Create a process that makes it easier for emerging natural brands to do business with you. Don’t make them go head to head during category reviews with category leaders, do have reduced slotting fees (or eliminate them altogether), do find creative ways to merchandise them prominently (showcasing your commitment to supporting new brands), do have specific advertising and marketing vehicles (at reduced costs), and definitely do have buyers or category managers reviewing these submissions who truly understand natural and the opportunity these products provide (not just to your bottom line but to bringing in new shoppers to your stores).
As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate LaBrosse, a Natural Products Industry expert, motivational speaker and Amazon bestselling author of This is Me, Bipolar-Free: Heal Your Mental Illness & Create Your Authentic Life.
She is the founder of Kate LaBrosse Consulting, the only holistic consulting firm for natural, mission-driven brands, creator of the Brand Builders™ program, and is dedicated to furthering the reach of the natural industry across all sales channels. She’s passionate about holistic healing and believes that natural products and real food are the foundation to correcting a flawed system focused on illness management and aims to empower individuals to take responsibility for their own health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My own struggle with bipolar disorder — and subsequent healing journey to becoming medication and episode free, brought me into the natural products industry (NPI) about twelve years ago. You see, up until that point, I had followed the traditional treatment route for years, including, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and psychotherapy. However, after my third suicide attempt I finally hit a point where I said, “Enough is enough! If I’m going to stay here, in this body, living this life, then I am going to find a way to do this differently. I am going to find a way to heal.” And that’s what I did; with the help of one amazing company who makes natural supplements specifically for people with mood disorders, many lifestyle and diet changes and lots of trial and error, I found my way to true and lasting health and in my first NPI job, managing the wellness department of a local food co-op. Since that job, I’ve been fortunate enough to work for several legacy companies in the industry and went from working an hourly position at a natural foods store to overseeing a national sales team for the most prominent broker in the business. Fast forward to today and I am now running my own consulting firm with a team that is as dedicated to the NPI as I am. Furthering the reach of this industry is literally my way to give back to something that saved my life — and that I believe has the power to impact millions of people by eliminating poison marketed as food from our grocery store shelves and fixing multiple broken systems.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I don’t have any funny stories coming to mind, but the biggest and most important lesson I’ve learned since starting my business, is that no one client, no one win, no one loss or failure will save or condemn your business. The big wins and losses certainly can make a huge impact, but it’s the day-in, day-out commitment to your vision and level of personal responsibility that will make or break you. And when I got clear on that, it shifted how I start and end my day, what I put my focus on, what kinds of thoughts I allow to take up residence inside my head, the behaviors I cultivate, the relationships that get my attention and how I execute the strategies to help me reach my goals.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Without a doubt, one of the most influential people in my career is the division VP at the broker I worked for; her name is Michelle and she will forever and always have my gratitude. She not only sought me out and hired me but then became my biggest role model and champion during my five years at that company. About halfway through my time there, I went to her with the vision and desire to create an entirely new division, focused on selling natural supplements and body care products to conventional retailers. She supported me every step of the way and because of her, I became the national director of this new division and had the privilege of leading some of the best account managers in the business — who then went onto impact the face of retail sets at accounts like Albertsons, Wegmans, HEB & Publix.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The first thing that comes to mind is the book I’m currently reading, The 5AM Club: Own Your Morning Elevate Your Life by Robin Sharma. In fact, I’m re-reading it for the second time (consecutively) because I’m so obsessed with its teachings! I’ve known for a while that my success, the success of my business and the subsequent success of my team and clients was dependent on me, how I show up in the world and the level of excellence I am willing to commit to. But I’m also an incredibly stubborn person so it took me a solid year and a half to actually do anything with this thought, to take any action on this knowing. And now I have Robin’s book guiding me and it literally feels like he’s writing straight from my own longings, my own heart. The changes I have made in the last couple months are already having a direct, positive impact on all facets of my life, not just my business.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are many incredibly talented, experienced consultants and consulting agencies in the NPI and while I have immense respect for them, and in fact, refer potential clients to them when I feel like we are not suited to work together, I can say confidently that there is no one who does what we do the way we do it. We call ourselves ‘the only holistic consulting firm’ because we’re combining nuts and bolts business consulting with spiritual, prosperity and wellness principles. We have an incredibly talented, passionate team with over 100 years’ combined experience in grocery retail who help our clients build their brands and achieve greater sales success. And, we also coach our clients on creating a growth mindset, changing their abundance set points, incorporating personal wellness practices, weaving their personal ‘why’ into their brand story, conquering the ‘imposter syndrome’ and ultimately becoming the founder of a brand that will become a legacy. You’ll see this reflected in our social media posts — it’s not just all business strategy or industry jargon. We mix it up with mental health tips for entrepreneurs, motivational stories and interviews with industry influencers who also want to do business differently in a way that it’s never been done before. This means we’re not for everyone — but our people, the ones who are meant to work with us feel like they’ve found exactly what they’ve always been searching for.