In this episode:

Wendy Liebmann talks to Muriel Gonzalez, President, The Vitamin Shoppe about how the pandemic brought her out of retirement to lead the transformation of street corner vitamin shop into a model of 21st century wellness.

They discuss:

  • The keys to transforming a store for fitness jocks into one for anyone on a wellness journey
  • How to manage fast-emerging categories and products in the health and wellness space, from hydration to sports fitness, from menopause to immunity
  • Working with young entrepreneurs and the power of influencers and social media
  • The importance of the “health enthusiasts” staff in helping shoppers make sense of all the news — and noise.
  • Creating value in the heavily discounted vitamin category
  • How to create a reason for quick trips and longer-term loyalty

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Watch the video episode:

Wendy 00:09

Hello, everyone. I'm Wendy Liebmann CEO and chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail and this is Future Shop. This is where I talk the innovators disruptors and iconoclasts, about the future of retail.

Wendy 00:29

Today, my guest is Muriel Gonzalez. She's president of The Vitamin Shoppe, the 700 chain of health and wellness retailers that you probably see on your local street corner. She's been in that role or in various roles at The Vitamin Shoppe since 2020. And we'll talk about that auspicious date when we have our conversation in a minute. I first met Muriel when she headed up beauty at Macy's and prior to that she has been a senior executive and leader at the Estee Lauder companies and Ann Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. An iconic figure, if I may say so in beauty, fashion and lifestyle, and here she is in the in the thick of it in the health and wellness movement. So, welcome to Future Shop, Muriel.

Muriel G. 01:16

Thanks, Wendy. It's great to be here.

Wendy 01:17

Yeah, it's great to see you. It's been a long time. And I must say I have followed the journey because all of a sudden, in the middle of the pandemic, there you are, after this storied career and beauty and lifestyle, fashion department and luxury. There you were at Vitamin Shoppe, what the heck did you decide to do in the middle of all that?

Muriel G. 01:40

It really is a funny story, Wendy, you know, as you say, I had really thought that I was done. And I was renovating my apartment and be a grandmother and doing consulting and you know, having this new, exciting life after the retail wars that I've been through over so many years, and then the pandemic struck. And in the midst of the pandemic, where we were all kind of reevaluating our lives and what we wanted to do. I spent time with the former CEO of the vitamin shop, who told me how the pandemic had brought so many new customers to the vitamin shop because all of a sudden people worrying about immunity. They were hearing on social media that zinc was the thing to do. So they had all these new customers. But what her vision was to have the Vitamin Shoppe be a merchant led organization. And could I help her with that. And my first reaction was sure, I'll help you with that. And I'll do that part time. But after some time talking about it, I realized that to do anything, I have two speeds on and off. And that I really wanted to plunge myself into this assignment, which I felt would be really a lot of fun. As a New Yorker, I've known the Vitamin Shoppe for many years, my husband, who's a runner had been a customer for more than 20 years. And I wasn't that up to date, though, on how the vitamin shop had evolved. And once I got into it, I just saw that there were limitless possibilities. And I thought it would be fun. And it has turned out to be exactly that. And certainly everybody is so conscious of health and wellness right now. There's a lot of innovation in the marketplace. And as a merchant, and I'm a merchant at heart, there was nothing but opportunity in terms of new brands, new categories, new uses of social media,

Wendy 03:35

we've been studying this health and wellness movement for close to a decade as it evolved from what we call sick care to well care to self care. That's why I was so intrigued in terms of experience you have in terms of building lifestyle brands and different kinds of retailers. And thinking about this transformation, as you now call it the lifelong journey to wellness. How do you think about that journey in terms of engaging shoppers, new shoppers? What about the old shoppers, the jocks? What about people like me? How do you think about that as you evolve this business this brand?

