Natural Foods Merchandiser

Naturals Stores Freshen Their Strategies

Naturals grocers are trying on new looks, catering to new clientele and seeking new niches to maintain their competitive edge in the wild and wooly food business.

Three companies—Wild Oats, Whole Foods and upstart Sunflower Market—are employing some new tactics and concepts to attract new shoppers.

  • Wild Oats in 2003 launched a campaign to change store layouts to make them more customer friendly, said Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for the company.

The new format is based on extensive customer research the chain conducted during the last couple of years. And, perhaps ironically, shoppers want a look that more resembles traditional grocery stores. Customers, the research found, like perishables—produce, dairy, meat, seafood and baked goods?to be arranged around the perimeter of the stores.

Produce is displayed near the front entry with the deli counter adjacent. Dairy is arranged along the back wall.

Another major change is the store-within-a-store concept for supplements and specialty personal care products. A unique flooring material sets off the section from the rest of the store. Shelving is low so people can see over the top to the next aisle. The area also includes desks and kiosks to allow people to spend time researching health issues or products.

?This gives people more privacy,? Tuitele said. ?And it?s a much more open and inviting environment.? Dried and canned goods are arranged in the middle of the store; and Wild Oats has increased the number of educational signs and displays.

Last year the company opened six new stores with the fresh layout. Fifteen new Wild Oats outlets will open this year. The company also has set an aggressive remodeling schedule for its older stores: 20 were remodeled last year, and another 20 will be updated this year.

So far the new layouts, said Tuitele, are a hit with customers. The new store in Long Beach, Calif., is typical, selling 20 percent to 50 percent more than its older counterparts.

  • "The last thing we want to be is another wanna-be Whole Foods."
    Sunflower Markets, out to establish a new discount niche in the naturals category, opened four stores last year: one in Albuquerque, two in Phoenix and one in Denver. The company hopes to open eight new outlets this year, said Mike Gilliland, founding partner of the company based in Longmont, Colo. Sunflower is borrowing from concepts employed by the renowned Trader Joe?s chain and small farmers? market-type stores. Each Sunflower Market maintains a warehouse-like personality and—save for check-out staff—no customer service is provided.

?Our goal is to kill everybody on price,? Gilliland said.

The stores feature many one-of-a-kind items purchased in large lots from brokers. Pallets of goods often are placed wherever there?s floor space available.

?The last thing we want to be is another wanna-be Whole Foods,? Gilliland said.

  • Whole Foods, in an effort to attract time-challenged New Yorkers, is expanding the prepared-foods section of its Columbus Circle store in Manhattan.

According to a story in the Nov. 23 issue of the New York Post, the new section will open in February. Whole Foods? catering business has expanded by 20 percent each year for the last five years, Stephen Goldberg, Whole Foods? Northeast regional director of prepared foods, told the Post.

Whole Foods refused to comment to The Natural Foods Merchandiser. A spokesman said the company no longer discusses strategy or operations with specialty trade journals.

Whole Foods operates 145 stores throughout the United States.

Joe Lewandowski is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 16

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