Friday, May 2, 2008

Ethical Retailing Memo: David vs. Goliath: Planet Organic Markets Beats Out Whole Foods Market, Others as the 'Top Organic' Grocer in Canada

Canada's Planet Organic Markets, a national natural and organic foods retailer, edged out U.S.-based Whole Foods Market, Inc's Canadian division for the honor of top organic food retailer in Canada, in a survey and analysis by Corporate Knights magazine, a national publication which covers ethical and responsible corporate and business behavior and practices.

Planet Organic Markets received an A grade, and Whole Foods Market-Canada a B+ in the publications first "Green Grocer" survey, which is modeled after the United Kingdom's National Consumer Council's ethical grocers' survey.

Corporate Knights magazine rated Canada's top grocers--Planet Organic Markets, Whole Foods Market-Canada, Loblaws, Safeway, Metro, Provigo, Sobeys and a few others--in five areas: climate change, which looked at the availability of locally-produced food, the sale and promotion of CFL light bulbs, and in-store conservation efforts; consumer education, which looked at how organic and local food, Fair Trade products, and a reduced-meat diet are promoted; food sustainability, which surveyed the availability of organic products as well as responsibly-farmed fish and meats; household sustainability, which examined the stores' availability of "green" household products; and waste recycling, which looked at the recycled and Forest Stewardship Council content in product packaging , along with the stores' efforts to reduce the use of plastic grocery bags.

You can read more details about the survey and analysis here. There's also two links here, one for the actual survey methodology, and the other to view the survey questionnaire filled out by the Canadian grocers participating. The links are located in the yellow "resources" box on the right hand of the linked page.

While Planet Organic Markets and Whole Foods-Canada scored and A and a B+ respectively, the mainstream grocers mentioned above who were surveyed scored between a C and C+ overall, with their individual stores scoring a bit higher in the C to B range. This is because some stores take it on themselves to do more in the environmental and ethical categories surveyed compared to the chains as a whole.

Regarding Whole Foods Market-Canada, the Corporate Knights magazine survey was conducted before the supernatural grocer eliminated the use of all single-use plastic carrier bags from its U.S., Canadian and UK stores on April 22, Earth Day 2008.

Therefore, since plastic grocery bag reduction efforts are one of the criteria in the survey, Whole Foods' elimination of the bags completely in all its Canadian stores might have pushed it up a notch, from a B+ to an A, therefore perhaps coming in a dead heat with Planet Organic for first place. We don't know that for sure however.

Planet Organic Markets uses biodegradable plastic carrier bags in all its Canadian stores.

For a more detailed overview of how each of the grocery chains scored in the survey, as well as the differences between Planet Organic Markets and Whole Foods vis-a-vis the mainstream grocery chains, you can read this piece from Corporate Knights magazine about the survey.

Among some of the highlights of Planet Organic Markets' "green" and sustainability efforts, is the fact that its store employees were uniforms made out of bamboo, the grocer buys wind energy to power much of its operations, the store janitorial crews use sustainable cleaning products and all of the plastic grocery bags used in the stores are biodegradable.

Ironically though, one the question of local foods sourcing, Whole Foods Market-Canada did much better than Planet Organic Markets. Whole Foods also buys wind energy to power 100% of its Canadian stores.

The survey-takers said all of the Canadian grocers--with Whole Foods and Planet Organic at the top--are making good progress on reducing the use of single-use plastic carrier bags in their stores but there's much more progress to be made.

Canada is debating passing a law that would either put a per-bag fee on the plastic grocery bags or perhaps even ban their use completely in supermarkets. As we mentioned above, Whole Foods voluntary has stopped using single-use plastic carrier bags in all its stores in Canada.

As we've written about in Natural~Specialty Foods Memo recently, Canada's Planet Organic Markets' parent company, Planet Organic Health Corp. is expanding rapidly, including making two recent acquisitions of regional natural foods retail chains in the U.S.

Those two acquisitions, of 11-store Mrs. Green's Natural Foods Markets in New York and New Leaf Community Markets in Northern California, are the natural products' retailers first entry into the U.S. Market.

As we've also reported, Planet Organic is spending over $1 million to build a new, state of the art prepared foods facility in upstate New York for its Mrs. Green's retail operation. The grocer also plans to add additional Mrs. Green's stores in the upstate New York region and most likely elsewhere nearby.

Planet Organic also is building a brand new New Leaf Community Market natural foods store in the seaside town of Half Moon in the San Francisco Bay Area's coastal region. That will give the natural grocer four New Leaf banner stores when the new store is completed later this year.

Both Planet Organic and Whole Foods Market, Inc. are expanding the number of stores they have in Canada.

Although Whole Foods Market, Inc. with sales over $6 billion annually, is a natural foods' retailing Goliath compared to Planet Organic Markets, with sales of about $120 million a year, Planet Organic is in a hyper-growth and expansion mode. Just seven years ago when the current Planet Organic Health Corp. parent company was formed as an umbrella for the stores and the company's other operations, retail sales were only $1.6 million annually.

Planet Organic Health Corp.'s move into the U.S. market with the Mrs. Green's and New Leaf acquisitions also demonstrates this natural foods' retailing David isn't afraid of Whole Foods post its acquisition of Wild Oats Markets, Inc., despite the fact U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) persists in wasting taxpayer money to go back again and again to the federal appeals court, trying to get the Whole Foods/Wild Oats acquisition-merger broken up.

While we certainly believe there are instances when the FTC is warranted in stepping in to stop acquisitions and mergers which would restrain competition and pricing, the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger isn't one of the instances in our analysis.

Just ask the marketplace, and natural foods' retailers like Planet Organic, Sprouts Farmers Markets, Sunflower Farmers Markets, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets and others who are expanding rapidly, and in the case of Sunflower and Sprouts, getting ready to open stores right in the heart of Whole Foods Market Country, in Texas.

Also ask mainstream supermarket retailers like Safeway, SuperValu, and Kroger, and mega-mass merchandisers Wal-Mart and Target, as well as scores of regional chains and thousands of independent grocers in the U.S., which are all getting deeper and deeper into the natural and organics categories. There's plenty of competition--and more coming--for Whole Foods Market, Inc. in the United States.

Planet Organic Markets is bringing its Canadian brand of "green" and ethical food retailing to the two natural foods chains its acquired in the U.S. As such, there are going to be some interesting changes at the Mrs. Greens and New Leaf stores in the coming months.

We also know Planet Organic is looking for other multi-store natural foods retailers in the U.S. similar to the two it acquired last year (Mrs. Green's) and this year (New Leaf).

Doesn't Planet Organic remind you of another fast-growing natural foods' retailer, say in about the late 1980's and early 1990's? That one from Austin, Texas. The one that was just starting to boom about that time and didn't even carry the title "supernatural" grocer yet?

You know, that Texas natural foods grocer who today, about 15 years later, is not only a national chain but an international natural products retailer as well? and continues to grow rapidly--and in new ways?

It does us. In many ways, today's Planet Organic, with its rapid-growth and innovation, looks much like Whole Foods Market, Inc. did 15 or 20 years ago. It will be interesting to chart the Canadian-based natural foods' chain's growth, both at home and now in the United States.

In conjunction with its responsible grocers' survey and rating project, Corporate Knights magazine published a special feature in its April, 2008 edition on responsible and "green" retailing in Canada. You can read the various articles on the topic in the magazine's April issue here.

No comments: