The New York Times ran an article in 2005 about grocery stores having an identity crisis. Shoppers were quoted as giving up on their local Safeway and instead going to Whole Foods for organic meats and produce, and to Walmart for frozen and canned food, and other staples. The story by journalist Melanie Warner went on to state that “With 177 stores and less than 1 percent of the market, Whole Foods is not yet much of a financial threat. But analysts say that supermarket executives are anxiously watching the company, the fastest-growing grocery chain in the United States, because of how its success has pressured supermarkets to improve their offerings.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2017: Whole Foods has approximately 450 locations, and was recently purchased by Amazon for $13.7 billion. Under the helm of Jeff Bezos, the chain that was a minor player in the grocery world only 12 years ago is now a major force that will take on not only the national supermarket chains but also the Walmart and Target superstores that sell groceries. What are the local grocery stores doing about this inevitable war of wild-caught salmon, farm-to-table tomatoes and asparagus, coconut ice cream and kombucha?
At the local Safeway I frequent when in Castle Rock, where the staff is friendly and the in-store Starbucks convenient, they don’t appear to be worried. But when I pulled into the parking lot yesterday afternoon and found a spot up front, noticed that no one was in the checkout line, and was told in the deli section that they ran out of Dietz & Watson oven-roasted chicken, I was worried for them. At the exit, I spotted the help wanted sign with eight different departments that had openings, and now feel compelled to reach out to the store manager and their corporate office in Pleasanton, California to help not with overnight inventory restocking or cashiering, but with their Identity Crisis.
I am still a fan of Safeway, but admittedly I have been stopping more often at the giant King Soopers Promenade. And apparently so has the majority of the local population. Kroger Co., parent company to King Soopers as well as Ralphs, Smith’s Food and Drug, Fry’s, City Market and Fred Meyer, has certainly been doing their homework when it comes to giving the people what they want. This new King Soopers is like a mall inside. Clothing and shoes. Household items. Garden decor. An entire aisle with dinnerware, silverware, glassware, pots, pans and small appliances. The gourmet cheese section rivals what you see at Whole Foods, and they have a very comfortable, casual dining area where you can order everything from poke to pizza.
The square footage is at least four times the size of Safeway, but what makes King Soopers popular with shoppers isn’t the large footprint and enough options to satisfy even the pickiest gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian-eater in your family. King Soopers has figured out that busy shoppers need a gathering place in the suburbs, where soccer moms in yoga pants can meet for a skinny vanilla latte after dropping the kids off at school, and where a young single guy would want to hang out and enjoy a nice sit-down meal before shopping for groceries. King Soopers is focused on the customer experience and not just three-day only specials on bananas, frozen chicken and Diet Coke.
But you don’t have to be a behemoth to give grocery shoppers an unforgettable experience.
Sprouts is a relatively new chain that opened in 2002, and today they have approximately 268 stores in 15 states. I shop at Sprouts when I want fresh seafood and produce, without paying the exorbitant prices at Whole Foods. One of my favorite areas at Sprouts is the bulk department, where you feel like you’re a kid in a candy store – though I try to satisfy my snack cravings in the section that sells dried fruit, almonds and cashews and stay away from the chocolates and gummy bears.
Where Sprouts appears to have a competitive advantage over some of the other up-and-coming grocers is with the executive leadership team that includes President and COO Jim Nielsen, who started his career at Smith’s Food and Drug. Sprouts consistently delivers top quality product at fair prices whether I shop at their stores in Colorado, Nevada or Southern California. My 92-year-old father feels comfortable navigating his walker around the store (and knows exactly where to find the sweet wine at the Tustin location!) and young children seem to enjoy helping their parents select from the weekly specials in the produce section, with raspberries and asparagus strategically placed at their petite eye level, enticing a toddler to try something that is colorful and healthy.
No hype at Sprouts, and not even an onsite coffeehouse. Just knowledgeable and friendly employees, great prices, and a walkable store that offers a wide variety of choices. Sprouts delivers a Soulful Experience, and is a grocery store that knows its brand identity.