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Leite discusses Vitamin Shoppe’s return to its roots

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NEW YORK — When Sharon Leite joined The Vitamin ­Shoppe in 2018 as chief executive officer, the company had hit a speed bump after many years of steady growth and retail expansion. The industry had been changing rapidly, particularly around transformative digital and e-commerce technologies, but the 45-year-old company hadn’t quite transitioned with the times.

Sharon Leite

Drawing from her wide-ranging experience in specialty retailing, developed at companies including the Walt Disney Co., The Gap, Bath and Body Works, Pier 1 Imports, Sally Beauty and Godiva Chocolatier, Leite set out on a comprehensive revitalization plan.

“We had to have a clear and compelling mission. We decided what was going to make The Vitamin Shoppe special is that we had to get back to our specialty store roots, understand the consumer of today and lean into all things digital. We’re never going to be a drug store chain or a big-box retailer. That’s not who we are,” she said in February during a virtual panel discussion with several leaders in the vitamin/supplement/wellness industry that was hosted by Chain Drug Review.

The participants included Janick Boudazin, president and chief executive officer for North America at Boiron; Janet Carter Smith, executive vice president for the Americas at Nelsons; Larry Daley, executive vice president of North American sales at Iovate; Candice St. Pierre, vice president of sales at Twinlab; Yamit Sadok, senior director of marketing at Reserveage Nutrition; and Daniel Wallace, cofounder and CEO of Force Factor.

Leite explained that the first order of business was to pinpoint The Vitamin Shoppe’s identity, which had gotten lost over the years. “The Vitamin Shoppe went public and, at its height, it was an incredibly profitable organization. And then over time, it started to decline,” she explained of the company, which currently operates over 700 stores. “What I found when I got there was that the organization didn’t really know who it was. We had historically been a place that sold a lot of products, but we really didn’t stand for anything specifically, especially as it relates to how the competitive marketplace had changed.”

Like many brick-and-mortar merchants, The Vitamin ­Shoppe faced encroaching competition and democratization of the category. Food, drug and mass retailers as well as Amazon had dramatically expanded their efforts in the category, posing considerable new competition.

While The Vitamin Shoppe had been able to post gains by adding doors, there came a point where that couldn’t be sustained.

“We had not invested in digital in the way that we needed to. And when I say digital, that’s not just about e-commerce. Digital is about our communication channels, social media, the way people consume information and how you integrate that into the brick-and-mortar business. And we were woefully behind,” she explained.

Building the brand identity was mission critical. Shoppers in the Northeast knew the brand, but it wasn’t as well recognized in the rest of the country. Leite’s deep dive into the company revealed what she calls a “golden nugget”: The retail employees of the stores, known as Health Enthusiasts, had the extensive product knowledge and local expertise to personally engage customers and build long-term relationships and loyalty. That is paramount in the types of product categories sold at The Vitamin Shoppe, which can be confusing and at times marketed with questionable claims at competing sales outlets.

That’s when she decided to get back to the heritage of the company. “No one else does what we do today in the United States. There are certainly lots of competitors, but nobody provides the range of brands and products, in-store experience or industry expertise of our Health Enthusiasts. And that is something we could really harness.”

Her mission became helping people on their wellness journey with a focus on three brand pillars: quality, innovation and expertise. Leite pledged to make sure stores were stocked with best-in-class items, with The Vitamin Shoppe now offering the largest assortment of vitamin, mineral and supplement products at retail in the U.S., including national brands and an expanding portfolio of proprietary brands.

Innovation moved to the front burner as part of the revitalization plan. Tapping into her experience in fashion and beauty, Leite tasked her team with becoming more trend savvy. “We need to constantly make sure that we innovate. We need to be up on the latest and greatest ingredients as well as product and category trends. We need to clearly understand the science behind what we’re doing,” she said. Having hot items, like creatine, is top of mind for Leite.

Ingredients are driving trends in wellness and, like many categories, social media is exposing consumers to what’s emerging. The sports nutrition side of the business, for example, is currently very trend oriented. Postings of a new flavor on a platform like TikTok can cause sales to take off in the same vein as a new color of lipstick. Just as powerful as TikTok and other platforms can be, they also come with some cautions about potential unsubstantiated claims for certain products. The company makes sure to align with credible social media influencers that provide trustworthy, vetted information.