Muriel G. 04:14

Well, one of the things I loved when I started really getting into who the customer was at the vitamin shop is that our customer actually reflects America. When you look at how we line up by age, ethnicity, income, we're very much a picture of America, and we have 700 stores across the country. So we don't just serve one kind of customer. We do serve many, many customers and have for years when the company was started in Manhattan as a true vitamin shop. The idea was to give education to customers because this is a confusing category. And so obviously named the vitamin shop, the strength of the company evolved to be very very strong in more classic vitamins and supplements and did actually was Little bit more female than male for many, many years, and as people began to age and began to feel a need for supplementation Vitamin Shoppe was a great place to go. But we also had, I felt an underserved customer in the area of sports nutrition, we were in it as were others. But we were not as up to date as we could be. So I like in our assortment, we have a broad assortment, we serve a broad customer base, which is a wonderful, wonderful place to be because during the pandemic, we were able to push hard on immune products. As people started coming out and getting back to the gym and getting back to social occasions, then we were able to really focus on the things that were happening in sports nutrition, people would go to the gym, they'd stop in before or after for a snack, a drink a pre workout. And at the same time, social media has been going crazy, with so much newness and innovation in that area. So we were able to push hard there when items like creatine, which has been around for many, many years, and did really go to that jock or the guy who was working out. Social media made so many more customers aware of the benefits of creatine. So older customers, younger customers, for mental clarity. It's just a wonderful, wonderful ingredient. So we started seeing what was happening in social media, we started pressing hard on that and increased our business exponentially. So it really has been a question of, it's a broad customer base. And based on trends and what's out in the world, we're able to push harder on one category and other. But when we get the customer in, we have the full assortment to offer. And then of course, we have our incredible health enthusiasts in the store, which really is our secret sauce, you yourself, say they're knowledgeable, they're trained, they're educated. And that's why people keep coming back.

Wendy 07:03

There are so many places now I can buy so many categories, right? Walk in, whether it's in the drugstores that have row upon row upon row in the vitamin department in the beauty department, I can go into Nordstroms and get vitamins I can I mean, it's just stunning to me, the thing that I find hard and I figure out I'm pretty educated shopper, it's really figuring out what and I must say, with the complexity of all the new either new old ingredients or whatever, shopping a drugstore or grocery store whatever, has become much, much harder unless it's got a yellow sticky on it that says you know, two for the price of one. So there, but that's what I found, where's the question all of this, what I found is, this is where a help having trained eapol becomes more and more important, have you trained with all the new things that are coming up

Muriel G. 07:56

constantly. And I give credit to the founder originally who started this business and it became part of the culture for many, many years. And we have a science and Regulatory Affairs Department so that we make sure that we test everything, we scrutinize everything that we say in writing so that we're compliant, we have a whole private brands department, and that develops products, and we make sure that they are again, compliant, they go through hundreds of tests, to make sure that we over test to be quite frank. And then we also validate the third parties that we bring in as well. So as an example, if there is a new kind of, let's say, a new kind of fish oil from one of our good manufacturers, as part of our marketing package, part of it is education, so that we develop brand guides that we get to all the health enthusiast so that they're aware of, you know, the different claims, what the ingredients are. And when I love if I go into a store, and I'm showing the health enthusiast a new product that we're working on, they pick it up, and the first thing they do is they look at the ingredients, and then they start you know, questioning they they are really by and large. They are people that do have an interest in health and wellness because if not, you know there's so many other places one could work. But we have people who whether they're trainers, their nutritionist, their acupuncturist, or they're just people that care about helping other people be healthier and great versions of themselves. So it's not only just the training that we give out constantly, we also subscribe to a third party group that they can be part of every other year we have every store manager come to a big conference where all our vendors make presentations. So information is very, very much a part of what we do.

Wendy 09:50

It also seems we've got a much more informed consumer out there as shopper so there's that too. We do.

Muriel G. 09:56

But Wendy there's a lot of misinformation as you know I mean, social media is a plus and a minus because it raises awareness, it gives people information, but it's not always right. So again, that's why it's really helpful to have people that are trained and, and in fact that that's one of the reasons that people do say they come to our store is because of the level of information that they get. And they know what's knowledgeable, and its objective.

Wendy 10:23

So you have this sort of unique view of this evolution of wellness. I mean, because of other work we do around women's health and wellness. Obviously, it's a lot of discussion about menopause, lot of discussion about healthy babies. And again, a lot of clutter already in that space. How do you see those sort of the Ark of women's health and wellness? How do you see that come into play in the stores? I know you've got a, you know, your own brand, and some of that, but how do you see that opportunity as it builds? What do we have to think about there as we think about those categories? So those areas,

Muriel G. 10:57

so we actually just really started an area called Beauty from Within. And it's more about ingestible beauty than it is about topical beauty because other people do that very well. That's not a place for us to be. And we are really nurturing it. We have one of our best merchants working on this. And we have actually in February, I think it is we have several brands that we're introducing that are DTC brands that need a brick and mortar presence. And we're the natural place to go for something like that. And again, there's a lot of talk about it. But this is not a new issue. I recently heard a journalist talk about Millenna-pause, that now Millennials are going into menopause so. So based on that, there's definitely going to be a lot of press and a lot of writing about it. And, you know, I don't think this will be our biggest category. But I think it's important for us to have product like that in our stores.

