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2015 Retailer of the Year: Garner’s Natural Life

Retailer of the Year 2015: Garner's Natural Life
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Candace Garner leads by example. She listens, she nurtures, and she is the picture of good health, according to the employees at Garner’s Natural Life stores in Greenville and Columbia, SC.

Those who work for Garner insist they could not have a better boss … and they are as delighted as she is that Garner’s Natural Life has been named Vitamin Retailer (VR) Magazine’s 2015 Retailer of the Year!

Garner returns the compliment, noting that those who manage and staff her stores encourage customer loyalty and work well with each other. “They are nice because they want to be, not because they have to be,” she said. “They are sincerely committed to helping people feel better.”

And people who want to feel better are used to coming into either Garner’s Natural Life location for nutritional supplements, vitamins, herbs in bulk, supplement and tincture forms, homeopathic remedies, aromatherapy, and beauty and body care items. “The makeup of each store is everything that has to do with wellness,” Garner explained. “And we sell no food except for protein supplement bars and nutrition shakes.”

The clientele of Garner’s Natural Life tends to research products before coming into the stores. “And a lot of that research is done on the internet,” Garner said. “We try to help with education, with learning about products, then letting them make their own decisions. That’s a big part of what we do.”

A 20-plus year member of the Natural Products Association, Garner’s Natural Life has an ambitious mission statement: “To provide world-class customer service and education while offering superior health products in a fun and friendly shopping environment.” To that, VR’s editors offer an emphatic “mission accomplished!”

Business Roots

Garner’s Natural Life is in “her blood,” said Garner, adding that her stores are rooted in Garner’s Natural Foods, an entity begun in 1969 in a 750-foot trailer by her former mother-in-law (now 98 years old) and her sons. Garner, who grew up in Elyria, OH, and majored in transportation and logistics at Kent State University, had been working in the Greenville area when she went to the trailer “to buy something” in the latter half of the 1970s. Not too long later she met son Robin Garner at a gym. When they married in 1978, Candace Garner joined the family business.

The couple was married for 21 years and raised four children—David, Jeff and twins Matt and Missy. After they divorced, they stayed in business together. Robin Garner died at a time when the 18,000-square-foot store they had been operating was experiencing a decline in business as it faced competition from newer, bigger entities including Whole Foods Market. Candace Garner had to re-evaluate the entire operation, a rented space that included what she described as a “well-shopped” wellness department along with a deli/restaurant, produce section and a bakery.

“I knew I had to reinvent our business model, and I had an epiphany it was time to do something different,” she recalled. The “something different” was to focus only on wellness items. So in 2008, she closed that 18,000-square foot store in the McAlister Square shopping center and brought a business with a new focus and altered name to a 3,500-square-foot space in the newly built South Pleasantburg Drive shopping center anchored by Fresh Market, a grocery store chain with gourmet meat and seafood departments, which Garner noted is ranked “No. 7 by Consumer Reports.”

“I figured that if 80 percent of customers followed us to a new place, we would be okay,” she said. “And I am really happy they did, because I really didn’t have a Plan B.”

Her move paid off well—so well in fact that she took the advice of a friend who is a developer and opened her second Garner’s Natural Life store in Columbia in August 2010. Columbia is both the state capital and a university town, Garner noted, adding it took awhile to get the city interested in Garner’s. The Columbia store is 1,400 square feet—less than half the size of the Greenville store and has been “doing very well,” according to Nick Beers, Columbia store manager.

Beers said those who frequent the store are not likely to be university students; customers tend to be in the age range of 25 to 60, with most in their 40s. The store is stocked with vitamins, herbs, protein bars, liquid tinctures and personal care items such as sunscreen.

This year, in Garner’s Natural Life is expanding. They are adding a new store in the Greenville area on Woodruff Road in Mauldin.

Family History

In the years that Garner was making her bold business moves, her sons started to work with her. Jeff, her second son, volunteered to go to the Columbia store, where he is in charge of receiving and “doing all the accounting down here—the money part of it. Mom’s not down here, so I do the bank runs.”

