Navigating the Health Food Marketplace
Jun 25, 2019 09:29PM
By Linda Sechrist
Every industry, including the health food industry, has its own jargon. Unpronounceable words, abbreviations, acronyms and ingredients listed on labels in print too tiny to read, have no handy, pocket-sized reference dictionary, making the plethora of dietary supplements, minerals, herbs, methodologies and technologies difficult to understand. This may be one of the reasons that individuals prefer to shop at health food stores, where the staff is more inclined to speak in layman’s language.
Navigating the sea of healthy living data online and in related publications is overwhelming for anyone not deeply invested in the subject. In contrast, the staff at natural health food stores has a voracious appetite for it and is so enthusiastic that they do research in their spare time and freely share what they know with customers. This, along with high-quality products, an attractive and customer-centric atmosphere, as well as forming personal relationships with customers, creates the rewarding personalized shopping experience that individuals expect from local health food stores.
Examples Are Clearer
During childhood, Mariesa Smola, co-owner of Genesis Non-GMO Vitamins, in Naples, absorbed her dad Vincent Pitonzo’s passion for healthy living by osmosis. Although she wandered far from the modeled example during her adolescent years, after watching David Wolfe in the documentary Food Matters, Smola turned her unhealthy lifestyle around.
Today, Smola and her dad operate a store, that sells strictly non-GMO everything in bulk herbs and supplements, as well as organic clothing. Her mother, Maria Bella Pitonzo, a hair stylist specializing in organic hair treatments, operates an organic salon inside the store. Combined, they have an impressive total of 50 years experience.
Life Experience and Education
“Up until age 20, I didn’t eat healthy and was overweight,” notes Smola, who was determined to become as intelligent and passionate as Wolfe, who inspired her to drop poor eating habits and try a raw food diet. “I found the BodyMind Institute online and took classes, as well as other online courses on nutrition, herbalism, homeopathy and naturopathy. I get to use the knowledge gained from earning my eight certifications in holistic health and lifestyle coaching, raw food nutrition coaching, life coaching and spiritual counseling when I help customers confidently achieve their health goals.”
Discernment is a necessity
“The market is oversaturated with a mix of hype, rhetoric and reliable information. This is why we refer customers to our trusted Internet websites. Most give customers the opportunity to speak directly with a naturopathic doctor, licensed herbalist or homeopath on staff,” says Smola, who encourages customers to do research.
One criterion for the brands Smola carries is smaller companies with more control of their products, noting, “We like to support suppliers that although they might make only one product, they use organic, non-GMO, glyphosate-free ingredients and have control over their suppliers and the production process, which means they are more in touch with where their ingredients come from.”
Rebecca Salcido, who oversees the vitamin/health and beauty department at Ada’s Natural Market, in Fort Myers, advises that supplement companies have regional and national educators to provide training on product development and up-to-date research at the store and at conventions, where professors, researchers and doctors lecture attendees. “We also use some of the same resources that other health food store associates learn from. For instance, many of us follow well-known doctors such as Mark Hyman, Josh Axe, Joseph Mercola, and Eric Berg. We also follow Terry Lemerond, president and founder of EuroPharma, who has 40 years experience in the health food industry as an owner of several health food stores and nutritional manufacturing companies. We watch their educational videos and use their website search tools. We also study abstracts on PubMed.com, a free search engine accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. Some of us pursue additional studies related to natural health and nutrition. I’m majoring in holistic nutrition at the University of Natural Health,” says Salcido, who has been with Ada’s for three years.
No Advice No Recommendations
After being a stay-at-home mom for 11 years, Salcido returned to work. Her former experience in bodybuilding, background in the natural health industry and degrees in marketing made her good match for Ada’s. “I already knew that one of the rules for store associates has never changed—we can’t legally give advice or make recommendations regarding products and health issues,” states Salcido, who cites examples of ways store associates can legally speak to customers. “If you ask me if turmeric reduces inflammation, I can talk about what PubMed studies show or I can refer you to those studies. I can also tell you about how curcumin, a polyphenol in turmeric, has been studied by medical researchers and about results indicating that it aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis and anxiety.”
Salcido can also tell customers how product ingredients work in the body or share with them what she personally uses a product for. “I’m a mother of six children, so if a woman asks me about a product for breast feeding, I could tell her about what I’ve taken to increase my breast milk. Our other store associates speak from personal experience about what they use, and we all share the anecdotal experience of our customers who give us feedback about the products they use. We teach customers how to do their own research, whose website has reliable information and whose doesn’t.”
Long-term customer relationships
In addition to trusted websites and newsletters that associates in other stores follow, Mike Monteleone and Jill Acker, colleagues at Food & Thought, rely on GreenMedInfo.com and OrganicInsider.com. “It’s necessary to keep up with our industry because a significant number of repeat customers come in to ask us what we know regarding products and the latest research they read about in publications or on the internet. Supplement sales and education once were more confined to health food stores. Today’s online sales and stores such as Whole Foods, Lucky’s, WalMart, Sprouts and Costco, in addition to more stores selling the types, but not necessarily the brands that we carry, has made our industry more competitive. However, I sense that people prefer a personalized interaction, which is why we specialize in building long-term relationships and treating our customers as though they are extended family,” says Monteleone.
