Nature's Corner is on a straight course for success at Yoke's Foods. The Spokane, Wash.-based retailer is opening a second natural food store-within-a-store when officials cut the ribbon on the 10th Yoke's Fresh Market store this month.
Joe Hanson, vice president of grocery operations, and Russ Martin, category manager, are optimistic that the Nature's Corner concept will contribute significantly to sales and profits in the new store. The first Nature's Corner opened 10 years ago at a unit in Sandpoint, Wash., and currently generates about 20% of all grocery sales, Martin said.
"I would hope we will do as well as, or better, in West Richland," he said, referring to the new store's location. "The last time we looked at our numbers, sales for natural products and organic foods through all our stores were up about 27%."
Martin stressed, however, that the increase last year came "as we were making a concerted effort to expand the natural foods/organic products category. Will we continue to grow sales that much this year and next? Probably not, but I do expect double-digit increases."
The newest Yoke's Fresh Market is not a prototype but the evolution of what Yoke's has learned over the years as it has grown, Hanson said.
"We continuously challenge what we are doing and we constantly try to improve on it so this store is different from previous Fresh Markets in that sense," he said, adding that because Yoke's is building this department from the ground up, it will be much bigger than the company's Sandpoint department.
Yoke's, which also operates four conventional Yoke's Food stores, has natural food products integrated into its Center Store aisles in eight of the nine Fresh Market units. Sales for the category, Hanson noted, have been "excellent," and all the more reason to push ahead with the new store-within-a-store.
The new Nature's Corner will have 19 doors of frozen goods plus 20 feet of refrigerated products, compared to 10 doors of frozen and 8 feet of refrigeration in the Sandpoint store. The latter will be remodeled in the near future, however, and will likely be outfitted with more refrigeration and frozen units as well. "It's expensive but I think the sales justify it," Hanson said.
Since Yoke's is designing the new Nature's Corner from scratch, "we've had the ability to customize this department exactly the way we want it," he said. "Frozen and refrigerated foods are key segments within the natural products/organic food category that are growing rapidly."
There will be in excess of 200 bins for bulk foods in the new department, which will have about 20 feet for bulk foods compared to about 12 feet in the Sandpoint store. The 5-pound bins in the new Nature's Corner will be smaller as compared to the big tub bins in Sandpoint "to keep product fresher," Martin said. "We'll be able to rotate product faster and offer more selection."
The SKU count will go from 3,000 dry shelf items to more than 4,000 in the West Richland store. "That mix will be upgraded and changed constantly," Martin said. "That's just the nature of natural foods."
Each Nature's Corner department has its own manager, trained in nutrition and product knowledge so they can provide service to customers in the department.
"When a customer comes in with questions, the managers are on the floor to help out," Martin said. "We have seminars for them, get fresh information for them. They're able to talk specifically about what vitamins and supplements do, give advice to what types of foods people should be eating given their medical conditions, and things like that."
As customers come into the new store, they will see a Gourmet Wine department right in the center, and directly behind that will be the Nature's Corner. Adjacent to it also will be produce. This "back-to-back" footprint permits the retailer to build displays of organic produce closest to the natural set, with an open passage between the two. "You can be shopping organic produce and slide right into Nature's Corner," Martin said.
The new store will have a similar connection between the Nature's Corner department and the fresh meat and seafood department's organic section.
To promote its newest Nature's Corner, Yoke's will be featuring that department in a separate section of its weekly circulars, and as it does now with the first Nature's Corner, the department will be highlighted on several pages of Yoke's monthly savings guide.
Hanson said Yoke's sees the market for natural and organic products expanding with each passing day. The retailer is targeting not just the segment of customers who are experienced and committed organic and natural product shoppers - so-called "core consumers" - but also the growing number of shoppers who are becoming interested in natural and organic foods.
"We are continually trying to educate ourselves as to what these consumers want and then we strive to procure those items for them, and make them available at a competitive price," Martin said. "And this is a very diverse consumer, ranging from the highly educated shopper to someone just trying to figure out what is going into the products they are buying and consuming. I think we're looking at a very broad customer base."
In addition to the Nature's Corner and the Gourmet Wine Shop, the West Richland store will also have an expanded deli department, an expanded produce selection and a larger fresh meat and seafood department with an integrated service counter. In the past, Yoke's has separated the service portion of the meat and seafood departments from the self-service section.
"Now, we have combined the two, and we have highlighted the service portion by putting it in the center of the department on an elevated platform," Hanson said. "That brings the products up and presents them in a more exciting way."
The proximity of Nature's Corner to wine is also new. "We do a good job with wine and this is the first time we are highlighting the department in the center of the store and placing it adjacent to the natural foods department," he added.
Related fresh food departments like cheese and fresh pizza have also been placed within the deli department, creating a more integrated fresh food presentation.
"We've brought the consumer into the store to experience a coffee shop. Now the deli, with its homemade salads, fresh pizza and freshly grilled foods, is part of that experience," Hanson said. "The wine shop is to the left, the cheese shop to the right. We've trying to turn this whole area of the store into a destination stop."
Having such a broad assortment of natural and organic products, Martin added, has helped Yoke's Fresh Markets continue to "differentiate ourselves from the competition in this market. And you must differentiate yourself from your competitors or you have no chance. Two of our competitors now have a presence in natural and organic products but our presence is more visible, more dominant in how we structure our stores."
Down the line, if the West Richland store does as well as expected, there is a chance that Yoke's will put the full department in some of its other stores. The retailer also has another new store going into construction soon, and it will also have a Nature's Corner.
"We are committed to continue increasing this sector of our business," Martin said. "We intend to do that in a cost-effective manner, but we intend to push that envelope as hard as we can."