SHAWNEE, Okla. -- Pratts Well Market, an ambitious natural foods store and the largest one of its kind in the Oklahoma City area, closed last month.
After remodeling, the six-month-old store in Edmond, Okla., will reopen later this year as more of a conventional-format supermarket with a heavy emphasis on organics, Pratts Foods here has reported.
It was heavily publicized in the days before and after its opening by Chief Executive Officer J.B. Pratt, and was an outgrowth of his conventional supermarket operation.
It went beyond the other chains in that it had a doctor, a pharmacist, an exercise physiologist and a registered dietitian on the premises.
It was the biggest natural foods store in the Oklahoma City market -- neither Whole Foods Markets or Wild Oats Markets has stores there -- and its demise raises questions about the ability for this type of large-format natural foods store to succeed at this time in smaller Midwestern demographic areas.
Executives at Pratts Foods did not return multiple calls for comment. When reached in one brief call, Darrell Prather, director of operations, declined comment, deferring to a short media release put out by the company, which now has seven conventional stores.
The statement said the store is "undergoing an extensive merchandising overhaul," and most aspects of the Well Market Concept will be retained while conventional items are added to the product mix. The time of the reopening will be set when the new design is completed in early 2002.
The store had been doing well from its opening on June 24 until Sept. 11, said Dr. Dale Peterson, the physician who had an office in the store where he worked four days a week. "The store opened, people loved it, it was growing and growing and growing. I was told the week before the attacks that it had reached the break-even point. But the week after the attacks, it was like a ghost town; people just stopped coming," he said.
Nationwide, organics sales declined after Sept. 11, but recovered by mid-October, said Greg Badishkanian, vice president of equity research, Salomon Smith Barney, New York. But it was a different story in Oklahoma City, said Peterson, who attributed a prolonged slump in part to the store only being open a short time and also to sensitivity in the region because of the previous bombing attack in that city.
"It's hard to find a business in Oklahoma that was not hit very hard by the Trade Center attacks. It brought back a lot of painful memories for people and they just cut back on everything," he said.
At the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., Executive Director Katherine DiMatteo said Pratt was an active member with whom she spoke frequently. In November, he told her that consumers in Oklahoma City were reacting much more strongly to the events of Sept. 11 than people elsewhere. Since then, she said she has confirmed that this is the case in many markets in the middle of the country.
"They didn't get the bounce-back and that strong continued interest in purchasing organics that seems to be happening on the coasts. People are making choices to be a little more frugal," she said.
DiMatteo and others commented that J.B. Pratt was profoundly disappointed in the closing of this store, which he had put much time, money and effort into. He is widely regarded as a leader in putting organics and natural products into his other conventional stores, she said. "J.B. was always taking risks," she said.
Some people contacted by SN speculated that the demographics in Oklahoma City may not be ready for such an ambitious retail presentation of natural foods.
"I thought it was a nice store," said an executive with a competitive supermarket company, who asked not to be identified. "I just think that for Oklahoma, it's about five years off. You have too many price-oriented people here and organics are not price-oriented."
"When I think about markets that would support that kind of niche, I don't think of Oklahoma," said Ken Robb, principal, Technomic, Chicago. Robb, a former senior vice president of marketing of Dick's Supermarkets, heads Technomic's retail consulting practice. "Pratt is a good, strong operator, so I don't think the question was one of execution. It was a problem of demographics. They tried to do something very creative and the market didn't support it."
Peterson disagreed. "The store would have thrived had it not been for the abrupt downturn on Sept. 11. There's no question in my mind about that. People here are still kind of shell-shocked from what we went through with the Oklahoma City bombing a few years ago," he said.