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Sunday, September 1, 2013

A whole new world of grocery shopping awaits Nashua at Whole Foods

By JIM HADDADIN

Staff Writer

Susan Griffin hasn’t been eating natural and organic foods her entire life.

During a career in the military, Griffin grew accustomed to three squares a day in the mess hall. But these days, the veteran from Middleton, Mass., is willing to drive a few extra miles for higher quality food. ...

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Susan Griffin hasn’t been eating natural and organic foods her entire life.

During a career in the military, Griffin grew accustomed to three squares a day in the mess hall. But these days, the veteran from Middleton, Mass., is willing to drive a few extra miles for higher quality food.

On a recent Thursday morning, Griffin loaded paper bags bulging with groceries into the back of her car at the Whole Foods Market in Andover, Mass. She drove past supermarkets only a stone’s throw away from her home to reach the natural foods mecca.

“It’s just awesome,” she said. “The chickens – you can actually taste the difference from a Stop & Shop or a Market Basket chicken.”

As competition in the food retail business continues to heat up, Whole Foods Market has emerged as one of the heavyweights.

Drawing on a base of loyal customers, the chain has moved into four of six New England states. And by 2014, Whole Foods is set to open its first New Hampshire store in Nashua.

The decision to move into the Granite State was announced with little fanfare. A Whole Foods sign quietly appeared on the marquee of the Turnpike Plaza near Exit 7 in August.

But reaction in the community was anything but muted. A story that appeared on nashuatelegraph.com was read by thousands, and commenters from around the region weighed in. Many expressed joy at the news Whole Foods is on the way.

“The moment I’ve been waiting for!” Kacie Ellis wrote.

“AMEN!” Nancy Janick Rottman added.

Supermarkets come and go, but the news doesn’t always stir passion in the community. So what is it about Whole Foods that sets the chain apart?

Whole Foods is now the largest retailer of natural and organic foods in the U.S., and the 11th largest food retailer overall, based on 2011 sales rankings from the publication Progressive Grocer.

Inside the Andover store, wooden crates overflowed with produce. Banana bunches were lined up in neat rows and homemade desserts from Freeport, Maine, capped the end of the first aisle.

A sign with a picture of a butterfly hung from the ceiling, declaring that more than 42 non-genetically modified products were on sale. Dozens more gluten-free items were arranged together in the next aisle.

Chefs were bustling at the front of the store, which houses a sushi bar, a seafood counter and a butcher. And in back, signs recounted the Whole Foods creation story, portraying the growth of the corporation over three decades as an organic process, beginning with a seed and spreading across the country.

For patrons such as Griffin, the allure of Whole Foods lies in strong customer service paired with a huge selection of natural and organic foods. The store is a little on the pricey side, she said, but the extra expense is worth it.

“Everything is just so fresh,” she said. “It really is. They should have more of these around.”

Grass-roots food

Whole Foods was founded in 1980 in Austin, Texas, where it’s still headquartered. Its core mission consists of promoting organically grown foods, healthy eating and the “sustainability of our entire ecosystem.”

Whole Foods defines natural foods as “foods that are minimally processed, largely or completely free of artificial ingredients, preservatives and other non-naturally occurring chemicals and as near to their whole, natural state as possible.”

Organic – another term subject to interpretation – is viewed by the company as food grown through “methods that emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water.” Organic foods must also meet federal standards.

During its early years, the company expanded in Texas, Louisiana and California. It also began acquiring other natural food chains, including Nature’s Heartland in Boston and Bread & Circus, which operated in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The company went public in 1992, and as of September 2012, the chain was operating 322 stores in 39 states, as well as another seven in Canada and six in the United Kingdom.

Each store is tailored to reflect the community where it’s located. Many also have a relatively small footprint compared with other supermarkets. Whole Foods stores are about 38,000 square feet on average, according to paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The company’s strategy involves creating a “dynamic experience” for shoppers, using elements such as open kitchens, scratch bakeries, hand-stacked produce and prepared foods. Stores are often equipped with bicycle parking racks and electric vehicle charging stations, and some have special amenities such as sit-down wine bars, chair massages and home delivery service.

