Helping Your Customers Shop Smart

People often have specific health goals in mind when walking into a whole food or supplement store, so it makes sense for storeowners to aid them in their search for products suited to their needs. This usually is accomplished with signage and store sections, pointing the customer in the direction of, say, the whole-grains section, or the aisle containing vitamin D supplements. Taking things a step further, though, can often lead to more satisfied customers and better sales.

Case in point: Sunflower Farmers Market, a chain with 28 locations in six southwestern states based in Boulder, CO, has begun a creative new program aimed at creating a better shopping experience. Called the “Smart Tags Program,” it involves color-coded labeling that clearly and quickly provides shoppers with information about a product’s nutritional content.

The system was developed by Sunflower Farmers Market’s resident nutritionist, Maya E. Nahra, R.D. Without any input from the products’ manufacturers, the labels were created to represent the best dietary advice. Along with recommendations made by the American Dietetic Association, Nahra looked to her own experience and knowledge of whole foods to inform the criteria for the Smart Tags. The color orange designates Smart Celiac products; red is for heart health products; blue labels affix to recommended carbohydrates; and Smart Weight tags are colored purple. “I wanted to be sure I touched on the top three diseases currently plaguing America right now: diabetes, heart disease and obesity…I added the fourth for the rising trend of food allergies,” Nahra says.

Each product must fit specific criteria to qualify for a label at Sunflower stores, which are also named Newflower Farmers Market in some locations. Orange labeled products must be completely gluten-free, because they are aimed at someone shopping for a celiac-restricted diet. The red labels have to be low in sodium, defined as anything below the FDA recommendation of 140 mg/serving. Blue products must be high in fiber (2.5-4.9 g/serving) and made of 100% whole cereal grain. Purple Smart Weight products are required to include a lean source of protein, and to be less than 500 calories a serving. 

All labeled products must use “clean” ingredients, excluding additives, preservatives and unnatural sweeteners. The company Web site also provides brochures based on these product categories, which can be brought to the store as a shopping aid. Customers seem to have taken to the idea. Nahra says there has been “nothing but positive response. It is easy to read, understand and follow.”

The program has been in place since the beginning of 2010, in every product section of every Sunflower Market location. It’s a prime example of an in-house effort to engage with customers by creating a more informative and intuitive atmosphere for shopping. The undifferentiated products lining your shelves, the situation in most stores, may be keeping some consumers from branching out and trying something new. Smart Tags are an attempt to simplify the process of nutritional shopping.

There are many options for improving the shopping experience in your store, and some can be put into action right away. Wider aisles can encourage customers to linger longer and more comfortably in front of a display. The frequent result is that they find a product they’ve never tried before that suits their needs. Keeping up with current trends in the natural food world will help you relate to customers, making you better able to inform them about the products everyone is talking about. Varying the way products are displayed, and doing it in an attractive, attention-grabbing and organized fashion can help focus the shopping habits of your customers. A display, for example, devoted to foods friendly to people with peanut allergies will be appreciated by those customers, and will help make their visit more enjoyable, increasing the likelihood of return shopping. 

Setting up an efficient and welcoming feedback system is key to developing a relationship with your customers. If they can’t tell you that they find the store layout confusing, by means of a suggestion box or even face-to-face interaction, how will you be able to remedy the problem? To help customers in the way Sunflower stores have done, consider other ways to cater to sensitive-diet shoppers; it doesn’t have to involve an extensive labeling system. Try having employees wear a button encouraging customers to ask about a certain product category. Handouts and posters providing the same information are another way to make customers feel cared after in your store.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, May 2010