Wendy 11:51

And that whole area around prenatal and the sort of beginning of the journey, not just the I don't want to say menopause at the end of the journey, because it's going to go on forever. But the beginning of that, too. I noticed you've certainly maybe been carrying them before, but prenatal vitamins, things like that in that area as well.

Muriel G. 12:08

Yeah, we do. And again, we have one of the things that again, I like about our assortment is it is a broad assortment, and probably a little broader than some other specialty stores. Because again, we are able to maybe do the big business that social media is doing because of prime hydration or some influencer, we do a big business there. And yet, we are also the same store where you will find those kinds of products that are smaller and have a more limited audience.

Wendy 12:39

This interesting to me because I don't know the standard size of your stores. But the ones I'm most familiar with, they're I don't know, four or 5000 square feet. And I never get the sense that there's so much in there that I'm overwhelmed.

Muriel G. 12:52

I'm glad to hear that because we have really worked on our store layout to try to make sure that we the customer could guide themselves before they got some help. And what we also did very recently, is we put together something right up front called Fit lifestyle. And I don't know if you saw that, but what we noticed was that there was a lot of crossover. And in years past, what we saw was a customer either came in for vitamins memory, joint support, more traditional or they came in for protein, creatine pre workout, there wasn't a lot of crossover. And we began to notice that that crossover was really escalating, which is great, because the more products that people do from different retail placements, as we call it, you know, then they there's more reasons for them to return in to come to us. But specifically, we noticed that a lot of the gym goers were all of a sudden doing greens, and we found this all through our data. And the same time we found that or more traditional customer who came to us for vitamins or joint support was all of a sudden doing creatine. So we want to kind of put things together and rotate things so that we could put things up front that people might not be expecting. So again, if you came in for your protein, normally the Greens will be on the other side of the store. So this enables us to kind of

Wendy 14:14

at sounds like your merchants have as you've been talking about this training, the enthusiast things like that, I think about department stores, you know training, the beauty advisors, all the new things that come in cross merchandising, cross selling, I know you had a break in between but that learning experience that you had in that luxury, retail space, and then the move into every street corner, not quite but what did you learn from that? And what did you go like, Oh, that had never worked kind of thing?

Muriel G. 14:43

Well, I think, you know, merchandising, is the principles are always the same. The products all have their nuances. And if you're a very curious person, and once you learn the nuances of the product principles are the same, whether you're selling Chanel handbags, or Nike shoes, or Estée Lauder foundation, and I've done all of those. And it's really listening to the customer. Number one, listening to the stores, because they hear the customer right up front, analyzing the numbers hearing from the marketplace, what's new, what are they working on, being willing to take some risks. So I think that there's always nuances depending on if you're at Bergdorf Goodman, or at Macy's. But the principles are kind of the same, it's knowing your customer listening to your customer. And all customers always want to hear about newness, even if they're going to buy the same pair of black pants that they want to replace. They love seeing what's new and fresh. And that's what gets their attention. And so being a keeping your ear to the ground from an innovation point of view is something that is so important. Because that's what gets the customer in the door. That's what drives traffic.

Wendy 15:54

Yeah, I must say in those new spaces you created, I really did think about the sort of fashion, merchandising and styling. And this goes with this, as we think about this area of health and wellness, which has become, as you've said, this just massive movement appealing to people everywhere, anywhere, that that ability, as people sort of put their toe into new areas or read about things to bring it together, it felt very powerful in that sense that, you know, I walk in and I say, Oh, I never thought that that could go with that, or I've just played with that. And it didn't feel like well, those shoes could go with that. I had no other life and in my head in that. The other thing that strikes me in this area with all the newness and you know, increasing noise, as you said, social media, the issues around price, the issues around value in terms of private brand, I mean that in the mass retailers, it's all two for one, or buy one get 50% off the other and it's what I call the vitamin math gives me a headache, you sort of lose track of the brands, I don't know what brand it is what brand is up till today. I don't actually get that when I walk into the vitamin shop. I know you do offers and value and things. But how do you think about price point and accessibility to your broad shopper base customer base? You know, how do you think about that when you merchandise and off of trader value?

