Many grocers are merging natural, conventional and specialty these days. But doing it well is an art. Mollie Stone's Market, a nine-store chain in the San Francisco Bay Area, has mastered this mix. Starting with a single all-natural store and expanding into multiple one-stop shops today, Mollie Stone's has amassed a loyal following and won several awards for its plethora of unique, hard-to-find products both from around the world and right in its backyard. NFM caught up with cofounder Mike Stone to get a glimpse of the Mollie Stone's magic.
NFM: What was the inspiration for the first Mollie Stone's?
Mike Stone: We opened our first store in 1986 and named it after my mom, Mollie, who had been in the grocery business for 45 years but had always worked for someone else. I lost both of my parents within nine months of each other, and that had a major impact on me. I too had been in the grocery business, for about 18 years at that point, and had also always worked for others. So I decided to open a natural foods store on the premise of making a difference in people's lives. We started with pretty strict standards of 100 percent natural and organic, no refined sugar and so on. People did have food allergies back then, although not to the degree that they do today, so we carried gluten-free products and other special-diet items. At the time, we were one of largest natural stores in the Bay Area at 15,000 square feet.
NFM: When did you start introducing more conventional products?
MS: In 1988, we acquired a second store, which had been a conventional supermarket, so we started intermingling natural and conventional. Back then, we were one of the first stores to do something like this. Today, all of our stores are natural-conventional hybrids. We are very successful at what we do.
NFM: You actually have a name for this hybrid philosophy, right?
MS: Yes, we call it Best of Both Worlds. At Mollie Stone's, you can do all of your shopping in one place. You don't have to go to three different markets to find necessities and the foods you are passionate about.
NFM: When you first merged concepts, did any natural suppliers push back?
MS: Some pushback might have come in the vitamin area early on because we were no longer just a natural store, yet we were carrying items that had always been sold only in natural. But other than that, we didn't have much pushback.
NFM: Nowadays do you have strict standards for what products you stock?
MS: Our standards are simple: Get the highest quality possible, and natural and organic when available. Ensuring quality and knowing where the product comes from is very important, especially as we source as many local goods as possible.
NFM: You've also made quite a name for yourself in specialty?
MS: Specialty is a big word and can apply to many products and categories. We carry a lot of hard-to-find items that people know they can get here. That includes products from all over the world that we believe customers will love, as well as many locally made products that are maybe sold only at farmers markets or on TV—anything from spices and salts to different marinades. It's what each store's demographic tells us it really wants. Our stores are not cookie cutter; we adapt to the distinct palate of whatever neighborhood we're in.
NFM: Who shops at Mollie Stone's?
MS: We have a good mix. There are lots of loyal and generational customers whose parents and grandparents shopped here. We have a fair amount of baby boomers, and I would say we're attracting more and more millennials.
Become a one-stop shop: Follow Mike Stone's lead
Let customers color you. Besides attending tabletop shows and reading trade magazines to find unique and interesting products, make sure you're listening to what your clientele wants. Oftentimes you can secure these items more easily than consumers can. Customers come to us all the time and tell us what they want because they know we'll be able to get it for them, Stone says.
Use ample signage. When offering both natural and conventional items, make it clear which oranges are organic and what pastas are not necessarily natural. "Everything in our stores is integrated, but we call products out with clear signage so shoppers have choices side by side," says Stone.
Make your store more accessible. You can't change the location of your store, but you can ease transport to and from your outlet. Mollie Stone's has two buses called Mollie Buses that take customers home after shopping, within a few miles' radius of the store. Shoppers just have to buy a minimum amount of products."Mollie Buses are branded with good signage, kind of like an airport bus," Stone says.