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Oat Bran Craze From Many Years Ago...

Molbeck's Health Foods

After about a year or so, the staff at Racine Runaway and I decided that this social work wasn't something I loved or was good at, and with no other job options, I moved on to retail. I worked as store manager at Molbeck's Health Food and Spices, less than a mile from the Racine Runaway facility. The retail part of the store contained about 1,000 square feet -- this meant typically only one employee was required to be present. With that size and a niche market, loyal customers were our lifeblood to stay in business; we were part of a multi-store building, so our first objective was getting them in the door. Once in the door, we wanted to know why they stopped by and what they were interested in regarding healthy foods. I enjoyed the results of what a survey may bring without actually using a survey. Asking the right amount of questions may return valuable retail behavior. If a customer left the store without interaction, it was like a strikeout with several men on base. That had to be an anomaly -- you want to limit the number of men left on base as much as possible.

How to Engage With Customers?

Common sense and occasional emotional intelligence helped me interact and engage with customers. It was critical to read each customer individually and come to some snap conclusion about their demeanor. Were they in a hurry? Were they unlawfully parked in a disability space? Did they have a behavior where they didn't feel like talking?

Past behavior told me not to engage with customers in a hurry; it would be like kayaking upstream with a broken paddle. You could find other customers humming as they walked up and down the aisles, so you knew they had time to chat. Only when the timing appeared suitable I'd offer the obligatory, "Are you finding everything ok?" It was meant to be friendly, but sometimes I felt awkward saying that for some unseen reason. It was also a more nuanced way of communication and a diversion from "How are you?" I also found time to experiment with different approaches. What did I have to lose, especially if no one is offended by your trial and error chances?

Working in healthy foods, I felt being the store manager meant I had to know all about healthy foods and vitamins. I was open to learning from my customers during brief and long interactions. I quickly realized specific customers had more knowledge about vitamins and minerals and diets such as whole foods, vegetarianism, or the Macrobiotic diet, so that meant I could also learn from others and try to remain grounded. My mantra now and then has remained the same, you learn more by listening than speaking.

Oat Bran Craze

After about six months on the job, a new customer walked in one day and purchased 4 pounds of bulk oat bran which I didn't think about him again until he paid me another visit a few days later. I had to ask him, "What are you doing with all this oat bran?" His reply, "Studies have shown that oat bran was quite effective at reducing cholesterol and triglycerides at the time (mid-1987)." This customer had read about that new study in the newspaper recently and also heard a report on the nightly news program. A day or two later, several new customers also grabbed a few pounds of oat bran – they too had heard of the study, so they felt that using oat bran would help their health. I sensed a trend with this product, so I quickly ordered a few hundred pounds of oat bran and advertised this on the sign outside on the sidewalk. To further entice customers looking to lower their cholesterol, I put them "On-sale," which immediately brought an increase of 40% in foot traffic. That meant instead of 40 customers a day, you'd see close to 60. It wasn't long before the marketplace produced many products that contained oat bran. That news article, shared by a new customer, helped our bottom line for many months and is a reminder -- it's not a bad thing to be curious.

Which Goods Provided the Greatest Profit Margin?

Profit margins on grocery items depended on the item on sale. For example, vitamins, minerals, and herbs had a 100% markup. In other words, a $20 bottle of vitamins meant roughly a $10 profit for the retailer. That sometimes meant you had vitamin and herb salespeople using the generous profit margin as a way to get their product displayed in the store possibly. Who could blame them for their attempt? With limited space, I rarely felt it was beneficial to bring in new products except if it was something that might "wow" the customer.

Grocery items had a 50% markup, meaning you'd have to sell twice the amount to keep up with the profit margin of vitamins and herbs. We had an advantage over most other retailers because we sold things in bulk – we'd order unbleached whole wheat flour, oat bran, or mixed nuts in 25 to 50-pound boxes. This meant manual labor was needed to get the bulk material on the shelf. Anyway, some of the baggings of bulk items could occur between customers – sometimes you had a lull of five to ten minutes between someone waltzing through the door.

