Merchandising Management

"Pardon me, mam. You look confused. Is there something I can help you find or a question I can answer?"

How many times have you walked through your co-op and actually looked at the faces of your customers? On some you'll see determination. These folks are on a mission -- to buy the best organic products they can find for their loved ones. Then you'll see a young, handsome man standing in the macrobiotic section with a questioning look on his face, a package of barley miso in one hand and a package of red miso in the other, trying to determine which has the highest quality. In the health and beauty section you see a gray-haired woman with smiling lines drawn from the corner of her eyes. She's been shopping at your store for ages and still ponders every item that she gently places into her shopping basket.

These are the people we work for. These are our bread and butter. These members and potential members of our cooperatives cross many social and economic boundaries. Their satisfaction is our mission. Their health is the reason we continue to strive toward excellence in our stores.

Consumer education

In my position as marketing and merchandising manager at Outpost Natural Foods, I see a vision of the future. By comprehensively educating our members, the growth of cooperative groceries is inevitable. Using this vision as my guide, I've worked with fellow staff members and volunteers to establish new prograinsand strengthen existing ones in an effort to pass valuable information on to customers.

Perhaps the greatest downfall in merchandising is the lack of proper long range planning.

One on one interaction with consumers is as important as mass marketing. Outpost Nutri-Tours take customers on a 1-1/2 to 2-hour tour of our store. Each participant receives a folder filled with valuable nutrition information and recipes they can try at home. What is stressed in the tour is that this is the beginning of a journey they will take for the rest of their lives. Learning about natural foods and making better choices is a lifelong commitment. We at Outpost are here for the long run as their resource and to answer questions as they arise.

Dozens of manufacturers are happy to provide great free literature that we use to supplement our own. Rainbow, Lifestream, and Lightlife are among the generous suppliers of educational brochures that explain and promote their products. In addition, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) has produced a book filled with ideas for planning your tour.

Not only do we answer customers' questions and concerns, but we give them an overview of how best to utilize the services and products we provide. One evening, an elderly couple walked the tour and were literally transformed. They drove home, boxed up all the food in their pantry and either threw it or gave it away. They returned to Outpost and dropped $200 at our cash register. Stocking their shelves with nutritious products became top priority, and they have since become loyal customers.

In an effort to provide ongoing nutritional education, Outpost produces a series of brochures that we place strategically at the customer service desk, the store entrance, and within the appropriate departments. "How to Cook Grains," "How to Cook Beans," and "How to Use Sweeteners" are just a few of the topics we discuss. In addition, we publish two to three new brochures each season to supplement current material.


Perhaps the greatest downfall in merchandising is the lack of proper long range planning. Given an adequate time frame, no event or promotion is impossible. Whether department heads merchandise or one position focuses on merchandisingfor the entire store, good communication needs to be maintained among all involved parties. Our co-op supplier, Blooming Prairie, created a promotional calendar that we used when we initiated a demo program involving twelve Midwest co-ops. This promotional planner assigns each month a theme that highlights a variety of cuisines and corresponding products to demo.

Our department heads meet bimonthly to plan promos that maintain store-wide continuity. We work as a team to create end-caps and case stacks that feature the monthly theme.

Signage gives visual focus to exciting new products. Outpost has on retainer a local artist who works within our budget to design colorful, creative and tasteful end-cap signs and window art that enhance the appearance of our co-op. If your budget is limited, contact a local art school and offer a promising student the opportunity to fill their portfolio with creative grocery artwork!

Remember, consistency and readability are most important in signage. If you still struggle with hand-lettered signs that change with a walk down the aisle, invest in a sign machine. Signs will be clearer, more easily readable and will draw customers to your products.

Unfamiliarity with obscure products can be solved with an active demo program. If you know the item has great potential but sales are low, set up a demo that features the product alone or in an exciting dish. Brokers and distributors are more than happy to pitch in and help pay for your demo person and the promotion of their product. Don't be afraid to ask! They know that active demos are the best way to feature their products.

Hire demo people from your personable volunteers, friends and family. Those people who love to talk and can relay information in a positive, concise manner are the best.

To feature new and exciting products, you can demo every day or choose a high traffic day each week. Prepare the item in the store and let the aroma draw customers to your demo area. Signage and proper display will ensure high sales and future demand for the product.

One Saturday my mother-in-law was demoing a pasta salad made with Ume plum vinegar. Alice is a vivacious woman who loves to help people discover new products. Outpost normally sells three bottles of this vinegar on a typical Saturday. Alice featured the vinegar as a base for the vinaigrette. She told customers that it was made from Umboshi plums which alkalinize the blood and as a bonus have a sweeter taste than normal vinegars. We sold four cases of the Ume plum vinegar that day!

As a supplement to the end caps and case stacks you create around the store, remember to give your customers recipes and suggestion on using the products displayed. These will be quickly taken and increase the amount of products purchased from the displays.


Accessing your market through advertising can keep you in the public eye while staying within your budget. Outpost produces a monthly newsletter called The Outpost Exchange that we mail to members and distribute free throughout the greater Milwaukee area. Each issue is a combination of ad copy and articles. Co-op advertising with manufacturers and fully paid ads by others pay for the costs of publication.

If your budget allows, choosing an ad firm to represent you is well worth the investment. If dollars are tight, local colleges are ripe with marketing students who are more than happy to develop new advertising ideas foryour store.

At Outpost we strive for a positive public image. Our paid advertisements focus on informative ads that reinforce this attitude. Specific product lines or pricing are not mentioned. Through trial and error, we have found this to be an effective tool in keeping Outpost in the grocery "limelight."

Promotional events

Promotional events make Outpost a fun place to shop. Our "Kid's Club" encourages families to make our co-op their home. We provide activities that link the children to Outpost and thereby build our future clientele. Kid's Club members receive name buttons that entitle them to free healthy snacks each time they wear them in our store. The snacks are provided by manufacturers and are available at the customer service desk.

This past year we sponsored a Fitness Fair outside of our store on a Sunday., The purpose of this fair was to give people the opportunity to talk with many alternative health practitioners and have their questions answered so they could make a choice that was right for them. We closed off the street and rented a tent in case of rain. We sent a mailing to many of the advertisers in our Exchange magazine for rental of space in our tent.

We had 28 vendors sign up. They ranged from chiropractors to Reiki practitioners to massage therapists and many others. We also sold tofu dogs and vegie burgers as well as our meat manager's homemade bratwursts. There were free 45-minute workshops on a variety of topics, including homeopathy, herbs, chronic fatigue syndrome and many more, which were very well attended. It was a very successful day of providing information and fun for our customers and increasing the traffic in our store.

Outpost's mission is to treat our customers with respect and kindness while we share our cooperative vision of a healthy future that sustains the health and well-being of our owners, customers and the planet. Remember, if you enjoy and believe in what you do, your owners and customers will too!

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