Acker’s background as a high school biology teacher, experience in alternative healing methods she applied to personal health problems, teaching anatomy and physiology, pathology, first-aid and CPR for 10 years at Charter College of Health and Massage, and working at Trinity College of Natural Health provides a depth of understanding regarding overall health. “Michael and I take our jobs very seriously and work hard to be a positive resource for the community,” says Acker, who has been with Food & Thought for five years.
Concern Regarding Mergers and Future Standards
Acker and Monteleone are concerned about mergers and the future of quality and standards in the supplement/health food store industry. Monteleone cites examples. Proctor & Gamble bought New Chapter, a foundational brand in the herbal products business in 2012. Renew Life and Natural Vitality, which makes Calm, the popular powdered magnesium supplement, were absorbed along with Rainbow Light by Nutranext, LLC, owned by The Clorox Company. Garden of Life is now owned by Nestle. Honestea has become a wholly owned subsidiary of The Coca Cola Company. The concern is the possibility of these corporations putting pressure on the government to water down standards. It’s happening with the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing hydroponics in organic—a complete violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.” The latest controversy involves “organic” hydroponic blueberry operators in Florida and California spraying glyphosate on their land. After the land has been treated, the growers place a plastic tarp down on the ground and then set hydroponic containers on top of the tarp. Another issue is whether hydroponic operators have to undergo a three-year transition period, a cornerstone of organic certification and something with which soil-based farmers must comply.
Additionally, representatives from consumer groups are no longer allowed on boards that determine organic standards. “This creates a disadvantage for small growers that grow in the true spirit of organic rules,” advises Monteleone, whose interest in natural health began while working to improve his health with the assistance of former part-time Naples resident and author Anthony William, who wrote Medical Medium: Secrets Behind Chronic and Mystery Illness and How to Finally Heal. Completion of a Hippocrates Health Institute program, as well as numerous webinars, seminars and classes provide continuing education on an ever-changing industry.
Opportunities to Learn from Personal Health Issues
Bruce Ford, owner of For Goodness Sake, in Bonita Springs, turned to DNA testing to learn the source of health problems that included insomnia, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, irritable bowel, asthma, migraines, difficulty swallowing, clogged sinuses and problems with vision. “Symptoms appeared and disappeared. I was diagnosed with everything from chronic fatigue syndrome to lupus before DNA testing revealed a gene mutation that expressed as susceptibility to autoimmune disorders. My allergies and an antibiotic resistant staff infection stemmed from exposure to mold mycotoxins that had accumulated in my body, along with my body’s inability to detox them. Because I was unable to clear heavy metals, I did chelation. After living for nearly four years with so many health issues and researching solutions, I became interested in natural health, a ketogenic diet, CBD, and genetic testing, which in retrospect I should have started with, so that I knew my genetic predispositions.
As Ford’s store manager, Kellie Cerillo uses her background and experience as a former brand ambassador and sales representative for well-known supplement companies. “Websites, newsletters and brand representatives satisfy the demand for staying on top of everything about this industry,” says Cerillo, who refrains from carrying brands bought out in mergers and prefers carrying whole food supplements and reliable but lesser-known brands with a familiar backstory.
Commenting on the role that the deli plays in attracting customers, Cerillo says, “Individuals that come in to order a wrap, soup, salad or a smoothie often wander into store aisles and ask questions about supplements and popular CBD products. It’s slower during off-season, and although there is less traffic, new deli customers who aren’t necessarily into a healthy lifestyle follow their curiosity when they discover that Brue or I are available to talk,” say Cerillo.
To counter the drop in summer sales, Ada’s offers lectures by local experts and Wellness Fairs on the last Saturday of the month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., which began as a seminar series. Dreading the summer dip in attendees from 40- to 50 to eight or fewer, Salcido came up with a fresh concept that allows attendees to join an expert one-on-one at a private table and ask questions, alleviating any embarrassment of posing deeply personal health concerns during an open Q&A segment.
No Science for Curious Customers
“I believe the off-season is challenging for all of us in this area. In January, when I advertised a CBD seminar during the day, 100 people called to sign up. Now we get two or three,” advises Ford. “Knowing the name of our repeat customers, creating relationships, having the deli, carrying quality brands and helping people to reach their health goals isn’t enough to change someone’s mind about the benefits of supplements and things like CBD, which don’t have medical science and studies behind them like drugs do. Even after hearing statics on the approximately 106,000 people that die annually from taking pharmaceutical drugs, the older generations still want scientific proof. I’m glad to see the tide is turning for younger customers who aren’t as interested in that.
“I think it’s time to give up the fantasy of the magic bullet and accept responsibility for making lifestyle change and doing our own homework, logical solutions that have always been available to us. Thank goodness for functional medicine, which is pointing us in that direction now.”
Ada’s Natural Market, 7070 College Pkwy., Fort Myers, 239-939-9600. AdasMarket.com.
Food & Thought, 2132 Tamiami Tr. N., Naples, 239-213-2222. FoodAndThought.com.
For Goodness Sake, 9118 Bonita Beach Rd., Bonita Springs, 239-992-5838. ForGoodnessSakes.com.
Genesis Non-GMO Vitamins, 877 91st Ave. N., Ste. 4, Naples. GenesisNonGmo.com.
Whole Foods, 9101 Strada Pl., Naples, 239-552-5100. WholeFoodsMarket.com.