East Retailer Spotlight:
Spotlight: Stephen Distefano, Owner, Strictly Gluten Free, East Northport,
By Paul Kushner, Executive
Director, NPA East
Q. What is your background
and how did you get interested in natural products?
My background is in sales
and marketing, and I have worked in various industries. A little
more than four and a half years ago my wife was diagnosed with Celiac Disease.
At that time, we began to conduct research on the gluten free industry.
Based on our own experience, my entrepreneurial spirit, and my passion
for helping other people, we began to explore how best to help my wife
with her condition and serve others with Celiac Disease. What resulted
was the decision to open up a retail business devoted exclusively to those
who suffer from this disease, which we named Strictly Gluten Free.
Q. Tell me about
Our retail store and web-based
site are the premier resources for consumers who seek a gluten free lifestyle.
We have personally selected and sampled more than 95% of the products we
carry. Our main focus is providing products that are guaranteed to be gluten
free. Many of the products we carry also are allergen friendly, including
those that are dairy free, casein free, peanut-free, corn-free, egg-free,
soy-free, and tree-nut free. We also carry our own line of vitamins
and supplements for consumers who may be deficient in certain areas common
to those maintaining a gluten free lifestyle.
At Strictly Gluten Free we
focus on creating an environment that supports a gluten free diet, ensuring
that our customers are provided with a high level of comfort, convenience,
and understanding, while gaining a greater knowledge of how to maintain
their gluten free lifestyle. We also strive to make their diet
more affordable by making available to them the best product selection
available, which results in greater convenience and greater savings.
Q. Do you have a
formal business plan or an informal one, and can you share the key elements
that you believe will help drive your future success?
We do have a formal business
plan which we developed during the 18 months of research we performed prior
to opening our store. We constructed a blueprint that provides what
we believe will be the key to our success. While we continue to fine-tune
it, we know now that it must include the desire to be true to our beliefs
and always strive to keep the best interests of our customers utmost in
our minds. We have been in business for one year and are already profitable.
Beyond financial success, we also have measured ourselves by how well we
are able to educate and support the lifestyle our customers have chosen
for themselves. That has been our goal since the first day we opened
Q. We've recently
gone through what some economists say is the worst downturn since the Great
Depression. Why did you pick this environment to open a retail store?
The economy definitely
has been volatile. We ultimately decided to open a retail store simply
because, based on our personal experiences and extensive market research,
there was clearly a need in the marketplace for a store that focused exclusively
on the whole gluten free lifestyle. We are a niche business in a niche
industry, and we are thriving in this economy simply because we have done
it right. We care about our customers' lives and do not just focus on providing
them a resource for purchasing healthier foods. We also concern ourselves
with who they are as people and what their family requirements may be when
they visit our store. It is a wonderful feeling to be able
to help other human beings and truly help improve their lives in some way,
while earning an honest living.
Q. Competition from
big box stores is a concern for all independent retailers. How do
you compete with a virtual monolith that can often offer more selection
and better prices?
We do not believe any
big box store is competition in our market. In fact, we welcome their competition.
If a big box store provides products for the gluten free consumer it means
that the market is expanding. We are confident that our level of
personal service and product knowledge will keep customers coming back
to us. Our customers are not in a huge data base. They are people, like
my wife, who have specific needs that we believe we can fill better than
any big box outlet. What they need and what we provide is an opportunity
to be heard and the ability to receive guidance. A big box store cannot
offer what we do: a great, exclusive selection of gluten free products
at very competitive prices and a level of personal experience they can't
match. Just ask our loyal customers
Q. Do you plan to sponsor
community events at your store? If so, why did you choose them?
We have already sponsored
a local gluten free vendor fair and expo at an offsite location. We also
have sponsored and are currently scheduling seminars to be held in our
store led by doctors, nutritionists and health coaches. We
are providing these opportunities to our customers so that we can bring
the community together and allow consumers to become better educated.
The way we decide which individuals, organizations, or professionals to
sponsor is to learn who they are and what they're all about. We have
an interviewing process we use to determine if they meet the standards
of Strictly Gluten Free and enhance our brand as well as serving our customers.
We also have donated to many local organizations and events that support
our community and our philosophy.
Q. What have you
found to be the best media for marketing your store so far?
We rely heavily on word of
mouth communication and our own networking capabilities. We also
employ both traditional and non-traditional forms of marketing. We're
so new that many of our marketing plans are still in the testing stages.
Q. As a brand new retail
store owner, what have been some of your biggest challenges to date?
I would say that there
is not enough time in a day to be able to get everything accomplished.
We are learning that there are many different facets to our business model
that go beyond having a retail presence. We are constantly learning the
best ways to achieve our goals efficiently and effectively.
get out your crystal ball? What will independent retailers,
especially new owners like you, need to do in the next five to ten years
to continue to survive and prosper?
Our experience has been to
pick a business you really believe in. In my case, the decision was
a result of my wife's condition. Then you need to really focus on
the business you've chosen, do your due diligence in terms of the competition
and the customers you plan to serve, and never take your eye off your goals.
You may find, as we have, that adjustments need to be made both in your
short-term and long term planning. Ultimately, you'll get as much
out of your business as you are willing to put into it. There are
no shortcuts to success. Being an owner, I've discovered, is a lot
tougher than being an employee, both in time and financial exposure.
But in the end, the rewards are much greater as well. I also believe
that we have found a niche that will continue to grow and offer opportunities
for those who chose to pursue it. If anyone would like to talk to
me about starting a business that focuses exclusively on gluten free products,
I am happy to share what I have learned so far.
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