While successfully adapting to industry changes over the years, this Chicagoland retail favorite keeps the focus on helping people improve their health.
Anatural products industry powerhouse, the Richard family started its retail business, Fruitful Yield, as “Health House” in 1962. The tiny store was located in Elmhurst, IL, and focused on soy products, foods and the few nutritional supplements that were available at the time.
Sixty-one years later, the retailer’s 15-plus Chicagoland locations average 4,000 square feet, all with vast inventories, including the family’s global nutritional food and supplement brand, NOW.
According to Dan Richard, family owner and NOW vice president of sales, “Fruitful Yield started as a very small store, less than 500 square feet, carrying mostly foods and some supplements,” he said. “There were not a lot of vitamin products available in 1962. The store’s focus was on soy products, since founder Elwood Richard was also the owner of Fearn Soya, and he arranged direct sales of Fearn’s various soy products.”
The retailer has navigated consumer demands and trends through the years, and according to Richard, “The stores have definitely evolved since the early days. The Fruitful Yield stores have become a true shopping destination with an average of 4,000-square-foot selling space per store, vast inventories, educated staff, everyday discount pricing and prime locations. There have been many changes through[out] the decades, but the focus remains on selling high-quality products that are natural or organic, and that help to improve people’s health,” he said.
Helping guide the store through the years is its mission statement, according to Richard. “Fruitful Yield is committed to the wellbeing of our customers and communities. Our mission is to empower people to lead healthier lifestyles by providing quality products at affordable prices.”
Of course, there have been challenges for the retailer. “Fruitful Yield grew fairly rapidly in the early years and was profitable due to tight cost management,” Richard said, and the stores grew as the industry grew. “Fruitful Yield developed some purchasing power with multiple stores, and participated in The Natural Way, Chicago-area co-op buying group. The Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA) today fills the gap for Fruitful Yield and many other independent stores.”
And, Richard disclosed, Fruitful Yield also had very major challenges with employee theft in the early years. “The company almost went bankrupt in the 1970s from this, and it is a lesson to practice good stewardship in inventory control. Today, Fruitful Yield has a sophisticated inventory system, along with a strong inventory process, to help keep shrink top-of-mind for the store’s leadership teams,” he said.
The Store By Numbers
Fruitful Yield currently has 12 stand-alone stores in the western suburbs of the Chicagoland area. The retailer also has a “store within a store” partnership with regional grocer Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, with Fruitful Yield stores located within four of their locations. Fruitful Yield also offers product at FruitfulYield.com., and the total number of associates is 136.
Retailer Joe Fulco, Fruitful Yield president, noted, “Our business model has allowed us to be in business for more than 61 years. Seeing that we are a natural health food store that primarily is driven by supplement sales, this has allowed us the opportunity to continue to look for ways to grow our business in the strong competitive environment we participate in here in the Chicago suburbs.”
The focus on nutritional supplements has guided the in-store experience. “Because we have historically been a supplement retailer that offers natural grocery, we do not offer a bakery, deli or meat counter. 53 percent of our sales floor space is dedicated to supplements, 38 percent natural grocery, 8 percent body care and 1 percent organic produce.”
With natural product retail competition strong in the Chicago area, the store relies on the staff for differentiation. “We compete against supplement independents, national supplement retailers, independent grocers and national retail brands, so it’s extremely competitive,” Fulco said. “What differentiates Fruitful Yield is our people and our product training. We are always looking to recruit and obtain high energy, outgoing people that are interested in the health and wellness industry. When they join Fruitful Yield, every associate, no matter their position, goes through our product training classes. We want every associate to be comfortable on the sales floor and have the knowledge to be able to provide a legendary customer experience to all of our customers.”
In March, the store joined the INFRA organization, which will lead to another learning experience, according to Fulco. “We are looking forward to learning even more about the grocery business from our INFRA partners so that we are able to continue to offer natural products at affordable prices,” he said.
In 2019, Fruitful Yield partnered with another favorite local retailer, Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, to create a health food and nutritional supplement store within a fresh market grocer.
“Our store-within-a-store partnership with the Angelo Caputo family has been excellent,” said Fulco. “Both being family-owned businesses, we share many of the same business goals—clean stores, fresh produce and grocery, affordable prices and excellent service. The store-within-a-store partnership allows Fruitful Yield to offer education on natural and organic supplements along with health and beauty to a conventional grocery shopper. It also allows the Fruitful Yield customer the opportunity to do all of their shopping in one location. Together, we provide an excellent shopping experience for all of our customers.”
Working at Fruitful Yield
While the industry has changed a great deal in the last six decades, Fruitful Yield has maintained the same family-owned atmosphere. Brett Poss, store district manager, said, “That means we help each other help our customers. It is really about taking care of one another so that we can satisfy the customers’ needs.”
Regarding the store’s staff backgrounds, Poss noted, “First, we only hire people who have an interest in health and wellness and are eager to help others meet their health goals. Then, no matter what role you are filling, we provide structured introductory training that builds foundational knowledge.” The retailer provides a quarterly bonus program in which every member of the team can participate. “We are incentivized and succeed as a group,” Poss said.
