HEALTHY IN THE HEARTLAND

OKLAHOMA CITY -- At J.B. Pratt Foods here, "healthy" and "heartland" are a winning combination.Four "Wellmarket" units in this nine-store chain stock natural and organic products throughout the store.A factor in the chain's success is that J.B. Pratt, owner and chief executive officer, uses micromarketing to carefully craft each Wellmarket unit. Moreover, in the last eight years the CEO, who is also

OKLAHOMA CITY -- At J.B. Pratt Foods here, "healthy" and "heartland" are a winning combination.

Four "Wellmarket" units in this nine-store chain stock natural and organic products throughout the store.

A factor in the chain's success is that J.B. Pratt, owner and chief executive officer, uses micromarketing to carefully craft each Wellmarket unit. Moreover, in the last eight years the CEO, who is also a licensed M.D. and health advocate, has created a multifaceted consumer education program that helps drive sales.

For example, as reported in SN, the retailer's stores, which operate under the Pratts banner, host guest speakers and participate in health expos. The retailer also has a corporate nutritionist on board, as well as a registered pharmacist trained in the use of herbal remedies, and the chain actively participates in community outreach with schools, colleges and health agencies.

"We are proof that natural and organic can sell in areas that are not ideal," says Pratt. "You can develop things outside the box that are both profitable and beneficial to consumers."

The success of such a program relies on diligence, commitment to education and a large variety of products, J.B. Pratt says. Pratt notes that he's had winning and losing programs, and has had to take Wellmarket products out of some stores.

The Pratts on Northwest 39th Street here is the retailer's biggest success story. About 16% of the store's total sales are in natural and organic groceries, frozen and dairy; organic produce; and vitamins, herbs and supplements. The prototype has been successfully replicated in a unit in Norman, Okla., where 9% of total store sales are in Wellmarket products.

In addition, the Wellmarket is copied on a smaller scale at the Walker Street store here and at a unit in Shawnee, Okla. The strategy is holding its own in both locations, Pratt told SN.

Merchandising, product mix and store design differ in each unit, based on neighborhood demographics.

Although the prototype on Northwest 39th is only 32,000 square feet, it has the ambience of a much larger store, carrying a unique variety of items. Moreover, it is clean, well-lighted and stocked, with impeccably kept grocery shelves.

The Wellmarket concept is executed in all parts of the store, first with signage on the facade, slightly less prominent than the "Pratts" sign, and then with posters in the front windows, calling attention to the natural and organic products within.

Upon entering the store, customers are greeted by a "Natural Health Care Center." In this section are a wide variety of vitamins, herbs and supplements merchandised in freestanding aisles.

Adjacent to this section is a permanent endcap signed "Organic Food." During SN's visit, the endcap featured organic apple juice.

In the grocery aisles, organic and natural foods are integrated with mainstream selections using merchandising techniques that are among the best SN has seen in a traditional supermarket.

First, gondolas on either side of the aisle have semicircular-shaped Wellmarket signs -- in black, red, purple and white -- to highlight better-for-you products. The signs are attached to the gondola in strategic places, hanging from a point slightly higher than where the groceries end on the top shelf. The signs also arch slightly into the aisle, creating an aesthetically pleasing effect, while calling attention to the products.

In some instances, two signs are used to bracket sections, that run from from 4 to 16 feet long. One sign is used for smaller sections with fewer Wellmarket selections. Green channel strips also highlight Wellmarket items.

Green shelf strips indicate which products are organic. Additional shelf strips in other colors indicate "low fat" or "fat free." Shelf talkers also trumpet "low fat," "fat free," "low sodium," and "organic," while square green and white shelf-talkers announce "Recommended Wellmarket" items from Pratts.

Grocery aisles do not have traditional category markers, such as "pasta" or "condiments." Instead, large signs suspended from the ceiling say: "Certified Organic Food. Organically grown within a sustainable system of ecological soil management, without pesticides, fertilizer or other manufactured chemicals."

