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Natural Foods Merchandiser
Christine Kapperman

Worth aplenty: The measure of natural grows as industry changes

Even as conventional grocers increase their natural selections, consumers turn to independent natural retailers in a crisis.

There’s no doubting the value of natural today.

Pioneering retailers set out to prove this decades ago. For years, in relative silence, they built great community hubs of health and healing. And around them an industry grew.

The swell in the last decade alone fed a wave of growth and change that proves this value as natural retail now reaches $166 billion and continues to grow faster than conventional. That’s part of the proof, apparent as conventional groceries grabbed onto natural and now represent 44.5% of the industry, according to our most recent Natural Foods Merchandiser Market Overview. Natural sales tipped to happening more in grocery aisles than health food stores in 2014.

Independents, though, maintain their pioneering position as the influencers that launch innovative new products, set the trends others follow, and educate a nation needing fundamental health goods and information more than ever.

In the last year, the value of natural shows as the market matures. Independent naturals, in particular, have settled into slow and steady growth and committed to defining themselves, whether differentiating from all of the new competition (today more likely Walmart than Whole Foods Market), growing to showcase their specialty (foodservice, selection, service like no other) or simplifying to focus on their strengths.

The last decade started with double-digit growth. Today, that rate sits at 2.3% for the natural channel.

As the new decade began this year, pundits called the value of natural into question as supernatural challenges garnered outsized headlines. One major cable news reporter asked me if these were extinction events. Hardly.

Then came the pandemic. Customers found their way to the local natural retailer for perishables and pantry basics. They sought immune products and the support they find only at community-focused stores. They’ve revived commitments to health, according to New Hope Network’s research. And they put their trust in their local natural products store more than their grocery and other institutions.

Value proven. Again.

Not everyone will value what natural retail offers. But natural retail’s value remains undeniable.

During these challenging retail times, experts love to tell leaders they need to pivot.

Instead, for natural, I suggest we reclaim our roles as pioneers and proclaim the values that birthed this industry with renewed spirit.

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