Area groceries try to find ways to stand out

03/01/2014 11:38 AM

03/02/2014 8:03 AM

Wichitans now have more options than ever to buy groceries. In addition to longstanding stores such as Dillons and Wal-Mart, stores like Fresh Market, Natural Grocers and, soon, Whole Foods have come to town.

But with more choices for consumers, stores have to find new ways to stand out from the crowd.

“Competition always serves as a means to help us focus on providing what customers want,” said Sheila Lowrie, spokeswoman for Dillons, which has been in Kansas for more than 90 years.

Dillons has 67 stores in Kansas with more than 10,000 employees – about a $125 million payroll, Lowrie said.

Over the past decade or so, Wal-Mart has increased its focus on groceries. It has 12 Neighborhood Markets, 56 Supercenters, four discount stores and eight Sam’s Clubs in Kansas. Wichita has six Supercenters and six Neighborhood Markets, according to a company spokeswoman.

Both Dillons and Wal-Mart representatives said the companies are putting a bigger emphasis on local suppliers and products, as well as natural and organic foods.

It makes sense because 36 percent of consumers say organic food is important to them, and 79 percent of consumers want to buy more local food, according to a 2012 report by Sullivan Higdon and Sink called “A Fresh Look at Organic and Local.”

“Customers are telling us natural and organic foods are important, and that’s why we’ve put additional varieties into locations and made more space for those foods,” Lowrie said.

Dillons sold 15 million gallons of Kansas milk last year, and the store sells Kansas eggs and flour, Lowrie said.

Last year, Wal-Mart announced it was taking steps to improve produce sections. One move was to include more produce from area growers and perform independent weekly checks of produce.

The importance of groceries as a business to Wal-Mart is underscored by Neighborhood Markets, which are smaller, grocery-oriented stores. Nationwide, there are about 300 Neighborhood Markets, and Wal-Mart plans to add about 300 more in the next three years, in addition to 240 more Supercenters.

“Customers have made it clear that grocery is an area they expect from Wal-Mart, and they will travel great distances to shop,” said Rachel Wall, Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “In response, we have looked for opportunities to make grocery shopping more convenient ... (and) bring our grocery and pharmary conveniences closer to where customers already live and work in a smaller store format. Customers have really responded well.”

Marketing natural food

While Dillons and Wal-Mart dominate the grocery sector in Kansas, a number of companies that emphasize natural and organic products are making inroads.

In Wichita, most specialty grocers have opened on the east side.

Fresh Market opened in Bradley Fair in summer 2012, Natural Grocers opened on North Rock Road in November 2011, and Whole Foods – under the name Bread and Circus – is coming to 13th and Webb in late summer.

Whole Foods pursues a certain “psychographic” rather than demographic, said Ben Friedland, executive marketing coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region.

“People who care deeply about food as it relates to health and relates to caring for the planet and their community, the environment,” Friedland said. “Those are the sorts of things we care deeply about and that really resonates with people and crosses all demographic spectrum.”

The typical Whole Foods store has between 80 and 100 employees, Friedland said.

Kemper Isely, co-president of Natural Grocers, said his company stands out from others because of its quality standards.

“We are very well known for items we will not allow in our stores,” Isely wrote in an e-mail. “We do not allow any grocery items in our stores to contain artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils.”

The store also sells only organic produce and meat of animals that haven’t been given antibiotics or hormones.

“Additionally the animals have to be given pasture time and raised in a humane manner,” Isely said.

“Wichita stood out as a great fit for our store, as the Wichita community is highly educated,” Iseley said. “They’ve also got a very strong commitment to taking care of one’s own health.”

Fresh Market officials declined requests for an interview.

Store locations

Although more stores have come to the Wichita area, some community activists bemoan the lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods and downtown.

“That’s really the big question: Why do (stores) go where they decide to go?” said Mim McKenzie, executive director of community development for the Greater Wichita YMCA and chairwoman of the the Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita.

The coalition commissioned a study last fall that found Wichita has several “food deserts,” which the government defines using census tracts and the percentage of people in those tracts who live more than a mile from a full-service grocer in urban areas. The study found that Wichita had about 44 square miles of food deserts.

The study specifically identified south Wichita, downtown, a portion of Delano and parts of northeast Wichita as being food deserts.

“This is becoming a major area of focus for our community,” McKenzie said. “There’s a lot of push from the citizen side and also from the policy side as far as ‘what do we need to do to make sure that food is accessible to all?’

“Unfortunately, sometimes the most convenient thing is a convenience store. First of all, they have a price higher. You’re limited in your options. Third is quality.”

Options for full-service grocery stores have decreased in some areas over the past few years, McKenzie said.

Dillons’ Lowrie said the company looks at a variety of factors when considering store locations.

The coalition hopes to have the results of a new study out sometime this summer, which will look into what the biggest barriers are to accessing fresh fruits and vegetables for Wichitans in certain ZIP codes, McKenzie said.

“Now we want to look at behavior. There has to be a link in there somehow.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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