Running a Successful HBA Department


* Know a lot about what you sell.

* Be organized and detail oriented.

* Prioritize well.

* Train your staff as you train yourself.

* Move quickly.

Most days I feel like a computer.  I've got the ordering file, the customer service file, the manager file, the merchandising file and the retail nerd file. I pull up the different files many times each day, constantly putting one before the other then making it disappear as the day a huge cross-country order finally arrives UPS, or as a customer appears in the aisle for the first time so frustrated by her M.D. that she wants to know what else is available for her chronic fatigue, or as the broker deal I've been waiting for doesn't appear at the distributor's desk even though my endcap is nearly empty. The priorities of the morning shift and may shift again before the day is aver.

Selling supplements and body care is such an information-heavy endeavor that staying organized is critical. I have a ridiculous number of vendors, because we want to carry as many locally-made products as possible and because we want to be unique and serve as many customer needs as we can. That means I have a file cabinet drawer, on the sales floor, filled with folders containing order sheets, catalogues, monthly sales info, and broker opportunities. The file drawer below is filled with product information so that it is handy when I have a customer in need. There is a master list of all vendors and brokers that gets marked with the order dates so that if I get hit by a car, my assistant can tell what little orders need to be placed. This is no small feat. Though the majority of our products are bought from large distributors with deadlines and truck deliveries, a significant portion is bought via UPS and RPS orders on an as-needed basis.

Whole Foods runs their departments lean on ordering labor. They focus all their attention on products they can get from large distributors. This works well for them because they are big enough to get the distributors to carry what they want them to carry, and they are big enough to compete with the mainstream supermarket chains that have gotten into the natural foods niche.

At GreenStar Cooperative, our biggest competititon is those mainstream supermarket chains. With $4 million in annual sales, we have to be clever about keeping our doors open. One of the ways we do that is by carrying lines that the big stores can't. We also want to honor our mission statement decree of emphasizing the promoting locally produced goods. The trick is to find a comfortable line between being too lean and going crazy trying to meet everyone's needs all the time.

Signs sell

When I think of details I think of signs, and I think of planning ahead for displays and holidays and scheduling for busy times and slow times and the trade shows. After struggling for years with computer software and member labor sign makers, we finally have a system that works pretty well. Every Friday my assistant has scheduled computer time to make signs. I write down, throughout the week, which ones we need, whether it is next month's sales, or the products that went out on an endcap as well as on the shelf for which we didn't make two signs, or those late-in-coming broker sales that didn't get a sign when they were stocked. They don't sell better if you put them on sale unless there is a sign in front letting the customer know what's going on. This is obvious, but easy to shrug off in the face of so many demands - make it a weekly routine to keep up with your signage.

Make sure your accounting department or your general manager is giving you at least weekly sales reports that detail each day and each department. Keep these in a binder and refer back to them when making your monthly schedules. Makes notes on them about how hellish things seemed, so you can learn from your labor mistakes.

Plan to go to at least one trade show a year, and expect that one week before and after each show you will be especially busy. Under-estimating how much work a show is will make your unduly stressful and will not allow you to get the most out of the trip.

When you are at the shows, notice how products are displayed. Body care especially needs a special creative tough. It's best to somehow pull it aside from the grocery store din and give it more beautiful shelves and a little more space. The turns are slower in HBA than in grocery, so dusting is imperative. It's an everyday task for us, because the store seems to be a vacuum for all the dirt outside. Nobody wants to buy fresh cosmetics with dust on them; think about it.

And what about all those products out there? There are too many! Be super critical of what anybody tries to sell you. Politely assume the worst and make them prove otherwise. Set standards for your department. Most co-ops have store standards but don't know enough about supplements and body care to set standards for those areas. For example, I only carry cruelty-free products, no collagen either. All the paper products are 100 percent recycled with at least 20 percent post-consumer content. I won't carry Ecstasy even when it comes on a chain with a free condom, and I only carry ephedra in formulas in keeping with its traditional Chinese usage. I also follow the guidelines set forth by the Natural Products Quality Assurance Alliance. Cooperatives are our best hope at keeping integrity in this industry now that the mass market is taking over.

Share the information

The most important aspect of running a successful HBA department is knowing your product lines and training your staff to know what you know and how to find out more on their own. After many years of training staff in this department, I hae learned that it takes an average hire three months to learn the job to the point where they can initiate tasks and problem solve effectively when a manager is not around. So be patient. People are easily overwhelmed. Catch yourself whenever you say that a task is common sense; remember you are a retail nerd and it is only common sense to you. This department demands more time from its staff than any other at the entry level. The products are more complex to learn, and the customer service demands go way beyond how to cook quinoa.

So, keep your staff interested and satisfied with their job by giving them the information they need to do their jobs well. Give them samples and involve them in the buying process. Share your favorite books with them. Show them which ones are best for quick reference. Bring into your staff meetings herbalists, nutritionists, and homeopaths to educate them on the alternative therapies that are available. Ask every vendor you have for information about their products. Many now have free audio and video tapes. Keep a lending library of these tapes for your staff. Ask your vitamin companies to come to your store and give talks to your staff and to your customers. Schedule both talks in one day to make the most of their journey to your store. Ask your brokers and reps to give talks and demos in your store. Have your local herbalist talk for 45 minutes in your next staff meeting and have her come back on a regular basis. He or she will be happy to help you sell more of their tinctures. Ask your local homeopath to give a talk to the public and have your staff attend. Ask your homeopathic company to sponsor this or help you with the costs of putting it on. Use the resources you have available to you to train yourself and your staff. All product information doesn't have to come straight from your mouth; it's another thing you can delegate to an expert.

I'd say about 40 percent of the supplements on your shelf can sell all by themselves, but the rest really need to be sold by someone in the store. Most body care can sell itself, but not facial care products, and some will sdisappear without being paid for if someone isn't around. You can control your sales figures most directly right on the floor. Make sure you are there as much as possible. When you can't be on the floor, make sure someone else is, someone you have informed about the products on the shelves as well as the legal boundaries of what they can say. Most of the time it will be your departmental staff, but sometimes it will be another store employee. We have floor managers who travel the store to help customers, answer the phone, etc. Make sure whoever has contact with your customers is also involved in your educational opportunities. I attend floor manager meetings on a regular basis to make sure all new staff know how our department is organized and what they can and cannot say to customers, and I make sure they know about our lending library and free seminars. The power of this kind of health information is only fully realized when it is shared.

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