Muriel G. 17:19

That's a great question because in our own research, you know price and value are becoming more and more important quality is number one, of course because it's ingestible. Ease is number two, but price is becoming more important and it is for everybody in every category. And we will never win a price war will never be the cheapest brand in town. So there are certain products that are more commodity like products. In that case what we try to do is offer them in our private brands. So the customer gets a value. We price them accordingly lower than the third party brands. But there's other categories that are much more brand dependent or much more influencer dependent and again, we have this broad assortment and it depends on what it is. So if we're talking about a new kind of pre-workout, very often, that might be something where the brand, whether it be, let's call it Rise, Raw, they might have a collaboration with an influencer, or an athlete like Chris Bumstead at Raw Rise might do a flavor collaboration. Ghost was one of the first ones to do that with Chips Ahoy, and Oreo. So it brings a lot of good flavor gets people's attention. And in those in those categories, that's important. But in other categories, it's not. So again, you know, we look at drinks, for example, energy drinks, and hydration drinks. They're very much influenced by social media, and whether it be Alani Nu Witch’s Brew, or Ghost Sour Pink Lemonade, or it's PRIME Hydration with Logan Paul, who's always talking about that, that is absolutely responsive to social media. It's on TikTok, you see it the next day, if there's a new glow berry flavor, you know, it's on TikTok, it's on Instagram, sells out immediately. But we have more serious parts of our business that are not impacted that way.

Wendy 19:21

That's the other piece which I find so interesting too is the in the day when it was you know the color of lipstick or green eyeshadow or black nail polish or something like that right or a great handbag to your point before. I once made a speech called food as fashion which was many years ago and people were food retailers looked at me like what are you nuts? But I think now as I look at some of these categories are many of the categories that you live and breathe in hydration for one immunity for outlets, the speed at which something can come into the market and grow all of that. How do you even I mean, assume you've got a team there that it's not you checking on TikTok feed ever Minute, although maybe you are, how do you stay ahead of that? It means it's mind boggling to me.

Muriel G. 20:04

That's a great question. And you're right things happen so fast, so much faster than even. You're right. I remember we had the first black Chanel nail polish. And it was like crazy. They happen so fast. Now we have a great social media team. They're small, but they are completely plugged into social media. And a great example of that is, you know, some trends that go up, and then they're down if they last only if they're really authentic, and the product really works. So for example, a couple of years ago, there was a big thing on TikTok about chlorophyll. And again, we carry all these products. So people come to us when a trend like this happens. And I think somebody on TikTok said it was good for acne. And it wasn't really. So we do more business today in chlorophyll than we did few years ago. But we didn't keep that spike. On the other hand, creatine, when creatine started getting awareness, that has really stayed, because it really is a good product that people can see results from in many, many different ways. So it's not all science, there's art to it as well. And we have a great social media team, we have a great merchant team, we're always analyzing the numbers to see do we have the right amount. And sometimes, you know, we sell right out of something, because it might be item number 5000. And all of a sudden, it goes on TikTok, and we're wiped out. And then we have to evaluate how much deeper do we want to go. And again, it's art and science. And that's what being a merchant is, and we're not always right. But more often than not,

Wendy 21:37

I'm always stunned and increasingly, not just in your stores, but across the retail environment. In the hydration areas. I mean, whether it's in the alcohol driven side of the business, or whether it's in the used waters and all of those things. I mean, that to me, when I look at the amount of space in many stores, that's extraordinary. And do you see that as a continuing trend, as you look at all the forms of hydration that you choose to carry? Or?

Muriel G. 22:05

No, that's again, a very interesting thing about The Vitamin Shoppe. We had always done a very nice business in energy drinks, whether it was Bang or Celsius, or we had a very nice assortment we did very well if there was a new flavor, it was always great. And when we first heard about PRIME Hydration, we had never had a good experience in hydration before was always about energy. So we weren't sure how big it would be but we really thought that the social media would be important. And we said alright, let's try it and of course what we thought was a six week about and of course it was gone in six days. Because Logan Paul actually went into a Vitamin Shoppe store and posted it on his own channel talking to a kid who you know, had some in his arm so it really put a great spotlight on that kind of hydration. And then to your point. There is also the different kinds of powders that people might use for hydration as well. So it really became a much, much bigger business very fast, it's probably our fastest growing part of our business. And we also see as a great traffic driver, because again, people stop in, they stop in for a PRIME, or they stop in for an energy drink, you know, for Rise or somebody else on their way to the gym. And that gives us the opportunity to have a connection, get to know them. And the more they come in, then they'll start thinking about us maybe for you know, some other categories. So it's very, very key.

Wendy 23:36

Yeah, it's interesting. You said that because last time I was in, I was looking for some d3 for my husband and trying to figure out calling him I was one of those annoying people in the aisle saying, and what size was sort of counting the people who literally just came in, got a drink and left. And I was thinking all of these occasions when we're trying to get people to come into the store, even if it's just for a moment and see that as a regular part of routine. I thought wow, that's not just somebody coming in and saying, you know, when you need to build muscles, or immunity or whenever I'm just whipping in getting something out of the cooler and going that quick trip, just watching that traffic was really interesting to me.

