Engaged staff helps promote Hawaii farms and educate consumers about healthy living.
Hawaii’s Down to Earth Organic & Natural has always been ahead of its time. The group of friends who founded the five-store chain believed in buying organic food, supporting local farms and consuming a healthy plant-based diet.
Those values served the company well in 1977, when it sold its first produce items from shelves built from concrete blocks and wooden planks and shelving units scavenged from second-hand sources. And these values continue to help the company be successful as it celebrates its 40th anniversary. Readers of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaii’s only statewide daily newspaper, have selected Down to Earth as the “People’s Choice” winner for “best health food store” 11 years in a row.
Down to Earth has five locations in Honolulu, Kailua, Pearlridge, Maui and Oahu. A sixth store will open in the first half of 2018 in Kakaako, HI, and in the next 2½ years the company will relocate and expand two others. Stores range from 4,000 to 13,000 square feet. Produce takes up about 10 percent of the total floor space in each store and contributes between 6 and 10 percent of total store sales. Peter Van Osdol, purchasing and merchandising director, says the goal is to earn a 40 percent gross profit on produce sales.
About 70 percent of the produce is organic. Fifty percent comes from local farms. When produce managers can’t get desired items locally, they purchase them from one of the dozen distributors with whom they have relationships. “More than 95 percent of the produce we bring from the mainland is organic,” says Van Osdol. “We only bring non-organic produce into Hawaii if organic is unavailable.”
Between all the stores, Down to Earth carries up to 500 different produce items. The inventory includes several fruits and vegetables considered specialty items on the mainland, including aloe vera, apple bananas, breadfruit, longan (similar to lychees), persimmons and fresh turmeric.
In-store produce managers handle all of their own purchasing. “Autonomy gives department managers flexibility to meet customer demands in their respective market areas,” says Van Osdol. “They are on the floor a lot of their time, and are constantly talking stories with customers, so they have a good feel for our customers’ needs.”
Freeing produce managers to purchase directly from farmers also gives them a chance to develop relationships that better serve shoppers. If customers are demanding certain items, they can recommend the farmer begin growing something new or grow more of a particular product. As produce managers better understand what’s available locally in different seasons, they can adjust their ordering from mainland distributors.
“Since 70 percent of our produce is organic, we don’t merchandise it in its own section,” says Van Osdol. “However, we use shelf talkers to call attention to what is organic and, if local, what island it comes from: Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Hawaii (Big Island) or Kauai. Customers like supporting local, and on Maui they particularly like to support Maui-grown produce.” Signage, from those small shelf signs to the large placards proclaiming the company’s motto and values, is all professionally made.
Down to Earth changed its non-refrigerated display tables a few years back, and that’s been a big improvement, says Van Osdol. “We now use a vertical striping approach to merchandising. When possible, we organize items in vertical stripes by variety and color. It results in a better presentation that dresses up the department nicely.”
Instead of using end caps, the company utilizes half-moon display shelves, pods and branded wooden crates to add dimension and showcase featured items. The crates have the store’s logo and the slogan “Local • Fresh” burned into the wood.
“The rustic look conveys a warm, mellow vibe reminiscent of old farmers markets,” says Van Osdol. “The wood crates are stackable in a wide variety of configurations, including the creation of little niche recesses to display items for cross-promotion. For example, we use these recesses to promote salad dressings and produce wash adjacent to related produce items.”
Down to Earth has several ways of keeping its employees up-to-date on food safety. “We have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for virtually every aspect of store operations,” says Van Osdol. “The produce department has its own SOP manual. It covers everything, including produce preparation, merchandising, sanitation, cleaning, waste logs, administrative procedures and safety.”
The SOPs are reviewed with team members when they receive their orientation. They’re reviewed again during regular “refresher” trainings. Instruction is aided by more than 30 videos the company has produced internally to ensure their requirements are clear.
Social media and other digital marketing tools have provided Down to Earth with new ways to promote the fresh and seasonal produce they get from local growers. The company maintains a strong presence on all major social media platforms, with more than 25,000 followers on Facebook and 6,000 on Instagram. Its YouTube channel has more than 53,000 views. Through its rewards program, the company sends customers regular email newsletters with announcements about events, health and environmental lectures, cooking classes and sales.
“What we really love to share are stories that help promote Hawaii farms,” says Van Osdol. “For example, our Maui location is the exclusive seller of a fantastic organic aquaponics butter lettuce that’s grown a few minutes from our store. We’ve promoted the lettuce and told our customers the backstory about this special brand and when it’s available fresh in the store.
“In addition, we take our produce buyers on farm tours to strengthen relationships with farmers we buy from. Of course, we post about it because customers like learning about local farmers we support.”
Down to Earth is very active in educating consumers about healthy living, both inside and outside of the store. “We have a great community outreach team that conducts cooking classes and events at all our store locations,” says Van Osdol. “They coordinate a guest speaker program featuring lectures on health and environmental topics. They conduct cooking classes and events at local schools, hospitals, community organizations and businesses to help educate the general public about how easy it is to improve their health through a plant-based diet. We also participate in our various partners’ health fairs and other events to help educate island communities about the importance of healthy living.”
Although the improvised shelves and second-hand furnishings are gone, customer service continues to be a priority. “Our produce department is one of the most service-oriented operations of the company,” says Van Osdol. “The departments are small, and the produce managers or their assistant are always on the floor. Produce is always at the front, so the first people customers come in contact with are the produce team members.”
Because of that, the store’s management has trained employees in the importance of having constant, proactive contact with customers. “When customers are within 10 feet, team members are required to make eye contact and smile,” says Van Osdol. “At 4 feet they are required to at least say ‘hi.’
“In a way, the produce team members are our store greeters,” he explains. “They know so many customers by name, and they know enough about them to have meaningful exchanges. This is one of the main reasons we have so many loyal customers.” That, and the fact that the team members are in lock step with the needs of modern buyers.
Down to Earth Organic & Natural (Honolulu)
2525 S King St.
Honolulu, HI 96826
P: (808) 947-7678
Hours: Daily 7 am – 10 pm