“One thing I talk about all the time is that we have to meet the customer where they are — whether that’s in the physical retail world, online, on apps, or via social media. So, for us, it’s so important that we stay very close to the consumer,” said Leite.

The profile of the brand’s customers wasn’t crystal clear when she joined the company. “I was told they were female, and they’re not. It’s pretty evenly split for us, male and female,” she said. And what many shoppers are on the hunt for falls within an area the company categorizes under vitamins, minerals, supplements and herbs found in one key section of the store.

The second core area of the business covers sports nutrition like proteins and pre-workouts, as well as healthy weight management products and on-the-go energy bars and drinks.

“We’re seeing that the sports nutrition customer that didn’t used to cross over the aisle and get a multivitamin is doing that now. They would come in for their stack, but now we’re getting them to cross over and pick up an herb or pick up something else,” she explained. She attributes this to people being more thoughtful about what they’re putting in their body and what they’re eating.

Being the go-to experts in the business is the third element in Leite’s reinvention plan. “How can The Vitamin Shoppe be seen as the expert if people can’t trust us? We know that when the consumer trusts you, that is the best thing in the world. That trust builds engagement and loyal customers.”

The Vitamin Shoppe has made significant investments in the training and education of its in-store Health Enthusiasts to ensure they are highly knowledgeable about every product sold on its shelves. Customers can also take advantage of free, virtual one-on-one consultations with credentialed nutritionists. This level of personalized expertise available to customers, both in-store and online, is one of the biggest differentiators for The Vitamin Shoppe versus its competitors, whether that’s food, drug and mass retailers or Amazon.

In private brands, there was a gap in the market that the company recently filled with the launch of TrueYou, an assortment of 14 supplements catering to the unique and evolving needs of women through every stage of their lives.

A defining element of TrueYou formulas is the Women’s Equilibrium Blend, a proprietary mixture of nutrients selected to support a healthy estrogen balance and a woman’s overall well-being. This blend includes diindolylmethane (DIM), a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale, which research has shown to support a healthy estrogen balance; calcium D-glucarate, which has been shown to support liver detoxification and estrogen metabolism; and organic broccoli sprouts, which provide potent antioxidants and aid cellular health.

“We saw a meaningful need in the marketplace for a wellness brand that supports and empowers women throughout the evolving stages of their lives, and TrueYou is meant to do that,” said Leite. As part of its mission to support and empower women, TrueYou has partnered with Kiva.org, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform that expands access to financial services in underserved communities around the world. Every purchase of TrueYou earns the customer a $25 Kiva credit to invest in the success of a small business owner worldwide.

When Leite joined The Vitamin Shoppe, she implemented what she called the Fix the Foundation period. This work focused on basics like shoring up the technology stack that powered operations and the customer experience, eliminating friction in the company’s digital modernization efforts and rolling out an updated, customer-centric Healthy Awards loyalty program. Another set of initiatives, dubbed Defining the Brand, resulted in a new tech-driven, innovation-focused store design, along with updated marketing and branding programs.

“We call the new store design the modern apothecary, and it’s really about showcasing the products,” she said. “We want people to think of The Vitamin Shoppe as the destination where lifetime wellness starts, because we believe that at any stage of your life, wellness matters. Whether it’s your mental health, whether it’s your physical health, whether it’s just how you look and feel, whatever wellness is to you, we want to be the place that consumers can trust. There are new technologies like mobile checkout to improve the customer experience, new adjacencies to help shoppers navigate the aisles and a fresh decor package.”

It has been a dynamic journey over the past three and a half years of Leite’s leadership at The Vitamin Shoppe and its sibling brand Super Supplements — one with the added obstacles of COVID-19 tossed in. The pandemic, she explained, accelerated the need for quick reaction, both in ensuring the safety of the workplace and anticipating customer needs.

“Speed is important. Look at what happened through COVID. It’s like, all of a sudden, you couldn’t find a mask. Then, masks were everywhere. You couldn’t find tests, now we’re getting tests every day. It’s really about staying close to the consumer and making sure that you can deliver what they’re looking for,” she said. “If you miss a trend, you’ve got a lot of bad inventory.”

