ALL THINGS ORGANIC

CHICAGO - Both natural and conventional food retailers say public events such as product demonstrations are among the more effective strategies they use to promote sales of organic products.Representatives of United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, and Earth Fare, the Asheville, N.C.-based chain of natural food stores, outlined their use of promotions, partnerships and consumer outreach to capture new

CHICAGO - Both natural and conventional food retailers say public events such as product demonstrations are among the more effective strategies they use to promote sales of organic products.

Representatives of United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, and Earth Fare, the Asheville, N.C.-based chain of natural food stores, outlined their use of promotions, partnerships and consumer outreach to capture new organic food customers and retain current ones at the All Things Organic exposition and trade show co-located with the annual Food Marketing Institute show here.

"If you're going to sell organic products, know who you are, what organics means to your overall strategy and how you're going to communicate that," said Troy DeGroff, director of sales and marketing for Earth Fare. The 12-store chain currently enjoys sales of $100 million a year and is forecasting further growth upwards of 30% annually.

"We have extensive sampling programs," he said. "We like to create an experience for our customers when they come to the store. It just can't be about the products on the shelf."

The produce section is 70%-90% organic, and the retailer sources local-grown product whenever possible. Last year, 10% of produce sold at Earth Fare stores came from farms in the chain's bioregion. Customers are informed of this through farmer store visits, point-of-purchase materials, outside events and the Friends of Earth Fare program, in which the chain partners with organizations like the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

"They're based in western North Carolina, which is our home turf," DeGroff said. "They provide marketing materials to retailers and to farmers; they also organize tailgate markets in the area. They help spread the word about what we do, and it helps validate our stance on organics and sustainable agriculture."

At United Supermarkets, natural and organics make up an average of 2% of total sales, though they approach 6% in some units operating under the upscale Market Street format. Suman Lawrence, who oversees marketing and training for the retailer's Living Well whole-health umbrella program, said that the chain's marketing of organics has evolved from a single store-in-store department seven years ago to a segregated/integrated approach, in which products are merchandised in regular aisles with their conventional counterparts but are offset with special fixtures, rail strips and shelf tags.

"This way, [customers] can look at the whole set and maybe find something that they really hadn't come to look at, but the choice is there," Lawrence said.

United regularly promotes naturals and organics with "Expo Saturdays" that allow the retailer to upsell higher-premium organic items to consumers. Such promotions, held on the third Saturday of every month, include up to 15 demo stations in which some products are organic.

"We have vendors coming in, seminars, and anything to try and promote the idea we can be an organic resource," Lawrence said.

2006 was also the first year the chain participated in Go Organic!, an annual event promoting the organic lifestyle that runs every April and coincides with Earth Day.