Meet Sydney, a lively and intelligent West Highland White Terrier who gives advice to pet owners in GreenAcres Natural Foods Market's customer newsletter.
Terriers are often called big dogs in small bodies because they're tenacious and fearless on the hunt, which makes Sydney a good metaphor for GreenAcres' positioning. "Even though we're small, we're mighty," says Matt Murray, co-owner and store manager of Wichita, Kan.-based GreenAcres. "We look at the [conventional] grocery stores as our main competitors."
The 4,000-square-foot store, which will celebrate its ninth anniversary in May, does battle with the big dogs in Kroger's kennel, including Dillons, by thinking like a big store. GreenAcres has a 3,000-square-foot expansion planned that should be complete by fall.
"I'm a mass shopper," Murray says. "Our store looks more like a Kroger or a Dillons as far as the way we display things. Other stores [in this area] look kind of health-food storesy."
Barbara Hoffmann, who co-owns GreenAcres with her husband, John, and Murray, agrees. "Because we're all competing with the majors, constantly strive for your store to look [major], and make your customers think they're not deprived of any of that when they come in."
For example, promotional posters were pulled from the store's windows because GreenAcres' staff felt the cluttered windows made the store—and the natural foods industry—look small. The posters have been replaced with three large signs that feature one sale item. "Put one simple message in the window," Barbara Hoffmann says. "One message is about all you can get across anyway."
GreenAcres also recently rethought its whole marketing strategy and refocused on its core grocery business.
In 1996, the Hoffmans and Murray started a weekly radio program called HealthTalk to support the GreenAcres store. The program, which featured interviews with natural products industry authors, grew into a nationally syndicated radio show and spawned a business-to-business Web site. But when the e-commerce sector crashed, the Hoffmans and Murray realized that though the radio show was profitable, they weren't paying enough attention to the store. Sales were relatively flat, Murray says.
"We were making a difference nationally more than locally," Barbara Hoffmann adds. "So we brought our emphasis back home."
During the past six months, the Hoffmanns and Murray closed the radio business and launched a comprehensive print advertising campaign that includes monthly sales fliers mailed to the store's 2,500 core customers, and vendor tabloids that run in newspapers six times a year and reach a circulation of 200,000. The bimonthly newsletter is mailed to customers and includes features, health news, upcoming events, recipes and the "Dear Sydney" pet advice and care column. The store plans a Web site in the future.
The new marketing strategy proved to be a doggone good one. Barbara Hoffmann says after the launch of the print advertising campaign, the store went immediately to double-digit growth and grew from there. "The flier just came out for March, and the store's been packed. We're building our products around our advertising program."
The key to GreenAcres' success is that it's reaching crossover shoppers.
Murray says GreenAcres' natural foods competitors are all discounting their main brands between 20 percent and 25 percent to compete for existing natural foods customers—approximately 15 percent of the population—who shop all the stores in town based on price. "With our newspaper circular, we're tapping into the 85 percent of the population that are not already natural foods customers," he says. "That's brought us an immense amount of business, rather than all of us competing for the 15 percent by price."
To attract mainstream shoppers, the Hoffmanns and Murray knew they needed to educate consumers about the benefits of natural and organic foods. When the national organic standards were enacted and generated significant media attention last October, GreenAcres developed a cartoon spokes-character named Aspara "Gus" who appeared in newspaper advertising every week and explained what organic food is and why it is better. "It really helped our produce department, and I think it helped the store in general," Murray says. Sales in the produce department jumped 25 percent.
Last fall, GreenAcres did an advertising blitz leading up to Thanksgiving that featured Aspara "Gus" talking about organic and free-range turkeys. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, GreenAcres' main competitor advertised organic and free-range turkeys at cost. The staff asked Murray if he was going to lower the price. "I said, 'No, we've done too much marketing and education on this to give our turkeys away,'" he says. "And the staff said, 'Well then, be prepared to have the turkeys.' And to make a long story short, I ended up going to the competitor and buying turkeys because I sold all mine at the top price. So price is not the issue when you're educating people."
Murray offers the following advice for other natural foods retailers who are currently suffering: "You can sit on your hands and wait for the industry to turn around, or you can take fate into your own hands and do something about it."
GreenAcres Natural Foods Market
8141 E. 21st St.
Wichita, KS 67206
Store Owners: John and Barbara Hoffmann and Matt Murray
Square Footage: About 3,700 square feet of retail space including deli and produce departments; 300-square-foot back-room. Expansion will increase total space to 7,000 square feet
Hours: Monday through Friday: 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday: noon-6 p.m.
Sales Breakdown: supplements, 44 percent; grocery, 23 percent (including pet care); frozen and refrigerated, 9 percent; HABA, 7 percent; produce, 6 percent; deli, 6 percent; bulk, 4 percent; books, 1 percent
Joyanna Laughlin is a freelance writer in Estes Park, Colo. She may be reached at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p. 58