As a leader, she shepherds a team of over 4,000 Health Enthusiasts who constantly have their ear to the ground. Combined with industry data points and consumer surveys, they keep The Vitamin Shoppe ahead of the curve, she said. “We take bets, and sometimes they aren’t right, but that’s OK because I’d rather take a bet and have an item than miss an important trend,” Leite said.

To nurture nascent brands, she started an increasingly popular Founder Spotlight video feature on social media where she personally interviews the founders of notable health and wellness brands, taking viewers along on their creation stories. The series has featured the founders of fast-growing and diverse brands like Alani Nu, Ryse, Body Complete Rx, Kaged Muscle, Jocko Fuel, Shea Terra Organics and Vibrant Health.

Addressing what she looks for in a supply partner, she pointed to working with thinkers that “want to make things better. Thought leadership is important.” The Vitamin Shoppe’s goal is to build deep connections in the wellness community with brands aligned to its core mission, providing holistic wellness solutions that meet the needs of different lifestyles and health goals. “We look for complementary relationships with companies that are committed to the same standards of quality, innovation and expertise that are the foundations of our customer experience,” explained Leite.

She also delved into the advantages of launching with a physical store to grow a brand versus direct-to-consumer. “I think launching with a company like ours, we can provide a ‘surround sound’ around products, because we’ll do it through our Health Enthusiasts, personalized education, on shelf and through all of our digital channels,” said Leite.

“We empower our vendor partners to help tell their story, connected with ours. We believe storytelling and education is so important — and that’s much harder to do in food, drug and mass.”

Selling wellness products requires guidance, she explained. “How do we educate customers about why a superfood is important? Why is this protein better than that one? Why might a plant-based product help you?” That high level of knowledge is hard to duplicate in a busy, mass market store, she believes. “It goes back to what’s unique about the specialty channel — it’s a great place to incubate and grow brands as well as connect with the customer at a very personal level.”

To further explain her theory, she likened selling wellness products to beauty. “The beauty business does this the best, and you see the incubation of many brands there. It is why I see a lot of parallels with our industry and beauty. There is incubation of those smaller brands and how they learn, grow and scale.” In the same fashion, Leite wants and expects The Vitamin Shoppe to be the industry’s leading place to incubate wellness brands.

Once a brand has gained traction, is it no longer a fit for her specialty concept? “Not always. I go back to what the customer wants,” she said, adding that there are many items that can live in the mass market and on her shelves at the same time.

To help keep customers returning to the store, Health Enthusiasts armed with iPads greet customers when they walk through the store door. For its Healthy Awards loyalty members, the information on past shopping trips can be accessed (with permission) to open up a discussion about past purchases, specific wellness goals and the most relevant product information. The retailer also has added online pickup in stores and can have items to customers in as fast as an hour via Instacart.

This past January, Leite and The Vitamin Shoppe were featured on the hit CBS TV reality show “Undercover Boss.” It brought The Vitamin Shoppe into over 4.5 million homes during the broadcast, showcasing the work of individual Health Enthusiasts as well as a revitalized brand that is the result of the many modernization efforts implemented by Leite and her team over these recent years.

As is the common theme of the show, it also spotlighted areas of the company that still needed refining — and Leite announced additional investments designed to address those areas. These included improvements to inventory management technologies, speeding up the rollout of mobile point-of-sale checkout in stores, and even more product education tools for Health Enthusiast employees. The company also created The Vitamin Shoppe Cares Foundation to financially support employees during times of personal challenges.

“Undercover Boss was an unparalleled chance to get into the field and see up-close the incredible dedication of our Health Enthusiast team members. Learning about their genuine stories was an opportunity for me to understand what truly motivates and inspires them — and how I and the company can help support them in their work,” said Leite.

Leite concluded the roundtable discussion by giving herself and the ongoing reinvention of The Vitamin Shoppe a self-assessment. “Now more than ever, consumers are looking for trusted brands, effective products, and accurate information to enhance their health and wellness across all aspects of their lives. It’s an exciting and rewarding time to be in the health and wellness space, and our teams are incredibly passionate about supporting the lifelong wellness of our customers,” said Leite.

“As a company, we are laser-focused on our digital-first, omnichannel strategy that improves the customer experience across all touchpoints. We continue to make strides in our national brand awareness, and we have a number of upcoming initiatives to expand our retail footprint, update our merchandise mix and continually hone our digital strategies. We have much more work to do, and our teams are excited for the opportunity.”


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