Consumer education is the key to increasing sales in the natural supplement category.
By Lindsey Getz
Many retailers admit that selling natural supplements can be challenging. Most consumers aren’t educated on the products, and it’s a steep learning curve for retailers to educate all of their salespeople on all the supplements on the market. But manufacturers and retailers reported that learning more about the products and sharing that information with customers is essential for boosting profits in this category.
Displaying supplements by brand an/or function helps customers find them easily.
often feel like an “iffy” market, said Mark Dunn, owner of Nature’s Pet Market in Eugene, Ore.
“I often have the same uncertainty the customer does, which is, ‘Does it really work?’” he said. “There are certain products I get really excited about but also a lot I don’t know about, and there’s not a lot of quantitative data on them yet.”
Knowing which products work is really important to The Natural Pet Center’s customers, reported Michele Zigrossi, owner of the Gardiner, N.Y.-based store. The staff tries as many of the carried brands as they can on their own pets, she said.
“Then we can personally tell our customers what we think of the products,” Zigrossi said. “That goes a long way.”
Though time-consuming, one-on-one education with the customer is vital, she added. It’s a tricky category, and customers often have a lot of questions.
Education is incredibly important and should start with the staff, agreed Peter Trevino, business unit manager for Tomlyn Products in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Salespeople have to know what the product is and what it does, because customers will have a lot of questions,” Trevino said. “We’re regulated as to what we can say on the packaging so the salespeople have to fill in the rest of the story and explain what the product is all about.”
POP setups help sales, but they are not an adequate substitute for education.
Most customers don’t know a lot about supplements. The uneducated customer might come in looking for a natural substitute to something they got at the vet, but they often don’t know what they want or need, reported Jami Ippolito, founder of Paw Naturals in Chicago, adding that they require a lot of direction.
“I try to assess each customer’s needs and see how receptive they are to information,” she said. “Some do come in looking for something specific, but many don’t really know anything about supplements. I encourage them to do some of the research on their own so it’s not just me telling them what to do.”
One way that Healthy Dogma Inc., has started educating customers on its products is by using QR codes. Many manufacturers are looking into this popular approach, as evidenced by the number of advertising materials that now include the codes.
“We know that QR codes are really popular right now, so we’re capitalizing on that,” said Darby Peters, marketing manager for the Lake Orion, Mich.-based company. “You can only print so much on a package, so it’s been a great opportunity for us. It will link the consumer right to our website.”
Making the Sale
Using displays can make a difference in sales, but they do not replace education.
“Displays always help draw attention and might help get your customers in that aisle, but it’s still a product you have to be willing to explain and answer questions about in most cases,” said Todd Dean, national sales and marketing manager for Virbac Animal Health in Corona, Calif.
A display of “products to avoid” has been very effective with her customers, reported Vicki Rabe-Harrison, owner of Victoria’s Pet Nutrition Center in Fond Du Lac, Wis. She knows that words such as “natural,” which pop up on a lot of food packaging, really confuse the customer.
“I have a wall of shame behind my counter that shows all the typical brands,” Rabe-Harrison said. “Many of the products that say ‘all-natural’ on the bag are filled with chemicals and artificial colors, so I have them next to a huge sign that says ‘Just say No’ and lists all of the ingredients that are dangerous to pets. It’s all about educating your customer.”
What is one of the biggest challenges you face in the supplement market?
“Customers want to be loyal to everything their vet says, and they have a hard time making changes or adding supplements, particularly if it’s not what the vet recommends. But supplements can replace almost everything a vet has to sell. Many vets are getting more open and that definitely helps, but it all comes down to education of the customer.”
—Vicki Rabe-Harrison, owner of Victoria’s Pet Nutrition Center in Fond du Lac, Wis.
“My biggest concern is finding valid information. I’d like to see more concrete quantitative data. As far as displays, the fact that so many of these products come in glass containers can be difficult. We have to move some behind the counter and that might break up the display.”
—Mark Dunn, owner of Nature’s Pet Market in Eugene, Ore.
“The biggest challenge is making sure people understand what supplements do and how they work. Sometimes it’s not always obvious. It’s also important to explain the difference between what they can buy at the grocery store versus here—it’s not the same thing as these supplements are formulated for animals. Customers also struggle to understand that these products take time to work. People want them to work immediately, and that’s just not what they do.”
—Iris Christ, owner of All Four Paws in Bluffton, S.C.
At Paw Naturals, Ippolito has the section set up as an apothecary with all of the supplements together. The store doesn’t use a lot of point of purchase displays that come with the products because they can distract customers or make the section look cluttered. But keeping products together is important.
“We have all our supplements in one spot rather than scattered throughout the store,” Zigrossi said. “That makes it easier for the customer to navigate.”
One of the biggest mistakes is that product lines are split up instead of merchandising the whole remedy, Trevino noted.
“For example, we have omegas available in different sizes and formats. Typically, the gels would be merchandised with all gels, chews with all chews—instead of keeping the line together,” he said. “That tears up the story of what the product is all about. If they were merchandised together it gives the pet owner a group of products, all addressing the same issue. Then they know they have options—do they want to pill the animal or select a gel, for instance. Grouping the product range is really important.”
One Arizona-based retailer found success keeping supplements right at the counter, reported Nate Armstrong, vice president and COO for Valencia, Calif.-based Designing Health Inc., makers of The Missing Link.
“When people go to buy food, she can ask each customer, ‘Have you ever considered buying a supplement to give your pets the micronutrients they need to stay healthy?’” Armstrong said. “That strategy helps build credibility. Consumers need to understand that foods go through processing, which alters their fresh nutrients. Our strategy has always been to provide those fresh nutrients that are processed out of food so the pet has the complete nutrition it needs.”
While most of the education on supplements probably will be done in the store, Armstrong noted that opportunities to reach customers outside of the physical location should not be ignored.
“Social media has taken off, and it makes staying in touch with customers easy,” he said. “What really pulls the heartstrings on customers is photos. Put a picture of Junior, who has hip problems, on your Facebook page. Then put up a picture of him after taking a hip and joint supplement for a month so customers can see the difference. Human interest stories can really help in this category.”
This article orginally appeared in Natural Pet Product Merchandiser's December 2012 issue.
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