“For more than 16 years, we have been the trusted source for simple, meaningful choices to make home, community and planet healthier and more sustainable. It is truly our privilege to bring you this eco-conscious collection of products that can help you live more lightly on the Earth.” [Inside cover, Harmony catalog, Gaiam, Inc., Broomfield, CO ]
Gaiam, an early company in the “Green Marketing” category, now shares it with a growing number of retailers. Already a $230 billion industry, it’s expanding steadily, reports Kim Carlson, owner of Minnesota-based EarthSmartConsumer.com. In this two-part special series, we explore the effects of environmental concerns on consumers and home furnishings retailers.
Causes of Green Awareness
Environmental health is garnering more media coverage. One beneficiary is the organic foods sector, already accounting for about 10% of America’s food purchases. As mothers begin to wonder whether natural or organic products might be healthier for young children, it becomes an entry point into green shopping for people who had never considered it. The expansion of farmers’ markets is a related trend. While their produce is not necessarily organic, most independent farmers use fewer chemicals than large corporate farms. Today, many consumers now recognize that buying local means less fuel to transport crops. The unfortunate increase in asthma cases is also raising environmental awareness. Often, allergists suggest avoiding wall-to-wall carpeting because it is difficult to clean and may harbor dust mites. Instead, they’ll recommend natural wool bedding and area rugs that can be cleaned.
“Green construction” is growing rapidly, as homeowners, builders and other businesses become more concerned about rising costs of both energy and petroleum-based products, such as carpeting. People who are re-modeling have an opportunity to switch to green products. With more information available, many consumers are choosing newer options like energy-efficient appliances or non-toxic materials.
Changes are accelerating for businesses, too. “The commercial market is driven by designers, who hear about new products and the advantages of working in an environmentally friendly building,” says Mark Bisbee, owner of Green Floors in Fairfax VA. "They get involved with lighting, energy-saving equipment, more efficient heating and ventilation systems, and flooring. Managers are learning that a green building often means healthier employees and lower absentee rates,” two contributors to higher profit.
Preparing Your Salespeople
To emphasize or expand your lines of natural products, it’s essential for salespeople to talk about specific green features and benefits. “You want them be able to answer questions from a newly-green shopper,” Ms. Carlson stresses. Before advertising green merchandise, a retailer needs to prepare the staff.
“Make sure your employees are as understanding of environmental [concerns] as your customers are, or else people will assume that you’re just selling green things to make a buck,” cautions Jonathan Bean, Marketing Director of Environmental Building Supplies (EBS). At its stores in Portland and Bend OR, well-known EBS serves both residential and commercial clients.
Training need not be lengthy or complicated, but has to provide adequate knowledge of particular products your store carries. “Find a staff member who’s interested enough to self-educate and share information with all your salespeople. Just assign that person to do research,” suggests Ms. Carlson, who advocates training the entire staff. “It’s not that complicated, and they might be able to use the information in their own homes, too.” In many locations, an architect or designer specializing in environmental features may be able to do staff training at your store.
Salespeople need not become environmental encyclopedias, but they should develop in-depth knowledge of your store’s merchandise. Sometimes, “you can learn a lot from your vendors,” says Mr. Bean, who will look at two similar products and invite the merchant to compare them. “We love to ask what’s in it, how is it made, what’s the manufacturing process, where is the plant, where do your materials come from? We want each of our salespeople to gain a real picture of what we’ll be selling. It becomes very obvious if the vendor doesn’t know the product.”
Often, EBS selects a product because its well-informed supplier can come in, teach the staff about it, and also service it, if necessary. “At some point, a customer may ask a question we can’t answer,” Mr. Bean, points out. “It’s great to be able to call the sales rep, and then tell your customer, 'I found the information for you.' ”
Who Is The Green Consumer?
What traits do today’s green shoppers share? For Garnet Hill, Inc., which sells only natural fiber home furnishings and apparel, their customers are predominantly female, with higher-than-average combined household incomes. They’re concentrated on East and West Coasts, and in the Southeast. Garnet Hill products, including a large rug selection, are sold by catalog or web site.
“A lot of our customers have sensitivities or allergies to down,” explains Wendy Thayer, public relations manager for Garnet Hill. For these shoppers, the Franconia NH-based firm carries Primaloft, a high-quality alternative to down.
Mr. Bisbee was surprised to discover that about half the consumers who contacted Green Floors were motivated not by green issues, but by personal health. “They’d find our store, with all our environmentally friendly products, because of their allergies, sensitivity to adhesives made with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carpet off-gas, and other problems.” In response, the store kept adding more natural materials, including bamboo and cork flooring.
In the Northwest, many consumers consider themselves environmentally aware, and head for destination stores like EBS or Environmental Home Cetlter in Seattle. Often, Mr. Bean finds, “a green consumer feels guilty about some of the elements in things they buy. For instance, we sell four lines of paint. Three are low in preservatives, with less VOC content. Most people come here knowing that VOCs are bad for you, but unaware that even 'green products,' like our paints, can still have some VOCs.”
Educating Your Customers
Levels of awareness vary as widely as the products. Some shoppers are well informed about the choices; others know so little they’re not ready to purchase, says Mr. Bean. “We tell them some options, send them home with a few samples, and let them make decisions about what they’ll buy. The customer needs to understand why they’re buying so the store needs to understand why they carry each product. If people don’t see why the green product is better or how it will benefit them, they’ll be wondering a month later, why did I get this?”
Unlike commercial customers, the consumer segment is generally less educated about environmental issues, says Mr. Bisbee, who commends women’s magazine for running articles about bamboo, cork flooring, and other natural materials. While publicity is having some effect, he doubts that today’s homeowner “is really driven to purchase materials with environmental aspects as their key consideration. Their first concern is having a beautiful home. You can expose them to green products they may like--including cork or bamboo. If someone loves it, then you can start sharing environmental stories with them,” he advises.
When a new customer starts by asking a lot of questions, an EBS salesperson will take out a few books about green products, and say, “You might really like these. You’re welcome to sit here and look at them.” The store will even let shoppers take a book home to read, so that consumers can return to the store with much more knowledge (and, ideally, enthusiasm) about possible purchases.
Taking the time to understand today’s environmental interests, train your staff, and share information with your customers--whether in the store or through take-home materials--is a valuable investment. Green consciousness is rising steadily, and so is the opportunity to provide green products to an eager, growing market.
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