A smoking barbecue, balloons and banners intrigue passersby on U.S. Highway 89A, in red-rock nestled Sedona, Ariz. Ron Colone, marketing director for New Frontiers Natural Market?place, describes aromas of cooking food, music, children with painted faces and families nibbling free munchies at the Sedona location's 20th anniversary celebration in October. A time for the retailer to thank customers for their support also turned out—to Colone's pleasant surprise—to be an opportunity for the customers to express their gratitude for the store's presence.
In a locale where shoppers' natural food awareness seemingly comes naturally, Colone has sensed changes in the retail climate. So the store is adapting to suit new shoppers' needs, but holding onto what sets it apart: close ties to farmers and deep roots in the organic industry.
Those ties go back to 1987, when New Frontiers—now a five-store chain in Arizona and California—began with two stores in Utah. At the urging of an employee with organic growing experience, the store employees began growing produce on a 5-acre plot in Salt Lake City. "We started growing lettuce, and pretty soon the management started getting excited about it," says Jonathan King, now president of New Frontiers. When a horse ranch in on the central coast of California went up for sale in 1991, New Frontiers acquired it and soon transformed it into a 53-acre organic farm.
Through the years, that farm has remained a connection to the store's founding values, even as the natural foods market?place—including New Frontiers—has grown and changed. "This farm, having it be part of our inner core, is like a testament to our values and ideas about being committed to organic and being good stewards," Colone says. "It's something we believe in, while being a source for this incredible produce for our stores as well."
The farm provides about 15 percent of the chain's produce, King estimates. Access to produce directly from the farm has been an advantage for New Frontiers as well as the farmers. When the New Frontier farmers were wading through the challenges of organic production, a friendship with a neighboring organic farmer blossomed into a mutually beneficial relationship. New Frontiers had the land, water, equipment, a warehouse and sales people. The other farmer, who supplied New Frontiers with produce, had crews of pickers and employees with vital experience. "We happened on this partnership and it works fantastically," King says.
Though the New Frontiers farmers experimented with a variety of crops—King says they look at the farm as a huge garden—they specialize in green bell peppers, varieties of squash, greens, beets, cabbage and onions. They are currently testing fruit options, delving into varieties of rasp?berries, grapes and peaches.
The New Frontiers stores, too, are growing and developing. While each store has a different feel, Colone explains they are gradually evolving to reflect a unified identity. Much of that evolution has come as a result of competition from conventional supermarkets. The Sedona store recently completed major renovations to appeal to crossover shoppers looking for quality. "As an industry, our growth is coming from crossover shoppers who have certain expectations [built up by] conventional grocers," King says. "Say what you will about their products, they have well-merchandised, clean stores, so that needed to be our goal as well. ? You've got to merchandise your store so people are exposed to all you have to offer."
To that end, New Frontiers has focused closely on the Sedona store's sensory presentation. The store gained 5,000 glowing, plant-filled square feet, with custom-designed lighting and surfaces. An increased spotlight on produce, flowers, fresh meat and the deli has expanded the store's foodie appeal, not to mention the new gourmet-cheese island, complete with cheese monger. Adding seafood to the product mix and expanding the salad bar has also brought the Sedona store closer to New Frontiers' ideal store concept.
And so far, the response has been positive, Colone says. A recent visitor, who said he'd been through the store several years before, commented on the more ?gourmet' feel. Colone says the store's seminars and demos have also made it a local cultural spot, not just a place to buy food. "You'll walk the store and see people standing in the aisle talking, and when you go back 10 minutes later, they'll still be there," King adds.
King says New Frontiers' success also has to do with "the people we have working at our stores—their commitment and enthusiasm for a lifestyle that the industry has shared for many, many years." But whatever the appeal, it appears to be outdoing the competition. "The contacts we have in the supermarket industry say they're struggling just to stay where they were a year ago," King says. "But our company's growth rate is consistently about 10 percent."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p.54