SEATTLE -- A unique food cooperative here is setting new standards for itself through dazzling fresh merchandising and warmth of design, in its latest remodeled store intended as an "urban kitchen."
Even the inviting layout of Puget Consumers Co-op's Greenlake, Wash., unit, located in a leafy Seattle suburb, accentuates the freshness of its food. So does decor, from the store's warm brown poured-concrete floor to its cozy bulk foods alcoves and low aisles.
The retail cooperative's merchandising peak, however, is a stunning 600-square-foot, skylit, open produce island, perched in the center of the 11,400-square-foot sales space.
"The concept is that produce becomes the focal point and everything radiates from there," explained Jeff Voltz, the general manager of Seattle's seven PCC stores, who calls PCC's outlook on natural and sustainably harvested foods state-of-the-art.
Stainless-steel colanders hang as lighting fixtures above the wood barrels of organic greens, piles of 3-inch wide Washington leeks, baskets of baseball-sized yellow onions and bottles of crushed garlic. The galvanized steel fixtures -- mounted over the produce section ,and also by the eat-in deli counter area and the demonstration area -- mingle with the store's earthy tones to conjure up images of what Voltz calls the "urban kitchen."
Over 50% of the produce that PCC sells is organic, according to Voltz. The store is also reported to be the largest market for natural food in Washington state, and the biggest food co-op in the country.
Here, PCC's customers can also find products like organic eggs, which Voltz said the store was the first to introduce in the state of Washington. The dairy case, stocked with old-fashioned, oversized glass milk bottles, also offers organic butter, yogurt and cheese, all of which, Voltz identified as top sellers.
The seafood department strives to provide consumers with information on the sustainably fished species in its case through point-of-service materials and a newsletter.
"We try to inform our consumers and let them make a choice," explained Voltz.
The beef and poultry selections are antibiotic and hormone free, and they conveniently face the wine section for easy meal pairings.
As Voltz sees it, the cooperative's formula of artfully presented organic foods is tapping into a wellspring of demand. Organics are a priority for PCC's customers because "as the baby boomers get older, probably upwards of 70% are concerned about [their] longevity and future health."
What is also helping operators like PCC, Voltz said, is that what was traditionally seen as a high premium for organic foods is steadily dropping.
"We constantly see prices coming down to be extremely competitive. During peak season, there's not more than a 5% to 15% disparity for produce."
For meat, he put that same price disparity at 10% to 20%. In the organic dairy category -- which Voltz noted produces three out of four of his top-selling fluid milks -- he admitted the price difference still was fairly high, at around 30%.
If PCC's produce distribution is any indication of how organic products are faring on the Seattle market, the market is ripe: produce accounts for about 17% of total store sales.
The same bent toward natural products is applied to the deli counter as well. Virtually everything is prepared from scratch, including shiitake mushroom burgers, turkey meat loaf, chicken tandoori and vegan chocolate cake, according to Voltz.
At the deli, stainless-steel cheese graters serve as lighting fixtures, in another coup of decorating whimsy. Grilled chicken sandwiches, curried shrimp salad and lemon-pepper pesto pasta vie for space in the case with hunks of provolone, rounds of goat cheese and bowls of olives. Assorted vinegars line the top of the shelf.
"We probably have upwards of 350 to 400 [different] salads and entries over the course of a year," said Voltz. He said that the deli managers work on recipe development four times a year.
Around the store's perimeter are a series of small alcoves which Voltz explained "have a pantry-like effect." These cozy stores-within-a-store overflow with cookbooks, gourmet coffee, vats of shampoo and bubble bath, as well as a sleek bulk-food section offering everything from couscous to walnuts.
The demonstration area, adjacent to the deli and produce sections, employs an in-house nutritionist and samples "everything form organic one-pan meals to buckwheat pancakes," said Voltz. PCC also uses the area to explore cooking methods for different products, from tempeh and tofu to wheat substitutes for people with allergies.
The emphasis on cooking is carried over to a series of more than 350 cooking classes, taught in PCC's cozy kitchen over the store. A rotating staff of more than 20 instructors, and the occasional local chef, teaches courses in such topics as low-fat, vegetarian and Thai cuisine.
Despite the abundance of fresh foods, Voltz didn't see shrink as a major concern in any of his departments.
"All departments are achieving their budgets and gross margins," he said when questioned about the prospect of shrink. In the fresh departments that tend to average higher rates of shrink, Voltz said, PCC is doing enough volume per square foot that losses from spoilage don't come into play.
Produce, for example, "is turning inventory 80 times a year," he noted.
And from the day it opened, the Greenlake store turned an instant profit, Voltz said, and it is now PCC's highest volume operation. Although only the third biggest of PCC's outlets, Greenlake "sells 25% more than its closest sister store," he said. "We knew it was going to be a home run."
Voltz added that store's sales were 20% ahead of budget for 1996, and up 25% since last summer.
The original PCC was founded as food-buying club in 1961 and started operating as a store in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle a few years later. The original store was then moved to the Ravenna neighborhood. Six other PCCs have since opened in different Seattle neighborhoods.
Last year, the Greenlake store had been moved to a larger space in the same area, remodeled and reopened in May of 1996.
For the redesign of the Greenlake store, "We wanted a look that we could use throughout the company that was exciting, innovative and refreshing," said Voltz about the design of what has since become PCC's prototype store. Undertaken by the design firm NBBJ Retail Concepts here, the remodeling made use of only earth-friendly materials. The floor is made from sawdust and cork dust, the counters are recycled stainless steel and the parking lots were landscaped using compost, for example.
To continue the theme the simply lettered signs hanging above the aisles are the same size as street signs. Shelves are painted a fresh, appealing vegetable-inspired shade of deep green.
PCC wanted to store design to reflect its own philosophy about food merchandising. The cooperative approach to retail, said Voltz, is "a way of building community and providing food for the community, [that is] owned by the community, at advantageous prices.
"The store layout is the town square layout," Voltz said. "I wanted our store to be representative of who we are -- to have that community feel [of a place where] we come to meet our friends."
He said the soft light cast by the four 4-foot-by-16-foot skylights over the produce section sets PCC apart from other supermarkets, and "makes it a comfortable place to be." He called the natural light "a very satisfying thing, especially in Seattle. It creates a warm feel. I think it creates comfort, ease and slows things down. We are a community-owned store and wanted our store to represent that feel."
The shelves are built low to enable customers to easily see around the store and spot personnel. The compromise in merchandising space for packaged items doesn't hurt business, Voltz claimed. "How many cans of peas does the consumer need to choose from?"
PCC's 4,300 owners pay a $60 lifetime fee which entitles them to 1,500 specially priced items, a newsletter and an opportunity to elect the store's board. The profits are re-invested to open and remodel stores and support organic producers.
PCC uses local radio and direct-mail to advertise. "We have also done some billboards, but word of mouth is the best," said Voltz.
The store also sponsors a variety of unique promotions. "In June, we bring in local producers for promotions with milk and goat cheese."
September does double duty as a promotion month, when PCC features both an organic promotion called Organic Harvest, and Pepper Fest, a cross promotion of 40 different kinds of peppers.
PCC has plans both to do light remodels and to open new stores. "Our future store will be bigger, at around 18,000 to 20,000 square feet," said Voltz.
He also affirmed that "We are going to continue to differentiate ourselves because we pioneered natural and organic."
PCC, he said, will continue "to walk our talk about sustainable agriculture because even if we have matured as merchants, we are still homegrown."