Said his mother, “Actually, Jeff’s the smart one. He doesn’t have to deal with me every day. There are advantages and disadvantages to working with family, and I do want them to work harder and not make any mistakes.”

Angie Orrell, manager of the Greenville store, emphasized that Candace Garner is not at all a micromanager. “We are free to be who we are,” she said.

In the past year, Garner’s daughter-in-law Andrea Ullua, who is Ecuadorian and bilingual, joined the Greenville operation. And Garner’s daughter, Missy Gerscovich, who lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area, weighs in regularly. “We laugh a lot or would be clobbering each other,” said Garner. “My children were young when their father died and that drew us all together.” She added that son Matt and his wife Andrea are parents of 4-year-old Mia and that Missy is expecting.

Before Garner streamlined and moved her business within Greenville, she employed 55 people in various capacities. “We took 15 with us,” she recalled. “Other people went to work with business friends we had. Some went on unemployment. I said I would write everybody recommendations. The staff was awesome, and I felt really bad.”

Among those whose jobs were eliminated was Rebecca Zane, who had been in charge of purchasing for the restaurant. “I knew it was losing money for the store,” said Zane, who began working for Garner’s in 2000. Having a major in education and Montessori school training, Zane found another means of employment from 2008 to 2010: she babysat the daughter of Garner’s coworker Vanessa Rampey, Garner’s receiving manager. “That was when her daughter was three to five, and it was really awesome,” Zane recalled. “It gave me a taste of what it’s like to be a mother.”

Zane, who always kept in touch with Garner and the Greenville store employees, returned to Garner’s in 2010. She described her current position—office manager— as involving “anything that goes on in the back room and what goes on with the management team and in the break room.”

Rampey, who previously worked in the greenhouse nursery industry, said she came to Garner’s 13 years ago because of her interest in herbs. “I knew I wanted to pursue plants, but I did not like working outside. It got much too hot,” she said.

Keeping her at Garner’s is Rampey’s love of the store and its “family atmosphere,” along with her longheld interest in “what herbs can do to heal people.” “For me, it’s a really good opportunity to manage people and a good learning experience,” Rampey said. “We are like a family, and we all have to have that integrity of caring. Customers come first.”

“Seed to Shelf”

Garner’s has strict requirements about the products allowed on the shelves in its stores and buys from companies with transparent processing procedures, Orrell said. “We are super picky about what we bring in,” she added. Garner’s does most of its buying directly from companies, though it will buy items such as hydrogen peroxide, bandages and bug and hair sprays from distributors.

“I want to see from seed to shelf the process a product went through,” explained Orrell, adding that she and David Garner are in charge of keeping quality items in the Greenville store.

She noted that the Gaia products that Garner’s sell have a smartphone app that tells buyers and consumers “where ingredients were grown, when they were picked, when they were bottled, and when they were shelved.” All manufacturers, she added, should have third-party testing.

Recently, Orrell could not get full information on a product Garner’s carried and decided to switch to a similar product from another company. “It’s a dream for companies to have their products on Garner’s shelves,” she said.

The Columbia store orders its own merchandise, with 80 percent of it akin to what’s in the Greenville store, according to Juanita Landon, assistant store manager. She explained that she, Beers and two other fulltime employees have divided the job of ordering fairly equally, with each contacting a specific list of manufacturers.

Beautiful Environments

What Garner’s Natural Life customers get along with their purchases is caring attention from all store employees, whether the employees are managers, wellness associates out on the store’s floors, or cashiers behind the counters. “We keep beautiful stores and give such attention to customers when they come in,” Garner said. “You don’t feel rushed when you come in. We’ll direct you to where the products are, and usually help you find them and answer your questions. These are not huge big box stores where customers are left craving attention. We are so conscious of customer service, and it’s something I notice everywhere I go.”

