When Roots Market opened in June 2000, co-owners Jeff Kaufman and Jody Cutler were not worried about the three Whole Foods stores all within a half-hour drive of their Clarksville, Md., store. They felt confident they could give this Washington, D.C., suburb's affluent, educated customer base more than the competition had.
So far, their hunch has proven accurate. Roots Market has seen more than 20 percent annual sales growth since its opening, and recently won Maryland's 2003 Small Business Administration Entrepreneurial Success Award. What has Roots Market done to thrive in the shadow of such competition and during an economic downturn? Cutler and Kaufman say the successful mix includes providing the right product selection and creating a unique shopping experience.
The Roots Market slogan is: "Clean Food, Honest Prices." For Kaufman, that means a store that can compete on both price and quality with any of the naturals chains, and can create a positive environment for shoppers. "If you want to get people out of mainstream supermarkets and on the train of natural foods, you do so through atmosphere and pricing," he says.
"We built this place from the ground up, and we were pretty particular," he adds. "We think of it as being five stores in one. For example, supplements are not just an aisle or two but a separate area."
"Jeff and I designed most of the layout based on what we liked and didn't like in other stores," Cutler says. "We wanted to give clear delineation between departments, partly so each manager would have their own universe, and partly for the customers so it's clear what department you're in."
The look of the store was as important as the layout. "It's very spacious and airy," Cutler says. "It has a high ceiling, and the colors are soft—yellows and greens in the walls, with some purple accents. We used tile for the floor. The concept is, if you were a bird looking down from overhead, the large sections of yellow and brown would look almost like farmland." And, since the pattern isn't intended to coincide with particular departments, the layout of the store can easily be changed. "The idea was maximum flexibility to rearrange," Cutler says.
The store takes its cues not just from naturals markets, but also from more upscale gourmet stores. "We thought we could mix the concepts," he says. In addition to stocking brands associated with the natural products industry, Roots Market also seeks out smaller specialty foods suppliers for a unique product mix.
In addition to more common categories of specialty foods such as pasta sauces and olive oils, Culter has tracked down fresh cookies from an organic vegan bakery in New York City, and a line of cereals, crackers and energy bars made entirely of raw foods, including nuts and dried fruits.
Cutler and Kaufman also make sure to respond to customer feedback. Roots began as a strictly vegetarian market, but added antibiotic-free meats because of customer requests. Demand has also driven display strategies. "In the past few years, there's been a high demand for low-carb products, so we opened a section for that," Kaufman says. "There's been a demand for wheat-free, gluten-free products, so we opened a section for that as well. We were tired of having to walk customers around telling them which two crackers or three pastas were OK, so we put them all together."
The ability to respond quickly to changes contributes to the store's success. At a little more than 11,000 square feet—roughly one-third the size of most supermarkets—Roots stocks as many grocery products as its larger competitors. In addition, the store can add or drop products at a moment's notice for an optimal product mix. "With our small crew here, we can stay a lot more nimble," Kaufman says. "It takes us 10 minutes to make decisions on new products, which is critical in our industry [because of] all the trends."
Another factor in Roots Market's profitability is its emphasis on organics. Its entire produce department is organic, eliminating the need for customers to examine all the signs to determine what's organic and what isn't. And produce sales have increased recently because of "state-of-the-art cases that bring the product up to eye level," Kaufman says.
Currently, the store generates about a third of its revenue from grocery, and another 15 percent each from supplements and produce. The store relies on a grab-and-go case for quick lunches. But a deli is in the works. Kaufman says the store may soon finalize negotiations for a second location. The new store will be about 30 percent bigger and will include a full-service deli, which will also create the prepackaged foods for the original location.
Kaufman attributes much of the store's success to its buyers. "We're fortunate that a lot of the key people who started with us have stayed," he says. "We have a core crew of managers/buyers who all feel passionate about different elements of the business. We have the best produce department in the region, a tremendous grocery selection and a tremendous specialty cheese selection. We have a couple of buyers who previously worked for Whole Foods and Wild Oats, and we're fortunate to have their expertise."
By combining a beautiful building, knowledgeable staff, low prices and a wide selection, Roots Market aims to produce a positive shopping experience. "Some customers have said [shopping here] is like getting a massage," Kaufman says. "They love the ambience from the minute they walk in the door. And in this crazy, mixed-up world, it's good to create a cathartic experience for people."
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 138