By Robert U. Craven, FoodState CEO

Corinne Shindelar enjoys a uniquely broad view of the natural products industry developed over 35 years as a natural food retailer, executive director of two cooperative grocer’s associations, the first president of the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association and the founder and current CEO of INFRA, Independent Natural Food Retailers Association.

A passionate advocate for the idea that “everyone has the right to real food and natural retailers are critical stewards of this right,” Corinne has received numerous awards for her vision and commitment to organic foods. This includes recognition by the Nutrition Business Journal in 2014 as the most influential person in the industry.

I spoke with Corinne about her views on the industry. They are enlightening as always.

What are greatest challenges facing natural retailers?

The biggest is competition and learning how to operate in a maturing environment in which your product is no longer unique. The need natural retail filled before isn’t necessarily the same as the one they will fulfill in the future. The first 30 years of our history were about providing real food and nutrients. Now, more of these products are available in mainstream channels.

What’s the greatest opportunity in this kind of environment?

As is often the case, the greatest challenge presents the greatest opportunity. For natural retailers, this means setting yourself apart from the mainstream. Natural retailers are still stewards for the best of the best. That will never go away. But the future will have to be about community, customer experience and excellence.

Let’s take these up one at a time. What about community?

Successful stores will be those that capitalize on their local presence and their support of entrepreneurship. What is your vision and mission within the community? If I were going to open a store today, I’d be partnering with and embracing my local CSA(s). I’d offer my facility as a place to drop off and pick up food. When members came in, I’d have additional ingredients and recipes at the ready! I’d also set up referrals with other independents in my zip code so we could work together to better serve our community.

How can retailers improve customer experience?

Think of the people who come into your store as guests rather than transactions. Millennial shoppers, especially, want a fun experience, so it’s up to you to keep them coming back. Include inventive grab-and-go items, juice bars, free Wi-Fi and place to sit and enjoy a beverage or snack. Your store should be clean and well organized to the point where it exudes pride and passion for what you do.

We can also delight customers by being price sensitive. Examples of this would be passing along vendor discounts at shelf and giving customers a little help with items they buy on regular basis, like peanut butter and milk.

There’s another area that gets less attention but is important. Retailers need to spend less time on buying and more on selling. We have trained our team members to manage departments to margin rather than dollars earned. As a result, teams focus too much time looking for ways to shave off a few extra pennies, here or there. We forget we’re in the sales and curation business.

Take tofu. Rather than spend all our time searching for the cheapest tofu, let’s be ready to engage a customer about the many different things you can do with tofu. While we’re at it, let’s take the added initiative of recommending new products the customer may be less comfortable with, and explain how to use them with tofu. Each item you add to the basket boosts your profit. Selling like this can be quite rewarding for staff and consumer alike.

What is the “quality” opportunity?

Think of it this way: you can walk into a big box and see all kinds of language about local and organic and all these trendy things, but when you look at shelf they aren’t supporting it—not by a long shot. While independents’ center store is under the greatest pressure from conventional and online, natural retailers can use some of this space to promote up-and-coming brands and products at center shelf and endcap. Natural must be the standard bearers with organic and non-GMO.

You serve as the board chair of the Non-GMO Project. Can you tell us how that relates to your work with INFRA?

I participate in Non-GMO Project stakeholder sessions on the future of food supply and climate change and engage in federal legislation in these areas. What excites me the most about what I do is that everything supports my values of what I call “rightful living.”