Garner, Orrell said, has been quite successful in winning manufacturer-sponsored trips for her imaginative, eye-catching displays of their products. “Candace does the coolest displays,” Orrell said. “She’ll move a few pieces from store to store and still make it look fresh. She’s not a big spender or a waster.”

Garner’s adeptness at feng shui also benefits the Columbia store, according to Landon. “Her store displays get repurposed, and she uses all natural green elements,” she said. “And the family has a green thumb.”

Jeff Garner grows plants and flowers for centerpieces inside the store and for planters outside the Columbia store, Landon said. The Greenville store offers a Zen Den where customers and browsers can read books from the adjacent book section or the literature about various products that is folded into displays. Orrell explained that the companies who provide the literature “can say what we can’t, such as how long is this guaranteed or how well this will work?”

Eco-friendly Practices

Orrell described the environmentally wise features of the Greenville store: bamboo flooring, “a lot of shelving,” and an industrial ceiling with LED lighting that gives off less heat. “And there are fresh flowers always outside of the stores and flower wreaths on the doors.”

The Greenville store runs its own recycling program since its landlord provides garbage dumpsters but no recycling containers. “We let customers know they can bring in empty bottles and our employees diligently rotate taking them to their homes where they have curbside pickup and different recycling days,” Orrell said. “That way too the customers remember what they bought.”

The Columbia store offers a bottle-recycling program, but it is Jeff Garner who routinely delivers the goods to the recycling center near the store, Landon said.

Community Outreach

On Saturdays, Garner’s in Greenville offers chair massages by a massage therapist or consultations with a chiropractor, Orrell said, adding the two tend to alternate weekends.

And because of Garner’s focus on education, the Greenville store offers community chats, usually three times a month but sometimes as often as 10. “We don’t ever want to try to sell anything at these events, so we let customers take over and exchange ideas with each other,” explained Orrell. “Sometimes the facilitator is the chiropractor and he talks to people about topics such as falling down and aging.”

“We may have essential oils classes, and those oils are safe to use on infants or adults–even those on medication,” Orrell continued. “We may teach people how to make really cool things they can give as gifts.”

Because of space considerations, Garner’s in Columbia tends to “go out on foot” within the community, Landon said. She listed some of the store’s more recent activities: a women’s heart health day; Kroeger’s employee appreciation day; and a customer appreciation day at a local chiropractic practice. Last summer the Columbia store brought protein and electrolyte replenishment drinks to a run sponsored by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. And in April 2016, she added, the store will be partnering with Pawmetto Lifeline, a not-for-profit animal rescue organization, for its annual half-marathon—much like the Greenville store does with the Greenville Humane Society for its annual August Mutt Strut, a two-mile walk/run which has Papa John’s as its main sponsor.

Educating in Store and Online

A large part of Garner’s customer service is the employee knowledge base. Orrell, for instance, spends part of every workday on her tablet, researching trends and findings. Pointing to “this whole new age of social media,” she spoke of the ongoing videos made at each store for posting on the Garner’s Natural Life website.

Landon explained that the videos are made on an iPad and usually feature Garner’s Natural Life associates talking about products they have tried. For instance, she made a video talking about an alfalfa product that “overturned a digestive problem I had for quite some time.”

In a previous career Orrell sold cancer diagnostic machines to physicians and said she came to Garner’s Natural Life first as a customer, then as a part-time wellness associate. She described Garner’s as a “most healing place.”

Nine of the 20 members of the Greenville operation and two members of the Columbia operation have completed the training to become Certified Natural Health Professionals. Garner said she pays salaries while her employees are in training and that training has been offered in various formats. Beers, for instance, completed an eight-day program in Las Vegas, NV. Others have gone to classes offered one at a time. Zane attended classes in the Fall of 2013 and since the certifying institution allows graduates to retake courses at no additional charge, she did the program over again in January 2014. Customers can contact C.N.H.P.s on the Garner’s website.

