In Mountlake Terrace, Wash., a supermarket-saturated suburb north of Seattle, it's evolution that's causing the revolution for independent natural foods market Manna Mills. To stay in the running for market share, the operator has shed its earthy health food store trappings and has turned to conventional merchandising and traditional marketing techniques.
"Change has been constant," said Karrie Stemmler, who owns Manna Mills along with her husband, Jay. "We now have changed every square inch of the store."
Stemmler's words are being echoed by many natural foods operators who are elated that their format has finally hit the big time -- and worried because mainstream supermarkets are taking more of their customer base.
"We go into the big stores and look around for ways to make our store better," said Stemmler. "We have to continually seek ways to draw our customers' attention to the great products we carry. Ideas come from many places. We want to sell products. That's why we are in the retail business."
Manna Mills fills a tidy 4,000 square feet of selling space that's chock full of organic and natural selections of dry grocery; 100% organic produce, dairy and frozens; and a full range of supplements, natural health and beauty items, and homeopathic remedies.
Some of the changes have included a revamping of the dry grocery section. Reset aisles were issued color blocks, with particular attention given to eye-level items. Endcaps have been added, and an entryway display focuses on value. A passive sampling station is positioned at the store's single entrance and is stocked daily to spur trial. Signs have been updated storewide, and cross-merchandising efforts are evident in every aisle.
As independents, the Stemmlers have sought any small edge that will differentiate Manna Mills from other food retail outlets in the area.
"We want the shopping experience to be fun, relaxed and enjoyable," said Stemmler. "But I think what really sets us apart is our customer service and our quality products. A small shop has to compete outside the box to stand out."
Knowledgeable staff is the linchpin of Manna Mills' efforts to maintain the customer-service standards set down by the Stemmlers. The staff is encouraged to spend time with customers on the sales floor, helping customers read ingredients, find items and select supplements. Oftentimes, they end up giving impromptu store tours.
In a continual effort to expand its shopping cart share, Manna Mills is vigilant in reworking and refining merchandising, marketing and mix. Beer and wine have just been added to the store, highlighting organic, sulfite-free and locally produced selections.
"While we are competing with supermarkets and discount operators on a few items, we offer wines and beers that have something else to offer," said Stemmler.
"We have always carried alternative products like rich cheeses and soy milk. It was easy to carry wheat alternatives," she said. Owners for 10 years, the couple originally purchased a 30-year-old flour mill operation.
"Then we found there was a huge demand for retail items, much more than bulk products," said Stemmler.