involved in events, fundraisers, and community and corporate health fairs.

Many private companies and, in some communities, local hospitals and other healthcare organizations, sponsor health fairs for employees and the public to promote healthy lifestyles. At first, a retailer might find it odd to staff a booth next to dentists, chiropractors, sports equipment outlets and massage therapists, but the booth will get noticed if there are free samples of all-natural treats for dogs and cats, literature and other informational hand-outs available. In addition, talk to people about the benefits of all-natural choices for their pets. And pet companionship, after all, has been shown to improve overall health and wellbeing in people.

Suggest giveaways and promotions with area gyms, health food stores and organic restaurants. Develop events in the store that invite experts in to offer samples and answer questions about the latest trends in health foods and all-natural materials used to make everyday products for pets.

As always, make sure vets in the community who practice holistic medicine know what the store can offer their patients. Print out lists of the various all-natural foods, treats and dietary supplements the store carries and leave it with holistic vets, along with the store’s contact information. It wouldn’t hurt to drop the lists off along with a bag of bagels for the veterinary staff to enjoy.

Look beyond the traditional to find the all-natural customer, because these individuals define themselves broadly and, often, in deeply personal ways. To do that, pay close attention to the sensitivities and the goings-on in the community.

 
Dan Headrick is a freelance writer. He and his wife Pam Guthrie own Wag Pet Boutique in Raleigh, NC.

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