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Independent natural food stores excel through culture, community

Competing through operational measures, like lower prices and good selection, may be harder for small stores. Culture and community is where the real opportunity is.

Deanna Pogorelc, Senior content producer

December 22, 2015

2 Min Read
Independent natural food stores excel through culture, community

When it comes to standing up to competition from super-natural retail chains or conventional grocers moving more in the direction of natural or organic, there are two ways to compete, according to Dean’s Natural Food Market owner Dean Nelson: by way of operation and by way of culture.

Competing through operational measures, like lower prices and good selection, is typically harder for small stores. Culture, Nelson said in the Retail Super Session at Natural Products Expo East, is where the real opportunity is. (Listen to the audio from this session above.)

“Develop a mission statement, a company vision and live that every day, and that becomes your point of differentiation,” he said. “For most of us, our differentiation is our passion for what we do.”

And that means being a passionate part of the community, too. Dean’s names the sandwiches in its deli after iconic places in its New Jersey home, for example, and sponsors scholarships for minority and inner-city students. It gives free groceries to a local organization that houses women with cancer, and donates money to other organizations that directly help local people in need. Even if the store doesn’t publicize all of the great things that it does, the people who are recipients of this generosity become ambassadors for the store.

Another way to differentiate through culture is to take a strong stand on an issue that’s important to you, said Bart Yablonsky, director of operations for Ellwood Thompson’s and Dawson’s Market.  “We recently removed anything that had palm kernel oil in it,” he said.

In accomplishing a store culture that’s different from (and better than) competitors, Nelson emphasized the importance of marketing and human resource departments, even in small stores—marketing to create and reinforce the brand and its values to the community, and HR to develop staff to live the mission every day. “They’re expenses, but they’re assets,” he said.

Listen to the full Retail Super Session at Expo East above, featuring Nelson, Yablonsky, Lynn Ellen Schimoler from City Market/Onion River Co-op. Audio from all Natural Products Expo East education sessions is now available in the archives.

About the Author(s)

Deanna Pogorelc

Senior content producer, New Hope Network

Deanna oversees day-to-day production of digital content, newsletters and social media for She especially enjoys writing about packaging and mission-driven brands. Prior to joining New Hope Network, Deanna reported on healthcare innovation for MedCity News. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Ball State University.

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