Natural Products Gatekeepers: Store Staff

Returning from Natural Products Expo West, I was struck by the fact that thousands of natural products retailers invest their time and money to attend the show. They go to find out the latest about the industry, to be educated about regulations and processes, to be inspired and reminded why they are in this business, and to see what’s new or what they can bring back to their stores.

These people want to leave informed so they can communicate their knowledge to their customers. Many of them take the concept that they are the gatekeepers of what’s good for their community very seriously. This is a proud tradition of the natural products industry, as I wrote in Part 1 of this multi-part series on Natural Products Gatekeepers.

Store Staff Turnover

But this is only the good part of the story. For every informed and committed store staffer, there are many others who are just passing through. At the show, I was told by several of my dietary supplement industry colleagues that their biggest issue was educating store staff. It wasn’t for lack of trying, nor was it for lack of access. It’s because store staff come and go and no institutional knowledge is passed on to their replacements. There is no long-term return on the investment of educating store staff when there is such frequent turnover, but companies still feel the need to do it.

For every informed and committed store staffer, there are many others who are just passing through.

And here’s why.

Our research, as well as other industry research, points to how influential store staff can be to closing a sale. This is particularly true of dietary supplements, functional foods, and personal care. These sales require knowledge of the category and of the individual brands. Customers ask about the quality and sourcing of ingredients, the dosage, safety, efficacy, and (of course), which brand is the best.

For these categories, much of the marketing is reliant on product packaging and the education of the store staff. Many of these brands don’t have the dollars to spend on outbound marketing. They often rely on discounts to drive trial. They rely on the bottle label or the box to do the heavy lifting, which is really too much to ask. An enthusiastic store staffer who is educated about the brands can sway a consumer toward a brand that’s not on sale. Furthermore, their influence goes up exponentially when they deal with consumers who are new to the category, consumers who come in asking a ton of questions.

What’s happening though, is that less and less store staff can do much more than know where the products are shelved. They often show their expertise by reading the labels along with their customers — in other words, they don’t engender a ton of confidence.

Diminishing Influence Over Natural Products Purchases

Which brings me to the other piece of data we’re noticing. When we ask consumers in our research studies what resources influence them the most when researching products, their own online research is by far the most common answer. That should not come as a surprise, but one of the least common answers is information from store staff. In the past, our research concluded that people don’t like to admit in surveys that they go to stores for advice, but the percentages have been going down over the years. Couple that with the decline in educated store staff, and I’m starting to believe it’s because store staff are no longer a good source of information.

There is a difference between independents and large stores/chains. The former tends to have more dedicated staff than the latter. But more people shop bigger stores, which is why I’m paying more attention to the trending from this consumer data.

Gatekeeper Dollars

There are stores across the country that know how valuable an educated store staff can be. Stores like Willner Chemists in New York City are renowned for their knowledge. They invest heavily in a knowledgeable team. They certainly don’t invest in aesthetic makeovers. Ask any dietary supplement company or sales rep if they want to be on the Willner shelves and they say yes before you can finish the question. Stand in the aisles for a half hour and watch how efficiently customers are guided from the shelves to the check-out counter. The aura of confidence is palpable throughout. The sales are consistently high.

Willner and other stores like it are prime examples of how being the informed gatekeeper is the best guarantee for longevity, and the best defense against online discount sales and chains.

The Online Option

So what’s a manufacturer to do in a world where they have to educate an ever-changing store staff? What’s a store or chain to do when they know how influential store staff can be, but can’t keep them long enough? And how do you answer the complaint that consumers go to stores to get information and then go online to buy the product?

The old model of sending an educator or a sales rep to a store to train is effective, but costly and time-consuming. And repeating it constantly can be demoralizing. Many companies have known this for a while and have been trying to incorporate an online and on-demand model. But the problem is that this often requires store staff to do the training on their own time. When I’ve asked if there is any data showing how effective each option is, 9 times out of ten, I get a smirk, shrug, or a sheepish expression of, “Not really.”

Some stores have adopted clear store standards and invest in training new staff on those standards. That is not too helpful to brands trying to differentiate themselves from others, but it provides a degree of confidence that consumers feel and trust.

What’s missing from this is a direct brand-to-consumer effort that relies on the fact that people like to do their research online. And that’s what I’ll investigate in Part 4 of our Natural Products Gatekeepers series.