Natural and organic items appear in every major grocery category. Moreover, several organic choices are often available in categories and subcategories.

Included in the condiment section are about 24 linear feet of organic, fat-free, low-sodium and better-for-you choices, including such items as Westbrae mustard, Veritas organic mushrooms and artichoke hearts, Annie's natural dressings, Peloponnese olives, Spectrum dressings and oils. Organic oils are available in another aisle, next to conventional oils.

There are a number of unique choices in the jam/jelly category, including specialty items like Chambord jams, imported from France, along with standbys like Knudsen and Polaner. Peanut butter is merchandised next to a number of alternative nut butters like almond, sesame, filbert, soy and pistachio varieties from Maranatha.

Several kinds of honey and maple and brown-rice syrup share space next to Arrowhead Mills pancake and waffle mixes, which are merchandised next to their conventional counterparts.

A significant amount of space is devoted to natural sodas, juices, soy beverages and other milk alternatives as well as herbal teas. (See related story on Page 50.)

A wide selection of canned beans, mostly organic, along with canned tomatoes, is available from various manufacturers, including Westbrae, Hain, American Prairie, Eden, Muir Glen and Millina's Finest.

There are even some organic canned green beans, corn and sauerkraut available in the canned vegetable section.

The store also offers locally produced items, such as Leroux Creek apple and apple-cherry sauce, "grown without pesticides."

The pasta/sauce department includes many organic alternatives in a 10-foot bracketed section. In the same aisle are boxed mixed preparations, like tabouli and hummus fixings. There also are a number of soy products not usually found in supermarkets stocking natural alternatives. These include, for example, Meatless Meals soy preparations from Heartline.

Natural and organic soups are also available, such as cup-a-soup and cup-a-meal products, which are stocked in a 4-foot section next to Ramen, Knorr and Campbell's. Millina's meals for kids are also found in the canned sections, along with more vegetable protein, in the form of sandwich spreads, burger mixes and canned franks and links, from companies like Worthington and Loma Linda.

Fantastic Foods boxed meals are located near similar conventional boxed meal solutions. There is a good selection of rices, flours and other grains, including more exotic fare like tapioca and potato flour.

Sugar alternatives, including turbinado sugar, Sucanat and Sorbital, are also available, as well as non-irradiated spices and extracts.

In the baby department is organic food from Gerber (under the new Tender Harvest line) and Earth's Best. During SN's visit, Earth's Best was on sale, at two for $1 for 4-ounce jars.

Better-for-you cereals occupy about 12 feet of bracketed space, and include several organic choices, while 10 feet are given to crackers and cookies.

The frozens department has seven doors of healthy selections. Two doors hold mostly breads, while the other five have a wide variety of items and brands, many of which are organic and vegetarian. For example, there are Amy's entrees, dinners and pocket sandwiches; Cascadian Farm vegetables and vegetarian meals; Worthington's vegetable protein items like Stakelets, Chick Sticks and Veggie Weiner; and Natural Touch burgers, patties and loaves.

Other products include Natural Sea whole-grain breaded fish sticks, Cedarlane entrees, Wolfgang Puck pizza, Vegetarian Request entrees, Taj vegetarian Indian entrees, Hain's vegetable protein products and Miguelito's tamales. The freezer case also holds frozen tempei and Garden Burgers.

This Pratts unit also offers about 225 selections of bulk food items. Items include beans, grains, flour, rices, nuts, mixed fruit, sea salt, granola, crackers, dried fruits, seeds, pasta and coffee. Some selections are organic and marked as such.

Also near the bulk food is a spinning rack that contains free informational and educational pamphlets on health and healthful eating, the safe preparation of meats, preserving the environment, gardening and composting, and organics.

Outside Center Store, the produce department carries a wide range of organic fruits and vegetables. A large banner over the organic section announces "Organic Produce: Certified." The banner also lists a number of reasons why people might want to buy organic.

