NATURAL NICHE

Natural food retailers, like Wild Oats and Whole Foods, have long been capitalizing on the growing organic and all-natural processed food niche in the Center Store. As the trend toward wholesome health continues, it is incumbent upon conventional chains to offer the natural food consumer competitive selection and service. SN visited two large chains on Long Island, N.Y. -- Waldbaum's, a subsidiary

Natural food retailers, like Wild Oats and Whole Foods, have long been capitalizing on the growing organic and all-natural processed food niche in the Center Store. As the trend toward wholesome health continues, it is incumbent upon conventional chains to offer the natural food consumer competitive selection and service. SN visited two large chains on Long Island, N.Y. -- Waldbaum's, a subsidiary of A&P, Montvale, N.J., and King Kullen of Bethpage, N.Y. -- to determine the level of commitment in the traditional grocery channel.

SN's undercover reporter posed as a shopper who was new to the area and interested in the stores' organic and all-natural sections. The first stop was a 75,000-square-foot King Kullen in Commack, known locally for the absence of neon lighting and for its in-store dining area.

The store opened roughly three years ago, and has taken the store-within-a-store approach to a new level with the recent introduction of a Wild By Nature market dedicated entirely to natural food. The market takes its name from the chain's independent subsidiary, which operates two full-service natural food stores on eastern Long Island. The Commack unit's Wild by Nature market appears an entity unto itself, located just inside the main entrance. The section is identified by hanging signs in muted shades of maroon and green, and even the shelves exhibit a rustic bent. The market has dispensed with the standard metallic glare that characterizes the shelves in the rest of the store in favor of dark wood paneling and pine green trim. And consumers need never leave its earthy confines to meet their all-natural needs.

The section is entirely self-contained, comprised of three grocery aisles, a health and beauty care aisle,10 freezer doors, a produce section and a dairy section. In addition, there is a small bulk food unit containing granola, sunflower seeds and the like.

The frozen offerings run the gamut from waffles to ice cream to split pea soup. Several doors were dedicated to frozen dinners, including Amy's Organic line and Hain's, among others, reflecting the consumers' demand for healthy and convenient products. Particularly interesting was the varied assortment of international options. For instance, Ethnic Gourmet offered unique Indian and Asian entries, such as Vegetable Korma and Chicken Pad Thai.

The grocery aisles covered all bases, with a solid representation of snacks, cereals, pasta and sauce, juice and canned goods. In addition, the section offered a host of condiments and dressings, including all-natural and organic oils, vinegars and marinades, and soy-based mayonnaise.

The end of one aisle was allocated to ecologically correct paper goods and cleaning supplies. Ecover was present with a full line of natural toilet bowl cleaners, floor soaps and similar products. Yet, these products were notably more expensive than their national brand counterparts. For instance, a 32-ounce bottle of Ecover dishwashing liquid sold for $4.39, while a 28-ounce bottle of Dawn was found at the everyday price of $2.99. However, a consumer might not be aware of the discrepancy at first glance as most of the items in the Wild by Nature section are not priced at shelf level.

While price is apparently not the main draw here, the store does offer a monthly flier specifically for the Wild by Nature market. The flier through March 3 included specials on all-natural staples such as a 28-ounce jar of Muir Glen tomato sauce for $1.69. All of the items featured in the flier were clearly marked as sale items at shelf level.

The endcaps in the section did not necessarily call attention to a reduced price, although there was one small display featuring 13-ounce boxes of Kashi cereal for $2.99.

The most notable display was an endcap devoted to Wild by Nature brand water, including flavored and carbonated varieties. According to a store employee, the Wild by Nature private label line is limited to water and vitamins at this point, but she anticipated more to come in the near future.

Information and education are valuable commodities to the natural food consumer. Indeed, a knowledgeable staff is one of the hallmarks of successful natural food operations. The Wild by Nature market has seized upon this opportunity, as the SN reporter found after approaching an employee with a question. The employee enthusiastically expounded upon the intricacies of organic farming methods, going beyond a simple definition, broaching crop rotation and storage facilities.

As the reporter left the section, the same employee was engaged in animated conversation with another customer.

In an effort to discern variations within chains, SN also visited a more modest King Kullen in Huntington.

Upon entering the store, SN's undercover reporter came across a representative of Millbrook Distribution, the Leicester, Mass.-based distributor supplying the chain with much of its natural food products. According to the representative, that particular unit had recently begun integrating natural food.

"They used to be all together," he said. "But now it's integrated throughout the store. All the stores are changing now."

The first significant natural products presence was found in the soup aisle, where a decent selection of soups was sandwiched between the Cup 'o Noodles and the soy drink set. The assortment included familiar all-natural names such as Hain and Healthy Valley, and Nutrablend and Edensoy.

In accordance with SN's findings at the Commack store, the natural products were not priced at shelf level in the Huntington store, either, while the rest of the store clearly was. However, in the Huntington unit, many natural products were marked as "checklist specials." For example, an 11-ounce box of Healthy Valley Soy Os cereal was identified by a red and white shelf tag on special for $3.19.

The store boasted an impressive array of all-natural and organic cereals, allotting approximately 6 feet to the category in the cereal aisle.

Natural food was a distinct presence throughout the store, often making appearances outside its respective aisles, cross merchandised with mainstream items.

Indeed, a prominent front-end cap featuring national brand cereals such as Frosted Flakes included 32-ounce Edensoy brand shelf stable soy milk in vanilla and plain.

In addition, some natural food sets were dispersed throughout the store due to spatial constraints. The organic and natural pastas and sauces were found on a freestanding display just outside the produce section. According to the store manager, these products would have been in line with the rest of the pasta and sauce set, but there simply wasn't enough room.

The natural and organic snacks were located in a display adjacent to the deli, facing the condiments. Higher-end mustards and oils, as well as some more exotic cooking marinades, such as World Harbor's Bengali Bombay Mango, were located on the shelf directly opposite the natural snacks, an apt complement for the gourmet palate.

The natural snack set included offerings from Newman's Own and Bearitos organic tortilla chips, among others. There was also a smattering of natural salsas and dips.

All-natural granola bars, cookies and a small selection of sparkling juices, ginger brews and other natural beverages were located on the opposite side of the display.

SN also visited the local Waldbaum's in Huntington Village, barely 10 minutes from the King Kullen unit, and the difference was striking.

Waldbaum's does not integrate, placing the entire all-natural and organic grocery set in one aisle. However, the set does not call for an entire aisle, and the section feels to be an afterthought to rice cakes and dietetic food such as Slim Fast. Yet a store employee assured the SN reporter that the product selection was growing all the time.

Despite the relatively meagre shelf space, the set did offer a fairly inclusive representation of product. All of the natural food staples, such as pasta, snacks, soups and cereal, were available. The set even offered some organic baking supplies, such as Hodgson Mill flour.

While no visible specials were running at the time of SN's visit, all prices were clearly marked at shelf level.