The speedy mainstreaming of natural and organic product into conventional distribution channels requires a wholesaler that shares the industry's sense of momentum, and still has the ability to deliver. The ever-expanding front line makes the category a tricky one, and no company understands this better than United Natural Foods, the world's largest organic and all-natural distributor. According to Michael Funk, chief executive officer, United Natural is an ally to the category's integrity and diversity.
“Because we sell in all channels and sell nationally, we can have our finger on the pulse of all the category's changes better than anyone else,” he said. “This way we can continually revamp our product mix.”
Over the past year, United Natural has evolved both physically and ideologically. Construction recently began on a new distribution center in Sarasota, Fla., slated to open early this fall. In addition to being the company's largest hub in the eastern United States, the addition embodies United Natural's new emphasis on sustainability. It will feature energy-efficient refrigeration and order fulfillment systems, and the facility's location means that trucks serving Florida, which previously had to travel from Atlanta, will burn less fuel traversing shorter routes.
The company also plans to install solar panels on two of its distribution centers, in Rockland, Calif., and Dayville, Conn.
“About a year and a half ago, I started thinking we could do more,” said Funk. “We were happy with the progress we were making on a number of fronts. But ultimately, I think it's about setting aside resources and creating senior management positions within the company that can research and execute energy efficiency.”
Sustainability is just part of United Natural's agenda. Funk explained that the company is still preparing for a Whole Foods-Wild Oats merger, which federal regulators are currently challenging — though Funk believes it will be approved in the end.
Beyond that, it's all about meeting the needs of customers both small and large. Although United Natural saw an unprecedented 30% growth in the mainstream grocery channel last year, Funk said he remains committed to core customers.
“We're seen as the expert in the category,” he explained. “We can get the right products on the shelf for anyone who wants to take advantage of this trend.”