ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- The apple never falls far from the tree. This is especially true for Tree of Life.
The natural and specialty food distributor's well-rounded approach to whole health branches out to its independent supermarket alliances, including Hugo's Family Marketplace, Grand Forks, N.D., and Lund Food Holdings, Edina Minn., the 20-store chain under the Lunds and Byerly's banners.
Tree of Life services about 7,000 grocery store locations, and its combination of customized in-store group training, education, and its wide breadth of natural and organic products (60,000 distinct stockkeeping units in total) offer independent and health-food stores the right aids to create health and wellness destination departments. To execute trends more effectively at store level, the distributor has even created a 1,200 square-foot model store-within-a-store department in its training center in Dallas, said Cheryl Bottger, corporate vice president of natural-food sales.
Tree of Life helped Hugo's Family Marketplace reset all eight stores last year to incorporate a new health and wellness destination section branded Nature's Way, said Doug Driscoll, Hugo's director of operations. The department's size depends on store size, ranging from 72 feet plus frozen and dairy components to 200 running feet, Driscoll said. Sales growth climbed 40% in its first year as a destination department, he said, and the retailer plans to add new segments to it each year, citing the recent bulk-foods addition.
Local competition comes from co-operatives, health-food stores and Super Target, but Hugo's remains the only traditional supermarket in town, Driscoll said. "Our competitors haven't woken up yet," he said.
The retailer aggressively advertises the Nature's Way section in its in-store circulars each week, and builds awareness of organic products through signage called "Wild about Organics," said Driscoll.
Despite strong competition from Cub Foods, Super Target, Kowalski's and Rainbow Foods, Lunds/Byerly's keeps natural health and wellness customers coming back through customer care and an expansive natural health and wellness department.
The retailer keeps current on new products and trends for its sections through Tree of Life's product array and resources, said Bea James, corporate whole-health manager.
Lunds/Byerly's Living Wise departments provide more than 6,000 natural health and wellness products, and these sections also employ Living Wise specialists to educate consumers, said James. The departments include Healthnotes kiosks, an in-depth natural body care segment, and 12 feet of natural health books to support customers on specific health questions. "By differentiating our program with this kind of department, we feel that we are offering the customer the entire package of what they are looking for in a healthy lifestyle," James said.
"Lunds has beautiful stores, they're expert merchandisers, and they have a strong commitment from the top down to be a natural and organic healthy-lifestyle supermarket," said Bottger. "They do a great job at speaking to their consumer."
The high demand for low-carbohydrate foods propelled Lunds/Byerly's to procure all-natural, low-carb products, and teach cooking classes that educate customers on how to create low-carb recipes, James said.
The natural and organic sections have seen sales growth of 300% over the last three-and-a-half years, with dairy and frozen foods representing some of the largest areas of growth, James said. Stores also promote natural body care products with demonstrations and "buy one, get one" offers on endcap displays.
"We have the history and loyalty of our customers, we have been around for over 40 years, and many of our customers had or have a great grandmother or grandmother that shops in our stores," James said. "There's a lot to be said for tradition."
As for the future of health and wellness, Bottger told SN that retailers are beginning to take this maturing category and integrate it with mainstream fare.
"You're not only seeing the dedicated natural and organic shopper, you're getting the cross-over consumer that may or may not have even walked into that segregated part of the store," she said.
These two retailers' foresight in health and wellness, with the assistance of Tree of Life, will propel the independents' spirit forward.
Driscoll still receives thank-you cards for creating the Nature's Way section, he said. "The biggest advantage [of being an independent] is that we're small enough to move fast and big enough to still get the right pricing and the interests of our suppliers to see us grow."