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This one is going to sound obvious because of the industry I work in — but you need to start with taking care of your physical body. That means reducing the amount of processed, packaged food you eat and instead, eating real, whole foods and organic as often as possible. I know this can be an added expense for folks so if you’re on a budget, start with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen™, and buying humanely raised, no-hormone or antibiotic animal products. From there, build in morning and evening routines that are device free and that will support quality sleep. I recommend incorporating daily movement, meditation, and advance gratitude practices. The other thing I tell the founders I work with is that your business is not separate from your family, from your spirituality, from your friendships, from your service or from your physical health. They are all intimately connected, and every area is always effecting every other area. They all need to be supported and incorporated into the most authentic version of you — one who doesn’t feel like you have to show up differently depending on who you’re with or what you’re focusing on.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Some retailers were able to respond to the pandemic very quickly, shored up their supply chains on necessity items early on, and increased shelf-space for well-known products and large, legacy brands that carried with them an inherent comfort level. However, the successes and sales increases during the first few months of the pandemic are not necessarily telling of future, long-term retailer, or brand success. Retailers who continued to adapt to shifting consumer buying patterns throughout this last year have seen the greatest sustained lift. These patterns include the popularity of at-home baking, immune supplements, plant-based foods, non-alcoholic beverages, DIY beauty & self-care and pantry staples.
However, the real success stories will be told by the retailers who are nimble and progressive enough to incorporate the macro trends that are indicative of massive shifts in consumer behavior. Certified Organic, Non-GMO, B-Corp, Animal Welfare and Fair Trade are all continuing to show double digit growth and while these certifications in the natural industry are far more common, there’s a lot of room for conventional brands and retailers to prioritize them in a much bigger way. Additionally, consumers are consistently using their wallets to vote for brands that have sustainable & ethical supply chains, responsible packaging (i.e. plastic-free), elevate the BIPOC community, address modern health & wellness conditions through functional ingredients, advocate for transparency and show their commitment to addressing the massive waste problem we have in this country by utilizing upcycled foods.
And in general, conventional retailers need to do a much better job of planogramming natural products. While the total volume of natural items in conventional (like Target, WalMart, Albertsons, Kroger and Publix) is still relatively small, it is where most of the growth is coming from. Unfortunately for the bulk of natural brands trying to gain placements at these types of accounts, it’s almost impossible for them to succeed because the fees associated with entering this market are usually too much for these brands to sustain and the placement they get once on shelf is less than ideal. The truth is that the industry is not set up to support an emerging, natural brand, and it’s going to take retailers creating specific policies, becoming experts in natural industry category management, implementing elevated merchandising strategies, and offering creative promotional and marketing vehicles to give these brands a fighting shot.
The truly revolutionary retailers will not only implement these trends now, but they will look into the future 5–10 years and create strategies for radical industry transformation. They will realize that in the future, retailers can no longer just be a place to buy products from a shelf. They have to add value and connect with their shoppers in much more meaningful ways. I think we’ll see more interactive buying experiences, brand storytelling, education and sampling. Technology will play a huge role in the future of retail; although exactly how that’s going to play out is anyone’s guess. But I’m betting that VR will be huge, as well as taking the best that eCommerce has developed and finding ways to incorporate it into an in-person shopping trip. If a brick & mortar retailer can find a way to do what the new kid on the block, eComm retailer Hive is doing with telling the sustainability and social impact story of every product and every brand you put into your shopping cart — and thus the impact that you are making with your dollar — we’ll see shoppers flock to support them.
I personally think the future of retail is exciting — it’s just not going to look like it has for the last 50 years and it’s going to require retailers and manufacturers to start asking, ‘How can we do it differently?’ instead of ‘How can we continue to focus on how we’ve always done things but change it just enough to stay relevant?’.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Amazon and DTC are obviously here to stay and because of Covid they have been fast tracked to the front of the line in terms of their relevance and importance in a brand’s omni-channel approach. If a brand wasn’t prioritizing these channels before the pandemic they certainly had better be prioritizing them now. The smart brands will use their online success as a way to sell into more retailers — and the smart retailers will use a brands’ online performance as a metric to determine the viability of a brands potential to sell well once on their shelves — and will give more new companies an opportunity, despite the fact that they don’t have other retailer sales data as validation. The really smart retailers will bridge the gap between their own marketing departments, category managers (or buyers), merchandising teams and a brand’s marketing and social media teams. The companies that come in with a huge online following offer the retailer an incredible opportunity to advertise and drive more traffic into their stores. But for most retailers there’s too much separation and roadblocks in the system to do this easily or effectively.
