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Who Says Curiosity Needs to Kill the Cat?

Updated: Apr 2, 2022

I graduated with a degree in sociology/criminal justice over 40 years ago. I chose that degree because the coursework involved would be the most interesting field of study available at my university. I didn’t think I’d have a career in law enforcement or social work but felt it was necessary to be exposed to different aspects of the industry to see if the field was right for me.

After some international travel to Europe and Asia, I got a job at a runaway shelter in Racine, Wisconsin. The Racine Runaway facility was open at all times for those runaway teens to have a temporary place to stay – the facility was always staffed with at least one staff member. There were times that we’d temporarily intake a runaway at 2 am; this meant you may not get rest with your overnight shift but still had to keep one ear by the phone. Also, this facility housed the Racine Hotline for those individuals who just needed someone to talk to. Thankfully, we didn’t receive too many calls in the early morning hours. Moreover, another challenge was being comfortable using the rotary phones.

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. The store was Molbeck’s Health Food and Spices, located 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 get to know them a bit, why they stopped by, and what they were interested in among our healthy foods. I wanted the results of what a survey may bring without actually using a survey. Asking the right amount of questions may return valuable retail behavior. Anyway, if a customer left the store without any 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.

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 on their demeanor. Were they in a hurry? Were they unlawfully parked in a disability space? Did they have a demeanor where they just didn't feel like talking?

Past behavior told me not to engage with customers who were in a hurry, it would be like swimming upstream with a paddle. Other customers may be humming as they walked up and down the aisles so you knew they had time to chat. Only when the timing appeared right, 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 do you 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 natural foods and vitamins. I quickly realized certain 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, was willing to learn from each other during these interactions. My mantra now and then has remained the same, you learn more by listening than speaking.

After about 6 months on the job, a new customer walks 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 the question, "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.

Profit margins on goods clearly depended on the item. 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 possibly get their product displayed in the store. Who could blame them for their attempt? With limited space, I rarely felt it was beneficial to the store to bring in new products - it would have to be a "wow" product line.

Grocery items had a 50% mark up which meant you’d have to sell twice the amount to keep up with the vitamin and herb profit margin. The other advantage we had over most other retailers was bulk items – we’d order unbleached whole wheat flour, oat bran, or mixed nuts in 25 to 50-pound boxes. This of course meant some manual labor was needed to get the bulk material on the shelf. Anyway, some of the bagging of bulk items could occur in between customers – sometimes you had a lull of 5 to 10 minutes between someone waltzing through the door.

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 more obscure spices and herbs were only measured out to ½ or 1-ounce containers. Basically, by being in the store at all times, I could sense the needs of our customers. If there was 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 the philosophy that we had.) 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, to begin with, that was an appeal that many other stores didn’t have. Bulk wheat bran may retail for $.80 a pound and that same pre-packaged bran might sell in the store or elsewhere for $1.19 per pound. To sweeten the deal and to attract more customers, I’d sometimes sell wheat bran at a cost of around $.50 per pound. When those wheat bran customers would see 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” and all the 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 which would avoid 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 high club who fold towels when no one to attend to.

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 the amount of food traffic and increased spending on all foot traffic. Just 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 occurred. Retail is a tricky and finicky 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 with the next retail shift. Regardless of the flow of customers, one thing I learned is to treat each customer with respect and understanding. As a reminder to myself, you build your brand, one interaction at a time.

Oat bran is not the “hot seller” that we had in the 1980s but like anything, that fad didn’t last but a few years. Still, you’d try to ride that trend as far as possible. Lecithin became popular a little after the oat bran craze to also help with lowering cholesterol so the actual demand may help determine what products you may feature moving forward. You had others who would regularly shop for their wheat bran, definitely the best-priced bulk wheat bran in Racine. Some customers were vegans and wanted some meat and cheese alternatives without animal products. Other customers, for ethical or religious reasons, needed to shop vegetarianism which meant prepackaged veggie burgers and hotdogs became a staple.

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 learned that every touchpoint was important. It was about building our brand, one interaction at a time. I learned not to say “cheaper” but say “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 getting new customers in the store exposed to our unique selection. I learned that 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 had a positive effect on my retail exposure. I learned that it was impossible to commonly predict foot traffic, 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 learned that some strict vegetarians ate more poorly than other non-vegetarians as their diet included a lot of processed foods. Said differently, just being a vegetarian doesn’t guarantee it’s a healthy option if you don’t indeed consume healthy options.

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