“Grocery shopping for people is a chore,” said John Moore, who was director of national marketing for Whole Foods from 2003-04. “Whole Foods turned it into a place to explore, and it’s truly food as theater.”

Stores also keep shoppers engaged by serving samples and providing a wider array of prepared foods than many conventional supermarkets.

“Most grocery stores, they might have a deli, let’s just say, but they don’t have a place where I could get some grilled halibut with rice and something else that was truly a chef-prepared meal,” Moore said.

Brand strategist Andrew Pierce said Whole Foods plays on the image of buying from a farm stand. Customers feel good serving food to family members because the company’s brand emphasizes fresh, organic, healthy and natural foods, he said.

“Real brand love happens when a company fulfills an unmet customer need before the customer even realizes he or she has it,” said Pierce, a U.S. president of the marketing firm Prophet. “That kind of discovery is the basis. It sets up the promise and gets the customer’s attention.”

The Whole Foods shopper

The company’s strategy also centers around convincing customers they share common values with the corporation, Moore said. This means customers are often college-educated and knowledgeable about what they’re buying.

In its own literature, Whole Foods breaks down its customers into four categories.

“Conscionables” are one of the company’s primary targets. Such shoppers are typically supportive of social and environmental initiatives, and they buy the majority of their monthly groceries at Whole Foods.

“Organics” are drawn by organically grown food, often out of concern about food safety or to promote personal health.

Another category of shopper is seeking out selection, value and convenience – a group to which Whole Foods refers as “foodies,” composed of people who “equate food with love.”

And “experientials,” those in the final category, are driven to Whole Foods for unique products and special-occasion items.

Haverhill, Mass., resident Judy Evanko is one of those “experiential” shoppers. She and her husband usually shop at the Market Basket near their house, but she visits Whole Foods regularly to find items such as makeup that won’t irritate her sensitive skin.

“I can get things here that I can’t get in the other places,” she said.

Bill Duffy, of North Andover, Mass., exhibits traits from the “organics” category. Like Evanko, he shops around and buys most of his groceries at Market Basket, which offers many products at a lower price. But Duffy returns to Whole Foods every other week to buy chicken, since it’s raised without antibiotics.

“I think it’s got a wonderful brand,” he said. “Very effective.”

Since he departed from Whole Foods, Moore said one of the biggest changes he has seen is an effort to address the “price issue.” Whole Foods has historically charged more than competitors, he said.

But the corporation now offers about 2,700 products under its own brands, including the flagship 365 Everyday Value brand. Whole Foods has also lowered prices on thousands of items.

“That is the biggest change, is doing a better job of delivering better prices and also increasing their private label lineup,” Moore said.

The focus on lowering prices comes at a time when Whole Foods is facing increasing competition. Specialty supermarkets, natural food stores, warehouse membership clubs, online retailers, smaller specialty stores, farmers markets and restaurants all offer competing products.

Sales of natural products jumped 10 percent in the last year alone, according to the trade magazine Natural Foods Merchandiser.

Moore said the most significant challenge comes from Trader Joe’s, which jumped the border from Massachusetts into Nashua last year. The California-based discount grocery has more than 350 stores, but it has been slow to expand into northern New England.

With stores that are typically smaller than Whole Foods supermarkets, Trader Joe’s can be easier to navigate, but it doesn’t offer the same selection and consistency, Moore said.

And the array of products at Whole Foods makes all the difference to shoppers such as Mark Sgro, of Plaistow. Sgro looks for products geared toward people with diabetes. Sgro said he works down the street from the Whole Foods in Andover, but he’s looking forward to having another location nearby in Nashua.

“I’m sure I’ll probably check it out,” he said.

Jim Haddadin can be reached at
594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).

[Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the marketing firm Prophet has not done work for Whole Foods.]