Bulk Foods Helped Bring Customers into the Store

We also sold spices and herbs in bulk. We'd use a cellophane container and seal it once the required size was met. Spices such as garlic powder or onion flakes were more common; therefore, you'd ensure that it met the 2-ounce minimum. Other less common and obscure spices and herbs were only measured in ½ or 1-ounce containers. Basically, by being in the store at all times, I could sense the needs of our customers. If there were a run on Golden Seal, I'd make a mental note to ensure we had enough to meet the increased demand.

One point that was made to me by the owner had to do with his retail philosophy with this store. Vitamin and supplement sales were critical for paying the bills. But we felt at the time you couldn't just sell vitamins in your store (that wasn't our philosophy.) To get people in your door, you could highlight your "unique" retail store, especially the ability to get many fruits, nuts, flour, and other items in bulk. That was the key to getting them inside the store. Because bulk foods were less expensive, that was an appeal that many other stores didn't have. Bulk wheat bran may retail for $.80 a pound, and that same prepackaged bran might sell in the store or elsewhere for $1.19 per pound. To sweeten the deal and attract more customers, I'd sometimes sell wheat bran at around $.50 per pound. When those wheat bran customers saw that outstanding sale, they'd stock up at such a low price. I found that it was ultimately more cost-effective to have items sold at "cost" while increasing foot traffic by 30% -- it often turned out to be an effective sales strategy.

Some customers loved our bulk section, but I sometimes received feedback on not having self-service bins. Why not let the customers help themselves with these bins, avoiding all that manual labor of packaging in bulk? Some felt like bins (like today's Whole Foods) were the way to go, but our owner liked it that way. Besides, he felt tagging bulk items in bags made the entire checkout process more seamless. We bagged bulk items in between servicing customers. We always had time to finish the task -- kind of like those front-desk employees at a health club who would fold towels when no one was around to check-in.

What Motivated my Diligent Service?

Some say I was motivated by a potential raise from the owner. You know, if sales tick up 20%, then perhaps I'll get a cut of the profits. It was sometimes a weekly new marketing approach or experiment to increase foot traffic and spending on all foot traffic. To be clear, the financial incentive was not my first motivator. If anyone who has worked retail knows, it's almost impossible to control when the flow of customers occurs. Retail is a tricky and demanding business, especially when you're pedaling healthy food.

There'd be times you'd be busy with customers unexpectedly and not busy when you had that expectation. There were also times you'd have a new customer every 5 minutes for 3 hours and then not have any more customers the rest of the shift. I've talked to other retailers over the years, and they, too, have experienced this phenomenon of not knowing what retail will bring in the remaining time. Regardless of the flow of customers, one thing I learned is to treat each customer with respect and understanding. As I regularly reminded myself, you build your brand, one interaction at a time.

Today, oat bran is not the "hot seller" it was in the 1980s, but unlike most fads, this fad hung around for several years. Regardless of the craze, you'd try to ride that trend as far as possible. Lecithin became popular a little after the oat bran fazes to help lower cholesterol, so the actual demand may help determine what products you may feature moving forward. You had others who regularly shop for their wheat bran, which is definitely the best-priced bulk wheat bran in Racine. Some customers were vegans and wanted some meat and cheese alternatives without animal products. For ethical or religious reasons, other customers needed to shop for vegetarianism, which meant prepackaged veggie burgers and hotdogs became a staple.

Takeaways from this Job?

What did I learn? I learned that clean fingernails are preferable to dirt in fingernails. (I'd sometimes do landscaping before my shift and have dirty fingernails, which the owner scolded me about. Lesson learned.) I knew that every touchpoint was important. It was about building our brand, one interaction at a time. I learned not to say "cheaper" but "less expensive." It conveys a much more positive image within the grocery business. I learned that it doesn't hurt to "experiment" with displays within and outside the store. You never know what may make a difference. I learned that selling several things at "cost" was often an effective way of exposing new customers to our unique selection in the store. I knew I could regularly learn from customers who may be well informed on different health food subjects. I learned that increased sales were positive, but it also positively affected my retail exposure. I knew that it was impossible to predict foot traffic commonly. The fluctuation of customers from time to time was often counterintuitive to logic. I learned over time that I gained more and more responsibility after showing maturity and competence for a particular task. I knew that some strict vegetarians ate more poorly than other non-vegetarians as their diet included a lot of processed foods with too much sugar and salt.

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