Whole Foods ready for the Roaring Fork Valley, but are we ready for Whole Foods? | AspenTimes.com

Whole Foods ready for the Roaring Fork Valley, but are we ready for Whole Foods?

Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

BASALT ” At first blush, it seems like Whole Foods Market’s timing couldn’t be worse for opening a new grocery store at Basalt’s Willits Town Center next year.

The economy is either in recession or leaning on the precipice, according to most analysts. The doldrums are forecast to drag into 2009.

Food prices have soared so high so fast that even affluent shoppers are flocking to bargain bins. And high-priced gas in the Roaring Fork Valley is forcing many drivers to reduce their miles on the road.

Piled on top of those factors is Whole Foods’ entrenched image as a pricey store; company officials don’t need to be reminded that the chain’s nickname is Whole Paycheck.

The economic slump already has forced the company to curb its aggressive expansion plan. It announced in early August that it canceled leases in five markets where it planned to open in 2009 and it reduced the size of a handful of other new stores.

But Basalt remains unscathed. The store is proceeding as planned, said Ron Megahan, vice president of design and development in the Rocky Mountain region. The chain announced in May 2007 that it will open a 44,000-square-foot store at the Willits Town Center.

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Joseph Freed and Associates, developer of the new village core, is racing ahead with work on the foundation. The contract calls for the developer to hand over a completed shell by June 2009. Whole Foods will have its own crew finish the building and prepare it for opening. The quicker its crew can get in, the better chance of opening in fall 2009, Megahan said. At worst, the grocer will open in early 2010.

So Whole Foods Market is ready for the Roaring Fork Valley, but is the valley ready for an upscale grocer?

The company initiated a value program early this year to try to convince shoppers they can, indeed, buy their groceries there without spending their entire paycheck. Company representatives lead shoppers at select stores on “value tours” to teach them how to select items without breaking their budget.

That value tour will be offered at the new store in Basalt if there is demand, said Ben Friedland, Whole Foods marketing coordinator in the Rocky Mountain region.

“You can get the quality you want at the price point you’re seeking,” insisted Friedland. He cited extra virgin olive oil as an example. Customers can find a bottle for $39 or they can buy one that is the same size for $8.99. The expensive bottle will probably stick in consumers’ minds, even though Whole Foods ensures that the less expensive bottle is also of high quality and it meets the needs of many customers.

On the other hand, Whole Foods isn’t embarrassed about offering high-end items because demand also exists for those pricey products.

“There is a niche in the market for that product ” for people who are foodies,” Friedland said.

As economic times have gotten tougher, Whole Foods has placed more emphasis on promoting its private label of discounted items. Value tour guides make sure shoppers realize Whole Foods offers about 1,500 private-label products across the store.

Friedland said Whole Foods performed a price comparison on 100 products with some of its leading competitors in the natural and organic foods business. Whole Foods claims its prices were equal or less expensive on 80 of the same products. The discounts available at Whole Foods through its private-label products made the price comparison even more favorable, Friedland said.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged the company must work to change its pricey image. “There’s a perception in the marketplace, true or not,” Friedland said.

Roaring Fork Valley consumers, of course, are used to high prices. Everything from gas to groceries, ski passes to newspaper ads are more expensive in the valley due to simple laws of supply and demand. It also is an affluent area. The Roaring Fork Valley is one of the smallest markets where Whole Foods will be located, company officials said in earlier interviews. But the chain is counting on people driving greater distances than they might in Denver, for example, where competition is more fierce. Company officials also said that even though there are fewer shoppers in the Roaring Fork Valley, the average shopper will probably spend more.

In Basalt, Whole Foods will go head-to-head with City Market (and, to a lesser extent, Clark’s Market). The two stores will be located less than one mile apart. City Market has prepared for the challenge: It expanded its store last year and offers a greater variety of natural and organic foods.

It’s uncertain if the addition of Whole Foods will increase spending on groceries or split the dollars already being spent.

Retail food sales have climbed in Basalt throughout this decade, with the exception of 2002, according to sales tax collections reports from the town government. City Market dominates the retail food category.

Sales in the retail food category were up nearly 9 percent during the first seven months of the town’s 2008 fiscal year compared to the same period last year, according to the town report.

People have to eat, even if they are being forced to tighten their belts.

Whole Foods hopes that Roaring Fork Valley shoppers will still have a pent-up demand for natural and organic foods once its new store opens.

Nationwide, interest in natural and organic foods has hit a plateau. Research has found that about 15 percent of the U.S. population is firmly committed to buying organic goods, The New York Times reported in a story about Whole Foods Market last month. Double-digit growth has ended, at least for now.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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