Brands also have a huge responsibility in this. If they start online but have goals of getting onto retail shelves then they need to identify their channel strategy right out of the gate so that there is differentiation in what they’re offering online versus at retail. This could be value sizes, multi-packs, different flavor profiles or unique branding. They also need to get their MAP policies identified and enforced so that Amazon or other online sellers are not selling for significantly less than retailers. And they need a solid pricing strategy that supports all of this.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
They don’t prioritize profit right out of the gate and launch with margins or SRPs that are not sustainable. Most brands only calculate their product margins but don’t factor in their weighted gross margins, by including distributor and retailer markups, tradespend, broker fees and shrinkage. Not to mention shipping and all the other expenses that are incurred in the building of a business. Retail is not an inexpensive proposition. The potential upside is massive but too many brands have gone out of business by launching into retail without understanding how to play the game. This is why one of the first things we do with our Brand Builders clients is to run a full margin calculation and then use that to create a competitive analysis with recommended pricing that is sustainable and positions the brand successfully within their category and leaves enough margin for profitability.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
Consumers have options, lots of them. And most consumes will exercise their freewill to shop at multiple retailers across multiple channels. And while we are creatures of habit & convenience — and have dialed in our shopping plan by always going Target for our cleaning supplies, ordering our pantry items from Instacart, getting our paper products delivered by Amazon, and stopping at the local natural foods store for our organic produce, we will deviate from the habitual patterns and go out of our way to shop somewhere that makes us feel good. Because more than creatures of habit, we are emotional beings that actively seek out those things that make us feel better (whether subconsciously or consciously). And if you shop somewhere that is clean, well-organized, spacious, has knowledgeable, caring staff that goes out of their way to help you, a solid rotation of new & local products, an easy return policy, fun events, yummy sampling and exciting deals, you’ll go back.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I love this question and there’s not necessarily a simple answer to it. Speaking specifically about grocery retail, most companies haven’t had to prioritize the customer experience because they were just a place for people to buy needed, everyday items and for decades, the only real factor in where a person shopped for their groceries was location. But over the years product selection, promotions and everyday pricing became more important so retailers put their focus there. And now, with the rise of natural food & specialty stores, eCommerce, Amazon and DTC, retailers have had to begin thinking about shopper retention and creating value outside of just what and how they sell. One way to do this is by elevating the customer experience.
Another point to make here is that customer experience is almost always deeply effected by the hardest to manage resource for any retailer…people, specifically, their employees. So truly excellent customer service doesn’t begin on the sales floor and can’t be automated or easily duplicated. It’s something that has to be cultivated and embedded into the very fabric of a company’s culture, beginning with how they treat their employees, and how valued and empowered and intrapreneurial an employee is made to feel. The truly amazing employees, know that they are working for more than just a paycheck. Whole Foods Market was built by employees who knew that what they were doing mattered; not just to them, not just to their shoppers but to the values they held around health, climate, community and social justice. And that sense of meaning materialized as best-in-class shopping experiences. Obviously, the Whole Foods that exists today, which is now owned by Amazon, is not the Whole Foods that helped birth the natural foods industry and the shopping experience is radically different than it was 10 or 20 years ago. You’re no longer guaranteed to buy your meat from a deli guy who actually knows the pig farmer and can tell you all the reasons why that particular bacon is the best you’re ever going to taste or to stand in a Whole Body aisle talking with an associate for an hour about your particular health challenge and have them walk you all through the department, showing you every supplement that could help you. Nowadays, you’re more likely to run into more Amazon shoppers than Whole Foods employees and that, among other factors, has dramatically shifted the shopping experience.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
A book that that I live by is The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles and while it was written in 1910 (and the language reflects that), it has immense relevance today. One of the tenants of the book is to provide more ‘use value’ in what you sell than the money someone pays for your product or service. Meaning, over deliver, and it’s a value that is built into the foundation of my business and something that my team epitomizes every single day in their work with our clients. A recent Brand Builders™ client was honestly shocked at the level of our customer service and told us how they’re so used to other companies not following through, putting all the workload back on them, and being generally uncommunicative. Every time we deliver a component of our program they sort of shake their head in disbelief because of how much it exceeds their expectations. In fact, they told us recently that “We know that on our own, we can make things happen because we’re committed to the success of our brand. We’ll keep banging down the walls, brick-by-brick. But then we joined your program and you all held open a door we can just walk through instead!”. It was honestly the best testimonial we could get — our entire purpose is to help our clients hack the retail system for greater success, with more ease, in less time, with more support.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
I feel like every time we get a testimonial it spurs me to want to do even better. Maybe it’s just the over-achiever in me but it feels so good to serve at a high level. And the competition at the very top is much less crowded than in the middle of the pack, therefore the opportunity to achieve greater success is subsequently much more likely when you’re operating from that space of ‘excellence always’. So the compliment from my client about holding open a door for them immediately had me thinking about how I could bust down the walls altogether in order to serve even more people, more easily and totally set the whole system on its head. This goes back to my earlier point about retailers being open to doing it differently than it’s ever been done before. My brain starts to question what purpose those walls serve and why can’t we just do away with them altogether.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?
