Saturday, January 19, 2008

Local Foods Memo: The Twenty-Mile Aisle Concept...and Other 'Local' Musings

Canadian writer Noah Richler, who's book This is My Country, What's Yours? won the 2007 B.C. award for Best Canadian Non-Fiction, has an essay in today's Toronto Star , in which he talks about the selling, buying and eating of local foods.

In his essay, Richler suggests supermarkets should create what he calls 100-mile aisles, or even 20-mile aisles, where grocery stores' feature a large selection of locally-grown and produced food and grocery products for sale.
The foods offered for sale in such aisles would come from no more than 100 miles (or 20 miles) from the store's location. The Locavore (local food) movement defines a Locavore as a person who buys and eats foods produced from not more than 100 miles from where they live. (Note: We believe 100 miles is just fine, rather than 20 miles. Let's not get too ridiculous.)

In addition to the local "miles-aisles" concept, Richler wants Canadian grocers to consider building smaller stores that focus almost exclusively on merchandising and selling local foods.

Although Richler is addressing Canadian grocers specifically, his ideas and suggestions obviously have international implications. He argues in his essay that labels like "food miles" and "organic" are often terms used merely to mask lousy food. Richler says regardless of such terms, the basic goal should be to make as many fresh, locally-produced foods available to consumers as is possible. (Read Richter's essay here.)

The "miles-aisles" local concept isn't new, just different

The one-hundred-mile aisle or twenty-mile aisle concept Richler is proposing to Canada's food retailers isn't a new or foreign concept to a growing number of grocers throughout the world, or even in Canada for that matter.
Numerous large grocery chains, regional food retailers, and independents are offering locally-grown and produced foods in their stores more and more. Most of them are merchandising local foods in a store-wide manner rather then in a segregated store aisle. Of course, Richler's point isn't so much about how stores physically merchandise the local foods. Instead, his point is that more should do so, especially in Canada.

In the U.S., for example, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Publix, Wegmans, Safeway Stores and many other large chains have initiated local foods' merchandising programs in their stores. Regional chains such as Supervalu, Inc.'s Bristol Farms in Southern California, HEB in Texas, Raley's in Northern California and many others, are offering local foods selections, and actively searching out additional locally-produced goods to offer to shoppers.

The new Napa Whole Foods Market store sells thousands of locally-produced foods, like the wild mushrooms pictured above.
Whole Foods Market Inc.'s newest store, which just opened earlier this week in Napa, California, is featuring nearly every locally-produced natural, organic and specialty food product it can source in the new store.; from fresh produce, wine, craft beer and packaged goods, to wild mushrooms, cheeses and body care items. The grocer also is increasingly doing this in all of its stores in the U.S. and Canada (and in its one store in London). Selling local foods is a retail trend that's here, and growing fast.

In the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, selling local foods also is a growing trend among food retailers. in the UK, the large chains Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's and others are increasing their local merchandising programs almost monthly. Asda, a UK division of mega-retailer Wal-Mart, recently announced it would make a major commitment to selling locally-produced food and grocery products in all its UK stores as well.

In fact, speaking of Wal-Mart, the retailer's Wal-Mart Canada division recently incorporated the merchandising and selling of locally-produced foods into its Canadian superstores in a big way. The retailer's Canadian Superstores are offering a large selection of local fresh produce, fresh meats, cheeses and packaged grocery products in all its stores.

The chain also is using its new, local foods program as a marketing tool. It's touting its commitment to buying from local producers in its advertising circulars and other retail marketing media messages, as well as inside the stores, using signage. (Read a short piece called "Wal-Mart-Canada Going Fresh, Local in New Superstores" we wrote in September, 2007 here.)

Everything is local at Brooklyn, New York's Urban Rustic grocery market

The Urban Rustic grocery store is urban-upscale on the outside (exterior) and rustic on the inside. It fits perfectly into its Brooklyn neighborhood.

Richler should be happy to hear about Urban Rustic, an independent neighborhood grocery store that opened last month in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

Nearly everything offered for sale in the store comes from no farther than 100-miles away. Most of the fresh produce is organic as well, as are many of the other items in the store.

Urban Rustic is the brainchild of film-maker Aaron Wolf, who wrote and produced the film King Corn, a documentary about corn and the key role that the crop plays in the North American food system. (You can read a piece we wrote about Woolf and the film here.)

Nearly all of the products that line the shelves inside the store are sourced from local growers and producers.

The approximately 3,500 square-foot neighborhood food store takes the concept of local seriously. In addition to its commitment to offering nearly all-local foods, the store also serves as a local neighborhood meeting place. It's in-store cafe encourages hanging-out, and is being offered to local neighborhood groups as a meeting place. The store also regularly holds meet-and-greet events between its customers and the local food producers it obtains its products from.

Urban Rustic's electric power comes from wind sources, and the wood used throughout its interior is from sustainably-harvested Adirondack, according to the owners.

Woolf says the store's philosophy and positioning is to connect Brooklyn urbanites with the farmers, growers and purveyors of their foods, along with offering local, fresh and packaged foods, which are produced sustainably, at a reasonable price. The few non-local products the store does sell are sourced from producers who follow ecologically-sustainable farming and production practices.

Urban Rustic is the first food store dedicated to trying to obtain and sell nearly 100% locally-produced food and grocery products we've been able to find in North America.

The philosophy of Urban Rustic and its owners is: "Everything's Local." This philosophy and practice extends all the way from the foods they sell, to the people the store serves.

Canada's Loblaws and local foods: What gives?

In his essay, Richler speaks directly to George Weston, Inc., the parent company of the Loblaws supermarket chain, Canada's biggest food retailer. Richler asks, as many Canadians currently are, why Loblaws hasn't initiated a comprehensive local foods program for its stores and started to offer a larger selection of locally-grown and produced foods.

At a recent shareholders meeting, Loblaws' CEO Galen Weston Jr. said the grocery chain was committed to "going local" in a big way, in addition to lowering prices in all its stores to better compete with the likes of Wal-Mart-Canada, which is building numerous new Supercenters throughout the country. Loblaws' sales and profits have been poor of late, and many analysts and others believe the chain needs to emphasise its hometown advantage by doing things like making a major effort in local foods' merchandising.

Despite Weston's "going local" comment at the shareholders' meeting, a recent survey of Loblaws' stores consucted by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), turned up no fresh meat (Canada raises lots of it) and very few fresh produce items in a number of the grocer's Superstores. Further, the CBC said they could find no Canadian-grown garlic (a common crop grown in eastern Ontario), and that all the apples (Canada grows lots of them) in the stores' produce departments were from outside the country.

Based on Loblaws' current performance, it would seem smart for the grocer to listen to Richler and the others when they encourage the hometown chain to put a major focus on local foods' selling. After all, even Wal-Mart, the retailer from the "bottom states," believes its a smart move to do so.

Emphasising local foods isn't going to cure all--or even most--of Loblaws' current sales and profit ills. However, it's a smart step not only in that direction, but in a nationalistic and community-based support direction as well. Big food retailers have big responsibilities. In addition to making money for their stakeholders, these responsibilities include supporting to the best degree possible the local communities where they do business.

By selling local foods, a grocery chain provides this support by encouraging and economically supporting local farmers, growers, producers, distributors and others. It's smart, ethical retailing, which is a trend more and more consumers are demanding of their food retailers. These same consumers also are rewarding these smart, ethical retailers increasingly with their shopping dollars.

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