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Natural Foods Merchandiser

PCC Natural Markets creates community

Seattle, 1953: Fifteen cost-conscious families wanting to share the expense of quality, local foods join forces and create their own bulk-food-buying club, the Puget Consumers’ Co-op. Eight years later, storefronts open and PCC grows into a successful business venture. The co-op splits in 1969 and a new natural-products-focused store opens in the University District. Sales top $66,000.

Seattle, 2009: PCC markets are a leader in the natural products world, serving more than 45,000 member families each year. With nine stores in the Seattle area, PCC is successful today because of its dedication to evolved products standards, stringent employee education, innovative sustainability practices and a committed and well-served member base.

Setting the standard
“We feel good about people knowing that if PCC sells it, it must be good,” says Diana Crane, PCC’s director of sustainability.

In January, PCC announced that it would no longer carry personal care products that didn’t comply with the Natural Products Association Natural Standard. This followed a May 2007 decision to carry only cosmetics brands that had signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics pact. As such, several manufacturers have agreed to reformulate—one agreed to remove sodium lauryl sulfate from its toothpaste before returning to PCC; another removed polypropylene glycol from its deodorant.

Although Crane says store standards are a collaborative process with the manufacturers, the end result underscores PCC’s industry influence. “We’ve gotten a lot of attention in the last six years,” she says. “If we’re involved and aware, other [natural products] people are paying attention to the standards.”

PCC Natural Markets
Locations: Nine stores in and around Seattle
Average store size: 23,000 square feet
Portion of produce that’s organic: 95 percent
Total number of employees: 1,024

Energizing education

PCC ensures that staff receives ongoing trainings from manufacturers and other experts about the ingredients in the products they’re selling. One bonus: Roxanne Green, health and beauty aids coordinator at PCC’s store in Redmond, Wash., is also the president of the northwest chapter of the Natural Products Association. “I’ve had a really fortunate advantage because Roxanne is here,” says Kathi DeAnda, HABA staff member at the Redmond store. “She helps all of us keep abreast of what’s going on.”

DeAnda has worked in HABA for PCC for more than 10 years, and describes the company’s training program as “comprehensive,” with vendors coming in twice a month to do presentations on new products. “Customers know that we do our homework, and they trust us.”

Growing green
PCC created Crane’s sustainability director position just last year, but she emphasizes that the move was simply an extension of conscious practices that have long been in place. “We’ve been measuring an extensive list of sustainability metrics for years,” she says.

To wit, PCC’s Redmond store, opened in 2006, is the chain’s first store to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification, and the recently opened Edmonds store is on track to qualify for platinum certification.

To obtain LEED certification, PCC installed cabinetry made from recycled fibers, added abundant skylights and large unobstructed windows that decrease the need for high-energy lighting (and make you feel like you’re in an outdoor market, according to Crane), used paints without volatile organic compounds and began recycling heat from the refrigeration systems to warm up dish water.

“It’s very characteristic of our customer base to want to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible,” Crane says. “It follows that we would be interested in creating a healthy environment around the food that we handle so carefully.”

Creating committed customers
A co-op with a health-conscious member base has great benefits. For example, PCC members conduct annual category reviews to screen potential and current products, evaluating ingredients and ensuring that things like high fructose corn syrup or recombinant bovine growth hormone—and now parabens and other personal care no-no’s—haven’t slipped past their strict quality standards.
“We screen our products, but there’s really no substitute for all those pairs of eyes,” says Crane. She and other store staff are grateful for the relationship they have with members who keep them on their toes. “Our members are a very educated and a very aware group of shoppers.”

In an effort to reach out to its member base, PCC publishes a monthly newsletter, the Sound Consumer. The newsletter, which is sent via email to each co-op member, is packed with information on the latest food and supplement trends, and much of it is guest-authored by natural health practitioners and experts. These experts also continue to craft new educational materials on natural health and household products that they then post on the PCC website.

Crane attributes PCC’s success to its customers’ trust in the staff’s knowledge and the store’s standards. “Primarily, PCC is always an advocate for the consumer,” she says.

Tiffany Plate is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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