Muriel G. 24:16

Well, you're a true retail observer then because watching traffic is you know what we all love to do and see what they pick up and what they put together. But no, you're absolutely right. And because we've been fortunate enough to have a lot of the more innovative drinks first that does bring a new customer to Vitamin Shoppe of all ages, and you know that it's our responsibility to keep them

Wendy 24:38

and that relationship that you have with your customers in terms of the store versus ecommerce. How is that working for you particularly COVID days and now as we move into more normalized pricing?

Muriel G. 24:52

Sure, well, what we found pre COVID We had the very small percentage of our customers only shopped online and during In COVID, of course, everybody learned to shop online. But we were quickly able to reopen because in most states Vitamin Shoppe was designated an essential business. So we were able to open pretty quickly. And what we find today is that a great majority of our customers start their journey online, they'll look up and they might compare to see like, what different kinds of vitamin D Do you have, there's different versions of let's say, magnesium, magnesium glycinate, magnesium citrate, there's so many options. A lot of people will do that research online, just because they can do it. Whether they're early birds like me up late like others, they're a little bit more educated, we do find that many of our customers will then shop online, we have buy online pick up in store, and a lot of people that has really become very, very significant part of our business will people buying online, and just running into pick it up, even the customers that only shop in store, a lot of them look for information online first,

Wendy 26:02

just as a sort of wrap up. I mean, I feel like there's so much going on, we talked a little bit about solutions, or at least the way your cross merchandising some of the categories, I think about categories like sleep and stress and mental health, and the products and services that you offer, and that we talked about women, I feel like people really are we see it in all our how America shops research, I mean, the number of places people will go today to look for information, as you said, about particularly about issues around their health. The number of apps they use a number of influences are experts so that on the one hand, is great, but it's also even more overwhelming and confusing. So looking for place in the storm is the other thing that I find really intriguing as we hear from our shoppers,

Muriel G. 26:48

well, one of the things that are pillars, if you will our quality, innovation expertise. And the expertise is not just a health enthusiast the education they get as we spoke about, but we also try to educate our customers, we have a blog called what's good. We have a wellness Council of credentialed experts that we use their information for content. So again, we try to get the word out as in our way so that customers can be more educated as well.

Wendy 27:16

What do you see over the next two to three, four years, you know, biggest challenges opportunities for the category health and wellness as well as for the Vitamin Shoppe

Muriel G. 27:25

health and wellness is a great category it will continue and you know, one of the things about health and wellness is even back when I was doing shoes, Macy's, the growth in athletic shoes was exponential. So whether it this has been coming even pre pandemic, you know, people wanting to, you know, be out in more comfortable clothes, whether they're walking, they're jogging they’re, you know, whatever their exercise of choice might be. So this has been underlying for a long time, the pandemic I think brought it to the forefront. So this isn't changing anytime soon. And there always will be new ideas, new creators new ingredients that we don't know about today. So a year ago, some of the things that we thought were going to be part of our plan became less important and other things became more important. That's retail. One of the things about this industry that I find very inspiring is that there are so many young entrepreneurs in the space, that are passionate about the lifestyle, passionate about creating interesting product that can reach a broader audience. And it's very inspiring to see how many people whether it be Fit Butters or whether it be Ghost or whether it be Rise Raw, whether it be EHPLabs that does OxyShred, there are so many entrepreneurs in this space. It's very exciting because they're always looking for the latest, the greatest the best collaboration, how they can get the word out interesting ways of packaging, interesting ways of ingesting the product. And I find that very, very unique to this industry and very exciting.

Wendy 29:07

Well, it’s lovely to have you lovely to reconnect with you. And thank you for having the D series. Hope to see you in person soon. That would be nice. Thanks, Muriel, thank you. We're at this moment where health wellness self care, people want to take control of their own health and well being. But there's this tremendous speed and excitement to what's going on also an increasing complexity, the impact of a you know, an influencer can change the dynamics of the sale in about two and a half seconds. So the ability to have somewhere that you can actually sort through the clutter, whether it's online or in store becomes really, really important. One of the greatest challenges is when you walk into a big mass retailer, sometimes you just raise your shoulders, roll your eyes as I'm doing and then just walk away And that's the last opportunity if you're a drugstore or mass merchant or anybody else, that's what you know specialty is able to do so whether it's in vitamins or beauty or anything else, but it did strike me in, in listening to murals enthusiasm is that this is the category in terms of health and wellness and well being that really still has so much more opportunity as we move forward. So, as we think about the future of retail, there's lots more to come from us on that. So stay tuned. We'll see in the future. Cheers for now.

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