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The Whole picture.

Byline: Dylan Darling The Register-Guard

The fierce competition for the devotion of Eugene-Springfield grocery shoppers and their dollars is about to intensify.

After efforts that began more than a decade ago, Whole Foods Market, the world's largest organic grocer, on Wednesday will open its first store in Eugene.

The $10 million, 38,030-square-foot store on the east edge of downtown is expected to challenge local grocers that specialize in natural and organic foods, including Market of Choice, Capella, Natural Grocers, The KIVA and Sundance Natural Foods.

"People are going to be curious about the new store, and it's enormous," Sundance owner Gavin McComas said. "They have a selection of goods that we can't provide in our small space. I think there will be some impact on us."

But Whole Foods, based in Austin, Texas, is known for its extensive offerings of prepared foods, too. Its presence is expected to be felt by downtown restaurants, coffee shops and other food vendors.

Each Whole Foods store averages $715,000 a week in sales, or $37 million a year.

It's doubtful that local shoppers will spend $37 million more on food each year. So, if the new Eugene outlet is to perform near the chain's average, it will have to draw some sales from existing stores and restaurants.

But rather than just worry, Eugene retailers have prepared for the increased competition by remodeling stores and urging their employees to provide better customer service. They're counting on those things, plus customers' homegrown loyalty, to help them compete against the natural foods colossus.

Whole Foods may present the most competition to Eugene-based based Market of Choice, which offers shoppers extensive selections of organic and prepared foods in four local stores.

"We welcome Whole Foods to Eugene and wish them success," Market of Choice Chief Executive Rick Wright said. "Thanks to our loyal customers, we feel secure in our position as a local Eugene grocer, offering choices for organic, natural and conventional foods from more than 3,000 Oregon farmers, ranchers and food producers."

Some food merchants say they could benefit from the Eugene Whole Foods because the store will bring more people downtown. Others say Whole Foods could increase shopper interest in higher priced natural and gourmet foods, which could help local merchants that sell similar products.

Susan Livingston, a marketing coordinator for Whole Foods in Bellevue, Wash., said the sales of merchants in other cities increased after Whole Foods entered the markets. Whole Foods boosts the popularity of organic and prepared foods, she said, which leads to more consumer spending on those items at Whole Foods and other stores.

Other natural and organic grocers "will absolutely experience a bump in business just because there is so much more focus on options and on quality," she said.

Natural food movement

McComas has been an owner of Sundance Natural Foods near Hilyard Street and East 24th Avenue for 33 years.

He said Whole Foods symbolizes the natural food industry - big business capitalizing on grocery shoppers across the country who want healthier food and are willing to pay a premium for it.

Profits drive the natural food industry, McComas said, but his store and other small, independent food outlets emphasize the sale of products that are good for people, part of what he called the natural food movement.

"Myself and many of my colleagues got into natural foods in order to make the world a better place, make people healthier," McComas said.

He said shopping should allow people to catch up with neighbors and be a part of a community. These pillars hold up the natural food movement, he said.

McComas hopes that his customers stay committed to his store, even when tempted by what Whole Foods will offer.

The owners of other natural food stores have similar hopes.

"With Whole Foods opening, I think it will impact us to some degree, which is to be determined," said Mark Lew, owner of Capella Market in south Eugene, at 24th Avenue and Willamette Street.

"Our customer base is very loyal, and I am hoping the impact is small," he said.

Emphasis on service

The owners of Capella, The KIVA and Market of Choice have spent money to improve their stores or they are planning to do so.

"We are trying to clean and freshen up our appearance some," Lew said. "But the most important thing is our level of customer service."

Capella employees have reviewed customer service procedures and the store's product mix. Capella also has a nutritionist available Tuesday through Saturday to answer customer questions.

Market of Choice last June opened a store in Bend, where it competes with Whole Foods and other natural food retailers. The company plans to open a Market of Choice in southeast Portland next year. The company already has a store in southwest Portland, plus single stores in West Linn and Beaverton.

Wright, the chief executive, said his company is adding some of the features of the newer stores to its Eugene stores through remodeling.

George Brown co-owns The Kiva, a natural foods store and deli at West 11th Avenue and Olive Street, six blocks away from the Whole Foods.

Aware of the competition that Whole Foods will bring, Brown said he's focused on his store.

"We don't worry about other stores," he said. "If you did that, you'd spend all your time worrying instead of trying to make your store better."

Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, a retailer based in the Denver area that competes with Whole Foods in many cities, has a store on Coburg Road, north of downtown, near Oakway Center.

Natural Grocers hasn't made any changes to prepare for the opening of Whole Foods, said director and co-President Kemper Isely, who works in Lakewood, Colo.

"Many of our stores are located near a Whole Foods or in the same parking lot," he said.

"Our customers will come in and buy their 100 percent organic produce, groceries and supplements from us, and then go over to Whole Foods and finish their shopping by buying their deli and gourmet items from Whole Foods. So, by having both of us in a market, the awareness of consumers becomes greater about the benefits of organic and natural foods, which leads to greater success for both of our companies."

Grab-and-go is big business

About 20 percent of Whole Foods' business comes from the sale of its prepared foods, according to the firm's financial filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Whole Foods said its Eugene store will have a "wide range of grab-and-go meal options," including a taqueria venue, made-to-order sandwiches, a self-service pizza station, a rotating hot foods bar, and a salad bar. The Eugene store will have a full-service coffee cart by Wandering Goat Coffee Co. of Eugene, the first Ellenos Real Greek Yogurt Bar, and a bakery.

Restaurant, coffee bar and bakery owners near the Eugene Whole Foods said they will have to wait and see how the store affects their sales. Some of the food merchants said they expect Whole Foods to bring more people downtown, which they hope will help their businesses.

"Honestly, it is just going to be more people walking around, especially on Saturdays," said J.C. Lee at Noodle Bowl on Pearl Street, a block from Whole Foods.

Sandy Little, co-owner of Mezza Luna Pizzeria, also on Pearl, said "a big business like Whole Foods is going to draw a significant amount of traffic to our neighborhood. That should be good for us."

From Full City Coffee/Palace Bakery on Pearl Street, owner Michael Phinney can see the Whole Foods.

"I'm sure, at least for a while, it's going to bring some people down who are curious," he said. "It's a famous brand store. But, as far as long-term effect, I imagine the best would be that if it actually brought more people downtown. And the more people that come downtown probably would be better for me in my business and businesses like mine."

Shoppers weigh in

Interviews with shoppers revealed that some will shop at Whole Foods, while others will avoid the store.

Logan Fields, 26, a south Eugene resident, said she prefers to shop at stores close to her home, in the Friendly Street neighborhood. She said she will continue patronizing Sundance or the Friendly Street Market, near Friendly Street and West 27th Avenue.

"I will definitely continue shopping at the smaller shops rather than Whole Foods," Fields said.

Nancy Tilicki, 63, a regular shopper at Trader Joe's in Oakway Center, said she's curious about Whole Foods. "I'll probably check it out," she said.

But Whole Foods' high prices and traffic congestion around the store will keep Kan Dhillon, 43, away.

Rush hour traffic can be terrible in the area, he said. Once the store opens, Dhillon expects it to be worse. "It is going to be bad," he said.

Whole Foods picked its Eugene location because it's in downtown and near the University of Oregon, said Living ston, the company's spokeswoman.

"We just believe it is a great, central location, and we are really honored to be a part of what is happening downtown," she said.

Follow Dylan on Twitter @DylanJDarling. Email dylan.darling@
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 25, 2016
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