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The independent retailer's competitive advantageThe independent retailer's competitive advantage

Joe Dobrow shares his predictions about the future of natural retail and why independent retailers will always have a competitive advantage over their larger counterparts. 

Christine Kapperman

December 27, 2013

2 Min Read
The independent retailer's competitive advantage

In his new book Natural Prophets (Rodale, 2014), coming out in February, author Joe Dobrow delves into the history of the natural foods industry. He examines how its pioneers changed not just how America thinks about food and what we eat, but also the course of business today. We spoke with Dobrow about the insights he gleaned from the front lines, working at large natural retail chains during those formidable years, and from interviewing industry luminaries.

NFM: Why write this book now?

Joe Dobrow: I’ve sensed the fundamental changes happening in the business world these last couple of years—companies are becoming more mission focused, more transparent, more triple-bottom-line oriented. To navigate this world, to understand why these transformations have occurred and what the implications are, it helps to go back in time to see how the evolution happened.

NFM: Can you share a key natural retail anecdote and message?

JD: Stan Amy, founder of Nature’s Fresh Northwest and New Seasons Market, met the man who negotiated egg purchases for Safeway. Stan asked him if he’d ever consider buying local brown eggs. The guy laughed and said, “No, no, no. Some stores would get them and others wouldn’t. Some weeks we’d have brown, some weeks white. It would be inconsistent and never work.” Stan thanked him and left, smiling ear to ear. At that moment he realized what a competitive advantage he—and all independent retailers—had. Safeway was so rigid and could never be nimble, but he could change on a dime. And that would always be his, and the natural industry’s, greatest advantage. This advantage gets lost on independent retailers nowadays because of the hypercompetitive retail environment. They have Whole Foods Market and Sprouts to deal with, but also conventional stores. But they shouldn’t forget this advantage.

NFM: Play natural prophet. What’ll be the tale 10 years from now?

JD: There’s so much entrepreneurial activity, so much innovation happening in this industry, that it’s difficult to predict what’s next. That in itself is a sign of great health and vitality. But I think the next great story will be how this new generation of pragmatic, hybridized retailers and manufacturers ultimately prevailed over the titans. The industry has just entered a third era, in which conventional retailers now sell natural foods, some natural stores sell conventional products, and many conventional manufacturers either offer natural or organic versions of their foods or own natural companies. There’s this huge mosh pit of convergence, and I think the ones who’ll emerge are these young entrepreneurs who don’t worry about labels. They don’t worry about whether their stores are called natural or their products are all organic. Instead, they’ve figured out that being honest and transparent and using social media and data tools enables them to connect with customers through multiple means and selling platforms. Ultimately, these entrepreneurs will dominate the natural products industry. 

About the Author(s)

Christine Kapperman

Senior Content Director, New Hope Network

As the senior content director at New Hope Network, Christine Kapperman combines her 20-year journalism background with her passion for business to cover the natural products industry for newhope.com and Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine. She also led content at worldteanews.com. She loves tracking (and tasting) trends as she shares what’s next to show up in cups, plates and in pantries across the United States.

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