Handling Customer Queries

Garner’s Natural Life employees are used to answering questions. They will advise from their own knowledge base, but they will not recommend a customer defy or disregard doctor’s orders or prescriptions, Orrell said.

If a customer came in complaining of pain from inflammation in the joints, Rampey would likely recommend a product made with a substance found in turmeric—curcumin, which helps reduce swelling in the joints.

If a customer told Zane his skin was itchy, she would first ask him how much water he drank. “I’m the kind of person who asks a lot of questions: how much water and are how getting enough healthy oils? And then I would probably show him something topical that really cools, something like an absorbent argan oil or shea butter, which is really pure. But first I would be making sure he has a really good foundation before treating his system.”

Garner listed joint health, blood pressure, weight loss, detoxing and “men’s and women’s issues—the whole gamut on both sides”—as the top concerns voiced by customers. To meet those concerns, she said the Greenville store is largely divided up into functions including a women’s section with items that address PMS, menopause, peri-menopause, and weight loss; a children’s section featuring products such as vitamins, remedies for attention deficit disorder, teas for nursing mothers, teething aids, baby creams and shampoos, and a men’s section offering products for concerns such as libido, energy, hair, skin and nails. “Aging is a big thing now,” Garner noted. “And there’s high blood pressure, weight loss, constipation, and blood sugar issues.”

Both Beers and Orrell noted that summers are the least busy time for the stores. “People are out vacationing,” Orrell said. “December is busy and so are January, February March and April when people have made New Year’s resolutions and are still sticking with them.”

Closest Competitors

Garner listed Whole Foods Market and the Vitamin Shoppe and internet stores as their biggest rivals. “We do not have an online store presence but we do ship and mail orders to those who ask us. We have no shopping-cart online store yet.”

Garner said she and her employees maintain a “good relationship with vendors.” Garner’s Natural Life also is using a recently installed system to track customer spending habits, and hopes to add a frequent buyer card soon. “We are working diligently to have it set up,” she said.

Orrell said the Greenville store is moving ahead in its online marketing approach, especially since promoting 10-year employee Susan Ledbetter to the newly created role of marketing manager.

Because of its proximity to the Fort Jackson Army base, the Columbia store routinely mails orders, especially overseas. “We’re a one-shop stop, and there’s a post office in our shopping center,” Landon said. Orders are taken in person from persons “stopping in,” as well as by phone or email. “We just shipped a product to Georgia to a person who heard of a specialty product (Palmetto Harmony CBD Oil) not available in all states,” she added.

The stores do offer gift card specials during holiday times: Mother’s and Father’s Days, Black Friday and Christmas. The cards are $40 for $50 worth of purchases and $75 for $100 of purchases. “We don’t do it all the time,” she noted. “Just four or five times a year and just for a weekend.”

Positive Perceptions

Orrell pointed to the diverse staff of Garner’s Natural Life. “We have dreadlocks, bilingual folk, people who are ultra conservative, people who are real Southern sweeties,” as well as a range of ages.

As for Garner, Orrell admitted she sometimes finds it hard to talk about her without getting teary. She pointed to Garner’s families-come-first policy. If news of a family member being in an accident or falling ill comes to an employee, Garner insists “you leave work that minute to be with your family no matter whatever amount of time is needed. I never had a boss who’s taken care of me that way.”

Zane said that Garner is “the best boss in the world. She totally deserves this (award). She puts good energy out there and wants what’s the best for everyone and it all comes back to her.

Orrell noted, “The magic of our stores is that we’re givers. Candace takes care of people and we all have good intentions and we have been completely blessed because of it—and that’s something I learned from Candace.”

Garner focused on the team spirit. “I’m so proud of our team! I’ve always known that we have extraordinarily gifted people who by some fate all found their way to Garner’s,” she stated. “It’s all of them and their diverse knowledge and skill set that have helped define who we are today. For their hard work to be recognized on such a national level is beyond exciting and brought me to tears. It’s a huge honor that they all so rightly deserve.” VR

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