CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Last week Paul Howland was appointed buyer/merchandiser for Bashas' Markets' Natural Choice departments, a whole-health destination that the chain began rolling out earlier this year. Howland's appointment signifies the dedication the 92-unit chain, based here, is applying to its entry into the health-wellness marketplace.
"It'll be his job to work specifically on this category," said George Fiscus, Bashas' vice president for nonfood. Howland joins others hired solely to support the new sections that are being opened at a rate of two a month. The chain presently has 12 Natural Choice departments. By the fall of 2000, Bashas expects to have a total of 30 Natural Choice sections under the Bashas' banner, which contains 64 stores.
Although still in the early stages of its introduction, Fiscus said, consumer reaction to the new 4,000-square-foot Natural Choice sets has been all positive. "I can't get into figures, but it's doing very well and sales are beyond our expections," he stated.
"Perhaps the most important factor in a successful whole-health department is devoted, knowledgeable, in-store personnel who specialize in natural-food, vitamin and supplement categories," said Fiscus, who compared such personnel to the role of a wine steward in disseminating knowledgeable information to consumers.
A specialist hired to sell the department and provide hands-on customer service mans each Natural Choice section. A Bashas' prospectus on the Natural Choice concept reads: "Our program is the empowering of our in-store specialists to efficiently bring in new items as customers request them. Too often, we are saddled by procedures that make even the simplest request a committee decision."
These specialists are trained by Mountain Peoples Warehouse, Auburn, Calif., Bashas' wholesaler, which is known for its expertise in natural food. The wholesaler also services Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas, and Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., which Bashas' used as models for the design of its Natural Choice concept.
"They brought us a lot of knowledge of what really moves in that category. We've really tried to select the best mix of the best items to offer to our customers that shop our format," said Fiscus.
He said more than 500 new items in the grocery product mix were added to Natural Choice departments. The wholesaler and department specialist review sales in each store at least every five weeks. The wholesaler publishes a top sellers book each month that ranks each stockkeeping unit carried by the wholesaler according to consumer demand and popularity.
"With our past suppliers, the natural-foods department has reacted to trends when they had already flattened, rather than at their genesis," stated the prospectus. The ranking reports combined with SPINS analysis on the natural-products marketplace is helping keep Bashas' at the forefront of natural-food and vitamin trends.
Ideally, the Natural Choice department is integrated with the pharmacy so customers can take advantage of the pharmacist's knowledge as well. In 1993, Bashas' introduced its pharmacy operation, which is run by United Drug, a cooperative, based here, of 900 independent pharmacists. There are presently 14 stores with United pharmacies. Bashas' expects to add four more by late next year, said Becca Anderson, a Bashas' spokeswoman.
One example where Natural Choice works best with the pharmacy is at a store in Tucson where the pharmacy has partnered with the University of Arizona in creating a consultation service area within its pharmacy/whole-health department. The service provides customers with information on how to improve their health through lifestyle, diet or medication changes. "The consultation area is uniquely suited to providing this information in that it is surrounded by healthy alternatives that span every department of the store, yet are centrally located just a few feet away," said the prospectus.
Through its distinctive signage and fixturing, Natural Choice departments can stand alone. The retailer has been able to effectively integrate healthy nonfood and food.
The departments are located up front, close to store entrances. There are five low-profile 16-foot gondola aisles for easy viewing, access and shopping. The sections' faux-wood flooring sets it apart from the rest of the store.
Three-foot vertical signs that call out each section of merchandise, such as "Natural Baking, Natural Condiments, Natural Juices and Sodas," segment the department. A 4-foot by 6-foot sign, "Organic Choices," with the Natural Choice logo, is suspended from the ceiling.
A complete selection of vitamin and herbal supplements and homeopathic remedies is available. Top sellers in homeopathic brands inlcude: Frontier, Hylands and Boiron. In herbals, Futurebiotics, Twinlabs, Natrol, Zand and Herbs for Kids complement the chain's mainstay NatureMade line. More than 600 new supplement products were added to the section.
"We merchandise the supplements by 'solution selling,' not by branding," said Fiscus. Solution selling involves grouping items based on customer need rather than operational convenience. For example: vitamin C, selenium, echinacea, goldenseal and zinc are grouped together in one section as "immune-system benefits."