Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q & A with Mark Fergusson

Q: In addition to chief vegetarian officer, what other hats do you wear?

A: My other titles are chief executive and chief financial officer. I use my position as the CVO as an education and outreach oprecognized as one of the fastest growing companies in Boulder and Broomfield counties during the 2007-2009 fiscal years. When I meet someone and hand them my business card, they start thinking about vegetarianism, which is the single most important thing an individual can do for their health, the environment and the sake of innocent animals. I also give presentations on why people should choose a vegetarian, organic and natural lifestyle.

Q: Has your store always had such a strong vegetarian focus?

A: We’ve always been all-vegetarian, but when we opened in 1977 we didn’t want to alienate anyone so we just called ourselves Down to Earth Natural Foods. When the buzz started about Whole Foods coming to town in 2006, we took a serious look at how we could differentiate ourselves. In those planning sessions we asked ourselves, “Why are we different?” Aside from being a natural foods store, we’re all-vegetarian. We’ve always had customers asking, “Where’s the meat?” and “Where are the eggs?” and we’d have to explain. Now we can just be who we are: all-vegetarian, organic and natural.

Q: Did your merchandise change in any way when the store went all-vegetarian?

A: We’ve never sold any products that contain meat, fish or eggs, or any slaughtered animal ingredients at all. We don’t even sell gelatin or gelatin capsules or cheeses containing animal rennet (which comes from the stomachs of slaughtered calves). We’ve also started an All-Vegetarian Preferred-Brands Program where we’ll select companies, suppliers and manufacturers that are all-vegetarian, natural, organic—at least using organic ingredients if not fully organic—and don’t use genetically modified ingredients. We give them better shelf space, special signage that identifies them as a preferred brand and special placement in our sales fliers. We’re also giving them featured space on our website and talking about the brand. The hope there is to encourage other manufacturers that may be almost all-vegetarian to actually decide, “Hey, we’ll go all-vegetarian.”

Q: Do you feel repositioning made a difference in competing with Whole Foods?

A: Our customers and the community now know who we are and why we are different from Whole Foods and other natural foods stores, which is the point. You have to understand that marketing yourself as all-vegetarian is not simply a branding or marketing exercise. It has to be something you actually believe in. I doubt that we make more money because we call ourselves all-vegetarian. We are obviously losing sales from customers who want to buy meat.
We’ve embraced organic and we’re getting a little bit more into non-GMO, but the industry basically has not paid much attention to vegetarianism. We see a vegetarian diet being at least as important, if not more important, than eating organic. I see it as a matter of education. People really don’t understand what the food industry is about, the horror of factory farms, etc. They don’t think about where most meat comes from. We’re trying to get them to.

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