In the factory town of Kokomo, Ind., a natural foods store is an unexpected sight—especially one that’s thriving and growing. Home to General Motors components Kokomo Transmission Plant and Delco Electronics, Kokomo has struggled in recent years with unemployment rates above both the national and state averages. Given such economic challenges, The Sunspot Natural Market's continued success is inspiring and impressive.

Joan Johnson opened the store in 1977 having no business experience and just about that much money. Her grandmother on her mother’s side was into herbs, while her grandfather on her dad’s side had opened and run his own deli, so it seemed Johnson was genetically fated to run a natural foods store. Her current business partner, her nephew, Michael Anderson, grew up in his aunt’s store, playing there as a child and working there as a young adult. Anderson's wife, Angela Anderson, is also now a co-owner.

Over its 34-year existence, Sunspot has grown a loyal following in Kokomo and given birth to a second store, about one hour west in the college town of West Lafayette, Ind. Both stores boast regular customers who drive an hour each way to shop there—quite impressive given that natural products are now available via so many retail channels and online. What are Johnson and the Andersons doing to create such loyalty and devotion?

Secrets of continued success

According to Johnson, the most valuable lesson she's learned over her years in business is to listen and pay attention to customers. She says many shoppers come in seeking items they’ve seen in magazines like Woman’s World or on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Therefore, Johnson feels that while paying attention to what’s going on in the industry is important, paying attention to what’s going on with customers is essential.

How does Sunspot continue to succeed in such a tough economy? Financial challenges in the community have brought in new customers, looking either for natural products to take the place of prescriptions that they can no longer afford or ways to maintain their health and prevent disease. However, Johnson and the Andersons are truly uncomfortable with the idea that the misfortunes of others have benefitted their business. In other words, while they want to run a profitable business and grow sales, they don’t want to take advantage of customers’ hard times.

Location and visibility also have been keys to Sunspot’s success. After many years in a 1,200-square-foot spot in a well-traveled part of the city, Sunspot moved to its current location, a free-standing building along the major north-south-running highway through town. They painted the 5,000-square-foot store’s exterior bright yellow and recently added an electronic, digital sign.

Johnson and the Andersons embrace the importance of having strong, educated and committed employees—in fact, they have the goal of a “zero-turnover staff.” They have Staff Pick signs attached to items throughout their store and feature employees’ pictures and bios on the store website. The owners want every customer to leave happy, and they see their staff as key to accomplishing that goal, as well as to drawing in new customers.

Sunspot knows its identity

The owners also are clear about Sunspot not being a discount store: They know they can’t compete on price, so they must provide value and service. That said, Sunspot does offer a military discount (there’s an Air Force base just north of town), has weekly senior and student days, and puts many items on sale each month. The store also has a full-money-back guarantee and loyalty-card program, the Feel Good Card, which provides a variety of discounts and advance notice about in-store events.

As for supplements, Sunspot merchandises them by brand, rather than by category. The owners feel this not only makes their shelves look better, but also helps consumers find the brands they like. However, they admit that this type of merchandising only works with a well-educated staff that has enough time to assist shoppers. They feel that merchandising by category, as many stores do, can lead customers to shop only on the basis of price and then opt for lower-price items. This in turn prompts shoppers to buy items without the proper potency or array of ingredients to meet their needs, which creates a double loss—the store loses money on the sale, and then when the product doesn’t perform, the store potentially loses that customer.

Marketing and media

Sunspot is seeing social media as a good opportunity to connect with its customers. The store uses Facebook to promote events and has amassed a small Twitter following. But they still use traditional media, such as monthly flyers with accompanying signage throughout the store. Sunspot also runs some ads in the local newspaper (more successful in West Lafayette) and on local TV stations (more successful in Kokomo). However, the owners have taken most of the budget once used for mailers and put it into their staff’s hands in the form of gift cards. Employees hand out these cards to people they meet outside of work who don’t shop at the store–a cool way to welcome new customers. And when these new customers arrive, gift card in hand, they’re also given a goodie bag stuffed with sample products to enjoy.

Going forward, Johnson and the Andersons are looking to embrace new technology, not to depersonalize their customer interactions but to try to enhance them. They’re looking at how to incorporate quick response codes into their signage programs, possibly into their Staff Picks signs.

Find Sunspot online at sunspotnatural.com, search for Sunspot Natural Market on Facebook, and go to @sunspotnatural on Twitter.