As with many brick-and-mortar natural health food stores, there is a focus on education to meet customer requirements. “Our customers have quite high expectations regarding a Fruitful Yield team member’s product knowledge,” Poss noted. “That is why we still invest in a training department whose sole mission is the education of our staff. In addition to the training provided during onboarding, we host lectures, utilize online training courses and take advantage of training opportunities provided by our vendor partners.”
Community, Environment, Outreach
Adam Richard, Fruitful Yield’s marketing coordinator, described the store’s dedication to helping promote other local businesses. “We love to support local as often as we can. Having local supplement companies such as NOW and Carlson provides support to communities. We also prioritize farms near our stores. One instance is Heritage Prairie Farms in Elburn, IL, which is the source for honey vendor Bron’s Bee Company. Having a farm so close to our stores makes it easy to attend events and witness the process of farm to table.”
One recent initiative to reduce plastic use was the store’s program for customers to bring a reusable bag and save 10 cents off their order. “This encourages customers to reduce their plastic use while saving extra money. We do sell reusable shopping bags, and our ‘normal’ bags are still biodegradable and derived from corn. There is also a TerraCycle bin in each store to encourage customers to bring in their NOW food and supplement packaging that cannot be recycled, thus keeping the waste out of landfills.”
Each retail store is a member of its local Chamber of Commerce to participate in community opportunities, such as sponsorships and hosting tables at events, Adam Richard noted. “We also use social media to both educate and engage with our customers. We have two educators who go around to each store to educate customers through in-store lectures. Providing both an online and in-person resource to connect to customers is key to growing our community.”
The retailer also encourages its customers to support local, national and global charities, such as Natural Health Research Institute (NHRI), Children’s Alliance and Vitamin Angels, with the option to round-up their total at the register. “This opportunity to speak to customers regarding the benefits of each charity helps inform the customer of the impact of a few cents, as it does add up over time and amidst all our stores. On occasion, store team members will attend an event such as Feed My Starving Children to help pack food for those in need,” he said.
Supplements and Wellness
So, what are the health concerns of Chicago-area customers? According to Cher Tovar, category manager—supplements, HBA, pet—and manager of training, many customers are seeking digestive support, detoxification of the body and environment, and the overall support of a healthy lifestyle.
Melissa Dryda, grocery manager—grocery & general merchandise—and visual merchandising manager, added that many customers have food sensitivities, especially to gluten and dairy products. “They are very conscious about GMO (genetically modified organism) ingredients in their foods and tend to look for clean products that are either organic or non-GMO. Our shoppers read their labels and are looking for products low in sugar with simple ingredient profiles.”
Tovar added, “Customers are looking to our educated staff to provide them with information regarding natural products, and how they support the body and the customer’s unique, individual wellness goals. We routinely review ingredients prior to approving products for Fruitful Yield’s shelves, and our customers have come to expect and rely on us for clean products. Non-GMO is important. Many customers, or their families, are avoiding certain ingredients due to intolerances or allergies; we offer many allergen-friendly options and labeling that provides assurances.”
In the grocery aisles, customers are looking for healthy drink and snack alternatives with a functional benefit. “Obviously taste, quality and sustainable packaging are important to most of our customers, but they also want to know can this product make me feel better? Common trendy functional ingredients are mushrooms, probiotics and mood support ingredients,” said Dryda.
The staff also noted that the store’s training program is unique. According to Tovar, “Training has always been important to Fruitful Yield, but when Joe [Fulco] joined the company, he helped make training an even higher priority. From Day One of employment, our team members are immersed in operational, nutritional and product knowledge. We have an excellent team of trainers, which includes a wellness specialist, senior product specialist, and a trainer or product specialist at each store. This supports ongoing education and allows us to stay in tune with current information and products. Our store teams benefit from a weekly training hour every week! Recently, we have really enjoyed getting back to gathering together in person for trainings—with 12-plus locations, this also makes for good teamwork.”
Dryda also pointed to the store’s partnership with INFRA as a benefit. “Earlier this year, we started a new partnership with INFRA, a business co-op that partners with independent retailers in the natural products industry by providing collective buying power, operational support and innovative marketing programs,” she said. “We currently utilize INFRA’s monthly sales flyer ad, which features a selection of trending products at competitive prices for our customers. We also offer additional marketing opportunities in-store, online, through our FY app and on social media.”
The retailer welcomes diversity. “Since 2020, we have consciously made it a priority to highlight our brands with diverse owners/founders,” Dryda added. “We recognize the industry can do more to support these brands. We give them the space to tell their brand story, spotlight their philanthropic efforts and discuss key selling points about their products on our monthly social media livestreams. Our Diversity Team meets twice a month to strategize a monthly marketing focus, such as Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. We also discuss bigger goals that can support our mission, such as making healthy living attainable for all. Due to the efforts of our Diversity Team, we implemented SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) acceptance in our stores earlier this year.”
