Food Service & Agriculture and Retail

Grocers enliven ‘a mundane chore’

West Michigan stores follow the trends of smaller selections, private labels and healthy products.

March 11, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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D&W
The revamped Breton Village D&W store is taking a “farmers market” approach with its Living Well Center, which features bulk items, organic produce, refrigerated juices and more. Courtesy SpartanNash

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) As people’s lives become busier, they want their grocery shopping to become more efficient.

In response, new locations of national chains such as Fresh Thyme Market, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are opening across the country, while existing West Michigan stores like Meijer and Spartan are working to refine and simplify the shopping experience, said Patricia Huddleston, professor of retailing at Michigan State University.

Offering fewer brand names can make the shopping experience less stressful by not having to choose between, for example, five brands of potato chips.

“They have a very limited number of products and offer primarily private labels and merchandise, which consumers perceive as a good value,” Huddleston said. “The small assortment makes the shopping trip a lot easier for consumers because there’s research that shows more choices make a shopping experience more difficult and less pleasant.

“Consumers are looking for ways to streamline.”

In the past year in Grand Rapids, both Trader Joe’s and Fresh Thyme have opened stores in the market. Across from the Burton Street SE location of the new Fresh Thyme store, SpartanNash’s Breton Village D&W revamped its store to better accommodate today’s shopper.

Huddleston said for many products — for example, green beans — it’s easy to offer just one choice, but for other products, such as beer, consumers still want a diversified selection to suit their palate.

Today’s health conscious consumers also are paying more attention to what goes into their groceries, which adds an extra incentive for the “farmers market” approach to grocery stores, Huddleston said.

In the trade publication Chain Store Age, among the top five emerging trends in supermarket business in 2016 were for retailers to prove their fresh food “story” and concepts driven by convenience.

Similarly, SuperMarket.com expert John Karolefski noted in his top trends the digitization of grocery stores, along with shrinking the supermarket and providing in-store samples and cooking demonstrations.

"The top trends for 2016 indicate that traditional shopping patterns are changing," Karolefski said in a December release. "Look for grocers to get creative and enliven what has been a mundane chore."

Earlier this month, Meijer announced it was investing $400 million in new stores and renovations. Meanwhile, SpartanNash is embarking on a significant expansion and renovation of its footprint, highlighted by the Breton Village D&W remodel.

The remodel includes a “Living Well Center” with more than 400 bulk items, 300 organic produce items, 250 refrigerated juices, five meat programs, specialty made-to-order bakery items, 30 sausages and a large selection of beers, wines and coffee.

“Consumers want products with simpler ingredients, less additives, that are healthier and better for you,” said Bruce Emery, SpartanNash vice president of retail operations.

“They also want local products and transparent labels. Our customers also tell us they choose to shop in our easy-to-navigate stores because of our offerings, commitment to local and organic, and our support of local community events and nonprofits.”

For a store like Fresh Thyme, Grand Rapids provided an opportunity with the right mix of demographics, Fresh Thyme CEO Chris Sherrell said.

The store, which started nationally in 2012, seeks to have 150 stores in the Midwest within the next seven years, largely in markets similar to Grand Rapids. There are currently 32 Fresh Thyme stores in the 20 months since the concept began its expansion. Sherrell said Grand Rapids could see another two Fresh Thyme locations.

Sherrell said the key markets for Fresh Thyme include factors such as a good growth rate, progressive with healthy tendencies, and strong education levels. To help drive customers to the store, he said approximately 120,000 weekly circulars are sent out to area homes, along with social media and digital advertising campaigns.

“This ‘farmers market’ concept has a huge focus on fresh, and that’s the trend we’re seeing with a lot of shoppers,” Sherrell said. “We’re really trying to bring natural and organic to the masses at a value and giving the population a place to change their lifestyle.”

When Fresh Thyme began looking at the Grand Rapids market, Sherrell noted there wasn’t much competition in the way of large organic produce selections. He noted there was a noticeable shift in grocery stores in West Michigan prior to the store’s February opening.

Once SpartanNash added more than 400 organic items to its offerings, organic sales grew by double digits in fourth quarter 2015, said Larry Pierce, SpartanNash executive vice president of merchandising and marketing.

“We continue to expand our partnerships with local providers, which keeps dollars local, provides fresher products and requires less miles to transport, which is good for the environment,” Pierce said.

With smaller-footprint stores surging in popularity, Huddleston said she’s not surprised established stores are making an effort to look at their processes and layouts to better compete. She said companies like SpartanNash are quicker to look at the growing competition as they have small footprint stores in similar markets to the others.

Huddleston also said discount grocery stores from Europe are expected to make a bigger push into the United States. She mentioned Aldi — which owns Trader Joe’s — which is expanding its U.S. footprint, as well as fellow German-based Lidl, also a global discount supermarket chain.

These types of stores will pose a threat to traditional American grocery stores if they don’t adjust, Huddleston said.

“All these stores have smaller footprints with a good, but not overwhelming, selection,” she said. “Their entrance poses a threat to the established stores. They need to do something to stay competitive and get customers through the door.”

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