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Evolution of the Health Food Store

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One of the hidden bonuses of my job is the opportunity tospeak with health food store owners and employees on a daily basis and, as much as possible, get out and meet them in their "natural habitat," in their stores.

One of the hidden bonuses of my job is the opportunity tospeak with health food store owners and employees on a daily basis and, as much as possible, get out and meet them in their "natural habitat," in their stores.

Quite simply, I find the passion and enthusiasm of the people who work in health food stores very contagious. You can't help but get pumped when you hear owners, managers and staff talk about what they do, which is offer optimum health solutions to the Canadian public.

One thing I've noticed more and more over the past five years is that the traditional health food store is undergoing a transformation-for the better. Across the country, beautiful new stores are popping up, complete with stylish decor, more products and services, and, best of all, a focus on offering customers a more complete shopping experience.

About 25 to 30 years ago, back in the "pioneer" days of natural health retailing, it was the norm to see loads of bulk barrels and bins, a dusting of spelt flour on the floor, back-to-the-earth design and a real bohemian ambiance in the majority of stores. If you're a long-time health food customer, you can still see those stores in your mind's eye. Almost without exception, the people who owned these stores got into the business with little more than a heartfelt passion for natural health and an extreme willingness to share their knowledge with their community. Most had little or no business experience in retailing, and in most cases, virtually no money.

Many of these pioneers have persevered and thrived over the years. They are now successful business people, respected and vitally important in their communities, continuing to carry the passion they first brought to this industry. Unlike the 1970s, however, when they were the lone voice of natural health, they are now facing more competition from numerous sources. It seems everyone is carrying some sort of natural product. To help combat this, many of the new traditional stores have become state-of-the-art retail outlets.

Generally speaking, traditional health food stores are becoming bigger, offering a greater depth of product, more selection. There are more full-service delis and in-house cafes so customers can take a quick nutrition break during their shopping trek. I've even noticed more big comfortable chairs near the book sections, enticing customers to really delve into the selection of reading material. And many stores have natural health practitioners on staff full-time or on specified days. Other stores have built strong alliances with naturopaths, homeopaths and other practitioners in their neighbourhoods.

No one who retails natural items possesses more product knowledge than the staff at a traditional health food store. And they're getting even more knowledgeable, thanks to a number of intensive courses developed in recent years. For example, hundreds of retailers have attained their Registered Nutritional Product Advisor (RNPA) designation, a number that continues to grow monthly.

This "evolution" of the health food store is the dream of most retailers, enabling them to offer a greater level of service and selection, in a more pleasing environment. In reality, it is a new integral part of the "wellness" package natural health retailers have been offering Canadians for years. As more attractive, full-service stores begin appearing across the country and more people discover the wonderful health secrets waiting inside, the collective health of Canadians will only get better.

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