Some of the top brands sold at the store, according to Tovar, are NOW, Garden of Life, New Chapter, Nature’s Way and Carlson, which she said are popular for providing value, quality ingredients and product certifications. “Carlson and NOW are also local to our stores, and customers like to support local when they can.”
Valuable Social Media
When it comes to social media platforms, the store uses Facebook, Instagram and YouTube most frequently, said Steven Cooling, customer relations manager. “Promotional offerings for our Fruitful Yield Loyalty program, as well as store-wide flash sales and other promotions are communicated mostly on Facebook,” he said. “We also post live content on Facebook that ranges from highlighting partnerships with brands, to educational videos for a variety of health concerns, or simple and fun recipe ideas. Our Instagram is all about promoting a sense of community through stories involving diversity, specific store events and user-generated content (UGC). Our YouTube page is home to a lot of fun videos and shorts, all highlighting education.”
As an essential workplace, Fruitful Yield stores never stopped being there when its customers needed them, said Cooling “We had to adjust to the needs of both our employees and our customers when it came to safety, and some of those safeguards are still in place. One of the main things we did was install the added protection of plexi-shields for our cashiers, which remain in place. To adjust to how our customers shopped during the pandemic, we implemented our Shop Online, Pick-up In Store program (SOPIS). This allowed customers who weren’t comfortable shopping in a store to do curbside pick-up or by placing an order that someone else could pick-up for them. This has proven to be popular, so we continue to offer this convenient service to our customers.”
Going forward, Fulco said Fruitful Yield will carry on by reinforcing its current path. “The store is dedicated to providing education to all of its customers who are looking for natural and organic products for their unique needs,” he said. “We continue to work on strengthening our fruitfulyield.com assortment and we look forward to continuing to build our store within a store partnership with Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market.” VR
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Making His Mark
President Joe Fulco, who is said to be known around the Fruitful Yield office as a type of father figure, has a long history in retail, including time working at Vitamin Shoppe. How does this impact his career at Fruitful Yield?
“Well, I started retail over 50 years ago at the age of 9 working for my dad and our small family business. What I learned about working for my family was the amount of time, commitment, dedication and care for others that it takes to grow a business. I’ve carried those leadership values throughout my career, and when I had the opportunity to come to Fruitful Yield, which is a family-owned business, I knew this is where I belonged. My hope is that everyone on the Fruitful family team knows how important they and their families are to me and our company. That by taking care of one another, we are able to effectively take care of everyone who visits our stores and together, we all make a difference.”
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Jim Emme Talks Retail Executive Strategies
Jim Emme is CEO for NOW Health Group, which employs approximately 1,750 people at its three manufacturing facilities and its corporate office—and he oversees the Fruitful Yield retail stores.
VR: As CEO for NOW Health Group, how have you updated Fruitful Yield’s business strategy in recent years?
JE: We have developed a hybrid strategy for our Fruitful Yield stores. We continue to follow our traditional strategy of being a brick-and-mortar natural products retailer, with a wide array of natural products and brands for consumers to choose from. We have had a mail order operation in place for decades, which has now transitioned into an online direct to consumer operation for better convenience to consumers. Another option for consumers is to order online and pickup in the store. This has been quite successful for us and grew in popularity during the pandemic. We are also experimenting with a smaller “store within a store” partnership with a local grocery chain, Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. Caputo’s is a more traditional regional grocery chain, and our presence within their stores opens our offerings to many consumers that might not shop at a stand-alone natural products store.
VR: What are your priorities when allocating capital?
JE: We use a traditional Rate of Return calculation for analyzing the viability of an idea for our retail operations. It may seem very fundamental, yet it’s a quick way to determine if the idea will have a good return on the capital investment. We will sometimes make an investment that might not have a great chance of a strong return if it is an innovative idea that needs to be given a chance. Our philosophy is that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail with ideas, and that we should try many new ideas or marketing experiments. Our key rules to these attempts is that it’s “ok to fail, but fail fast and fail cheap.”
VR: What are you looking for when overseeing the executive team?
JE: I look for servant leaders to be developed within our organization. A great culture of service to our customers and our associates is not only a competitive advantage, it’s the right thing to do for the right reasons. We also believe it’s important for all leaders to have strategic scorecards, so they are empowered to perform and achieve the results that align with our overall corporate objectives.
VR: What is Fruitful Yield’s most important strength?
JE: Outstanding customer service and experience. Our stores always excel in service scores registered by our Secret Shopper Program. We are very pleased with the consistency of these high scores that the team has received for many consecutive years.
VR: What is your advice for natural product store retailer leadership success?
JE: My advice for health food store retailer leadership success is to develop a mission statement for your store, no matter how many people you have in your organization. Mission is the North Star that will align the efforts of your team in supporting your goals. It’s also important to identify your core values as a company. Both the mission and the core values need to be a part of any new associate orientation. Most importantly, always make your No. 1 goal be to have each customer leave your store delighted by the experience of having shopped there that day.