Thursday, March 19, 2009

Retail Memo: Whole Foods Market Opens New Store in Santa Cruz, California Today ... And There's Plenty of Competition

Pictured above is the famous "Giant Dipper" roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. Built in 1924 it is one of the oldest roller coasters of its kind in America. With Whole Foods Market opening its first store in Santa Cruz today, we suggest there will be a natural foods retailing competitive roller coaster ride soon hitting the city.

Fresh from reaching its settlement agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on March 6, Whole Foods Market, Inc. today opened a 31,500 square foot natural foods supermarket in the coastal Northern California city of Santa Cruz, home to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and what's considered one of the most attractive campuses of the University of California, the University of California, Santa Cruz, the campus with the unique mascot -- Sammy the Banana Slug.

The new store is the first for Whole Foods Market in the city of Santa Cruz, which has a very high natural-organic foods shopper demographic. Northern California, which is one of the U.S. regions in which Whole Foods Market has the greatest number of stores, is one of the best market regions for the natural grocery chain in the country.

An interesting aspect of Whole Foods' opening its new natural foods supermarket in Santa Cruz so soon after its March 6 settlement agreement with the FTC regarding the regulatory agency's near 20-month legal battle to overturn the 2007 acquisition by Whole Foods Market, Inc. of Wild Oats Markets, Inc., is that Santa Cruz, a city of about 100,000 residents, is a very competitive natural foods retailing town.

For example, in the natural foods retailing class of trade, locally-based New Leaf Community Markets has long been the leader in Santa Cruz. In fact, New Leaf just opened on March 11 a brand new nearly 18,000 square foot natural foods market on the westside of the city. The New Leaf store is about three miles from the new Whole Foods store, which is located on the city's east side. The new store replaces an older New Leaf market on the westside. There's also a New Leaf store in downtown Santa Cruz. There are six New Leaf units in the region.

Another popular independent natural foods market in Santa Cruz is Staff of Life Natural Foods Market, which has operated in the city for many years and has a loyal following.

There's also a Trader Joe's natural and specialty grocery store in Santa Cruz. With its extensive selection of natural, organic and specialty products, Trader Joe's draws many of the same customers that Whole Foods Market stores do.

Safeway Stores, Inc. has a supermarket in Santa Cruz. The grocery chain, which is based in Northern California's San Francisco Bay Area, is in the process of building one of its brand new "Lifestyle" format supermarkets in the coastal community.

In addition to being filled with conventional food and grocery products, the new Safeway in Santa Cruz will be stocked full with natural, organic and premium food and grocery items, including the chain's popular "O' Organics" organic products brand and its "Eating Right" healthy foods brand. The two Safeway brands combined did about $1 billion in gross sales in Safeway's 1,750 stores in the U.S. and Canada in 2008.

The new Santa Cruz "Lifestyle" format Safeway also will feature a fresh, prepared foods-deli department and in-store special features like a fresh nut bar, which Safeway includes in its new "Lifestyle" stores. The new wave "Lifestyle" format stores often look in many cases very similar in design to a larger, new Whole Foods store.

Sacramento, California-based Raley's (130 stores, $3.5 billion in annual sales) has one of its Nob Hill banner supermarkets in Santa Cruz. Raley's is a major player in natural and organic foods retailing and the Santa Cruz Nob Hill store offers a strong selection of natural and organic products, reflecting Raley's competitiveness in the categories.

Add to this competitive mix Shoppers Corner, a longtime Santa Cruz independent supermarket that offers both conventional groceries and natural, organic and specialty foods. The grocer "stacks product high" and "sells it cheap," often offering natural and organic items for less than all its competitors.

In other words, Santa Cruz is a perfect laboratory to test the FTC's (now historic) antitrust argument that a combined Whole Foods-Wild Oats is monopolistic. As we argued throughout the legal case, in today's natural-organic foods retailing world in the U.S., Whole Foods competes against not only natural foods stores, but also certain supermarket chains (like Safeway) and hybrid format retailers (like Trader Joe's).

Therefore, since Santa Cruz has three high volume and competitive natural foods markets -- the two New Leaf units and Staff of Life -- along with Safeway and Trader Joe's, plus Shoppers Corner, it's our analysis that Whole Foods will have its competition cut out for it in the coastal city. It won't be a cakewalk on the boardwalk for Whole Foods Market in Santa Cruz.

By the same token, Whole Foods will inject a massive dose of competition into the food and grocery retailing business in Santa Cruz. The natural foods supermarket chain is going after the city's consumers aggressively with discount pricing, hot promotional deals, special events and other merchandising and marketing schemes designed to fill the store's aisles.

But the local guys will fight back. That's why the market was right, and why the FTC ultimately gave Whole Foods a sweet settlement deal. The competition abounds and is always changing and growing.

[Suggested reading: Jondi Gumz, a staff writer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper, has a comprehensive and insightful piece published in the paper today about Whole Foods' opening of its new store in Santa Cruz, and the competitive aspects having the new big league player in town might have on the city's existing retailers. Read the story here. There's also a color slideshow of photogrpahs of the new store at the link.]

No comments: