CUSTOMERS TOUR CENTRAL MARKET

SEATTLE -- (FNS) Retailers are using organic selections as bait to lure customers away from other operators, and some here are bringing in outside help to introduce locals to their organic offerings.Town & Country's Central Market Shoreline unit has adopted an integrated approach in which conventional and organic selections are placed side by side on the shelf in an effort to showcase the variety

SEATTLE -- (FNS) Retailers are using organic selections as bait to lure customers away from other operators, and some here are bringing in outside help to introduce locals to their organic offerings.

Town & Country's Central Market Shoreline unit has adopted an integrated approach in which conventional and organic selections are placed side by side on the shelf in an effort to showcase the variety of categories.

Central Market is one of the several Seattle-area retailers that invite an outside consultant to provide a schedule of tour dates for customers. The presentation marries personal coaching, pantry revisions and touring the retail unit over a three-hour event. Attendance is limited to six "shoppers."

"The tour is really educational," said Jim Huffman, store director of Central Market. "Shoppers are brought in and they are told the differences between conventional and organic. The tours are also an excellent introduction to our store and our offerings."

According to Huffman, those on the tours this spring were not regular Central Market shoppers. "They used to go to other grocery outlets," he said. "Now most make our store part of their weekly shopping."

Puget Consumers Co-op is another operator that is employing the consultant's tour. While PCC is a notable organic provider, Peter Shipley, a supervisor at the chain's Green Lake unit, concurs with Huffman that tours lure new shoppers to his store.

"Anything to get the word out on healthy eating is a plus," said Shipley. "These events are a benefit to the entire industry."

"We provide education, information and encouragement to attendees to help them make good organic food choices," said Dennis Weaver, the Edmonds, Wash.-based consultant who leads the tours. "It's difficult for retailers to promote their organic selections alone. We bring customers into the retail store and demonstrate the replacement and substitution solutions available to their usual food choices.

"Mostly these people are in the store they are touring for the first time and we have seen their loyalty shift once they are introduced to the selections available."

At the beginning of the tour the "shoppers" are given specially labeled carts to make item selection easy. Additionally, Weaver will pull items off the shelf for attendees to sample in the aisle. "Even adults like treats and surprises," he said. Weaver pays for these items.

"We help the retailers present the valuable line of organic foods they already have on their shelves to satisfy consumer demand," said Weaver.

He said he strives to give attendees the skills necessary to make simple choices in their eating. He addresses the reading of labels and the price disparity issue between organic and conventional selections saying, "You can't compare items on price alone. The total is the whole of many parts.

"We encourage people on our tours to simply make two or three organic choices each week," said Weaver. "Over time their pantry and refrigerator will be full of good health."

The tours focus on variety and take a special side tour into the operator's bulk food offerings. Some of Weaver's suggestions include pre-soaking and pre-cooking beans and rice blends and storing them in the refrigerator for easily accessible use.

Whole Foods Market's Seattle unit also uses Weaver to present organics as a life choice, both in the tour format and as part of the operator's cooking and lifestyle course offerings. Here, a two-hour presentation in the unit's Salud classroom puts items in customer's hands.

"In all these efforts, we are usually introducing consumers to brands they are not used to seeing," said Weaver. "When they begin to see them, they can begin to accept the organic brands."

The tours and classes are promoted in-store, via Weaver's mailing list, in community newspapers and through local hospitals. "People are concerned about their diet," he said. "They want to make changes and don't know how or where. We simply guide them and offer solutions."