It’s not entirely different from what I tell my brand clients when talking to them about elevating the status of their companies and creating a legacy that leaves an impact. The first step is to get very clear on your why. Profit is fabulous, I love making money (who doesn’t?) — but if that is the only ‘why’ then you will never achieve ‘rare air’ status. So, know your why and part of that formula is identifying what problem you are solving and who are you serving. It’s important when naming these that you use the words your customer would use when describing the problem that is being solved by shopping in your store.
From there you need to prioritize people and hire employees who believe in your why and are interested in the solution to the problem you’re solving. Then treat them with compassion, kindness and respect and create a culture of vulnerability, transparency and personal responsibility. They will become evangelical about your mission and will rise to the occasion to serve your customers. Empower them to lead in their own way and make sure they’re in positions that light them up and utilize their inherent skillsets.
Don’t try to be all things to all people — know your niche and claim it fully. Then be the best at that. Constantly look for ways you can add value and find unique ways to connect with your shoppers. Be innovative and creative. Understand that energy matters and know that a space that feels high-vibe, welcoming and warm will always attract (and keep) more customers.
And, retailers still need to master the basics — pricing, promotions and products. A physical space that is clean and easily shoppable. Great signage. Attractive displays. Reliable supply chains and inventory management. And technology that supports convenience and automation.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your why. Understand what you’re really selling and what problem you’re solving. A great example is Amazon; for the retailer that literally sells everything it might seem difficult on the surface to identify their niche. But when you look deeper, you see what Amazon is really selling…time. And they do it better than anyone else on the market.
- For grocery retailers, pay attention to the trends I talked about earlier; sustainability, ethical supply chain, packaging, transparency and diversity. And prioritize certified products that are driving growth, like USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, B-Corp, Fair Trade, Animal Welfare and the newest certification on the scene, Upcycled (the Upcycled Association just launched their certification process and I’m betting that this will be one of the biggest trends to hit the natural industry in the coming years).
- Add value! Add value, add value, add value. This is especially important for physical location retailers. If you think you’re good to go by just putting products on a shelf (even if you’re doing it skillfully) you’re going to be out of business within the next decade. Most local co-ops and independent natural foods stores are fabulous at this; they host community events, offer educational demos, have a wide range of local suppliers and create a sense of belonging for their shoppers.
- Create a process that makes it easier for emerging natural brands to do business with you. Don’t make them go head to head during category reviews with category leaders, do have reduced slotting fees (or eliminate them altogether), do find creative ways to merchandise them prominently (showcasing your commitment to supporting new brands), do have specific advertising and marketing vehicles (at reduced costs), and definitely do have buyers or category managers reviewing these submissions who truly understand natural and the opportunity these products provide (not just to your bottom line but to bringing in new shoppers to your stores).
- Start thinking now about where retail will be ten years from now and make plans to incorporate technology that will more effectively tell a brand or product story, suggest add-on products, promote new items or brands, offer education or inspiration and help a shopper track the impact of their dollar.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The mission that drives me is to create a seismic shift in our food and healthcare systems. Right now, we have grocery stores selling poison marketed as food and healthcare institutions prioritizing pills and illness management instead of holistic healing methods. I believe in a future reality where these two industries work together and doctors, all doctors, truly understand and prescribe food as medicine. I dream about people feeling educated and empowered enough to take responsibility for their own health care and chronic conditions being treated by a holistic team that looks at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of their patients. I’m fighting for a world that doesn’t have over 50% of the US population on antidepressants and instead honors ancient wisdom and plant medicine. We need to stop hyper-specializing every disease or disorder and instead appreciate that the entire human body is one system and there is nothing that can happen inside of it that isn’t being impacted by and impacting every other system of the body.
It’s a big mission, I know. So, I’m starting with the piece that is most available to me today. And that’s helping more natural brands succeed and supporting more conventional retailers with the expansion and elevation of natural offerings in their stores.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!