The prominent position of The Natural Health Center on the front end of the Wellmarket stores helps create a health-store ambience and is a large part of the Wellmarket concept. In the Northwest 39th Street store, five freestanding aisles, each with two endcaps, are devoted to vitamins, herbs and supplements. The aisles are about 12 feet long. Two additional 12-foot racks are devoted to books on health, diet and nutrition, and there is a magazine section on an endcap.

While many supermarkets are carrying natural and organic items, most health-food advocates still have to shop in two places. Not so with Pratts. Except for all but the most radical natural-food shopper, one trip to West 39th Street would be sufficient to stock the pantry and medicine cabinet.

What's unusual about Pratts is how it manages to stock the requisite number of mainstream items while at the same time including such a great variety of alternatives.

The Northwest 39th Street store has an older clientele, according to J.B. Pratt, so it does more business in supplements, while the Norman store, which is near the University of Oklahoma, does more business in food.

The Norman store has a slightly larger selection of bulk items. The unit is also smaller, with 29,000 square feet, and has fewer natural and organic selections proportionate to its size.

The Norman store's product mix reflects the fact that it caters to a younger, university community. For example, there are many more loose herbs and spices in the Natural Health Care Center, and about half the amount of organic produce.

The permanent front endcap at this store holds refrigerated acidophilus, royal jelly, aloe vera juice, energy drinks, flaxseed oil and small, grab-and-go juices. Also highly prominent on the front end is an endcap with organic fast frozen food like veggie burgers.

The selection in the frozens department is considerably smaller, but there is more emphasis on frozen desserts. Also at this store are frozen bagels and waffles, frozen juices in containers and more pocket sandwiches.

Convenience food seems to be emphasized more at the Norman store. There are 10 feet of healthy cereals, but they are more kid-oriented, such as Arrowhead Mills' Coco O's, or Barbara's Fruity Crunch Stars. This store has Fantastic Food cereals in a cup, and more choices in toaster pastries and breakfast bars.

The unit also offers more "green" products, including bleaches, detergents, dishwashing liquid, household cleansers and paper products, and more natural cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and deodorants.

In many places, shelves are cut in half to accommodate additional selections in the grocery aisles -- for example, where there are canned products, or long but thin boxes of pasta. Once again, a surprising variety is merchandised in a small space.

The Norman store did not use shelf strips and shelf-talkers. However, Wellmarket signage is prevalent. In addition, this unit does use conventional aisle signs to indicate broad categories.

Although the Pratts unit in rural Shawnee is larger (38,000 square feet) than both the Norman and West 39th Street stores, it has fewer natural and organic products, in keeping with less upscale demographics.

The town also has a significant Native American population, judging from the shoppers seen in the store. Probably for that reason, the Shawnee unit has a number of Hispanic canned grocery products, which also appeal to Native Americans.

In keeping with the Wellmarket philosophy, merchandised near the Mexican canned beans are Bearitos and Health Valley beans, and next to the Mexican salsas are Muir Glen and Garden of Eatin organic salsas and Enrico's salsas.

This unit does not have Wellmarket signs in the aisle, but does use green channel strips. Also absent in this store are the shelf-talkers and shelf strips.

Despite the fact that there are smaller sections of natural and organic products in this store, there is still a sizable number and variety. In addition, the items were more discreetly integrated, calling less attention to their distinctiveness.

Pratts' largest unit on South Walker is 52,000 square feet. In this store, emphasis is more on vitamins, herbs and supplements. The Natural Health Care Center at the front end is also very close to the pharmacy.

The section is as large as the one on Northwest 39th Street, but in addition the pharmacist, Bob Teas, has training in the use of herbal supplements and is available to advise customers.

The grocery and frozen-food selections for natural and organic are substantial, compared with many conventional stores, but considerably smaller when compared with the other Pratt Wellmarket units. Wellmarket products are marked with green channel stripping only, as in the Shawnee store, but Wellmarket shelf-talkers are used to call attention to selections.