Targeting the Organic Masses

5/8/2014

As we went to press with this issue, the 44th observance of Earth Day came and went with little fanfare. But that’s not to say that this year’s quiet commemoration of the annual event — which dates back to 1970 and is now considered by many as the birthday of the modern environmental movement — is a bad thing. To the contrary, the shift underscores how the popular plea to make “every day Earth Day” has decidedly taken hold, particularly in the food industry, where an array of retailers have re-seeded their core strategies to court a more eco-conscious shopping public.

The latest evidence of this is a series of initiatives revealed in recent weeks by Wal-Mart Stores, H-E-B and Target, each of which rolled out integrated suites of competitively priced organic lines. Ringing in at Nos. 1, 8 and 13, respectively, on our annual Super 50 countdown of the nation’s top grocery retailers, the trio of influential players is jockeying in earnest to broaden the availability and appeal of organics by making them more affordable and approachable for the general population.

Let’s begin with a closer look at the always innovative H-E-B, whose first-ever proprietary line of certified organics aims to give “all Texans an affordable way to go organic,” with a robust array of EDLP pantry staples, fresh produce, cheese, beef and numerous kid-friendly fare. With plans to evolve the private-brand line into the largest assortment of organics in the Lone Star State, H-E-B is prominently publicizing the line’s anti-GMO and “free-from” attributes, which it backs up with brand promises for each of the included categories.

“As the No. 1 food provider in Texas, it is H-E-B’s goal to give our customers the best food choices at the lowest possible prices, and that includes organics,” explains Martin Otto, the San Antonio-based retailer’s chief merchant, who notes that while demand has steadily risen, “many organics remain out of reach for customers on a budget.”

Not to be outdone by its top Texas rival, Walmart also recently entered the organic derby in a big way, with a 100-plus line of organic foods across a range of categories under the familiar Wild Oats brand. Touting its new alliance with Wild Oats Marketing LLC — formed by The Yucaipa Cos. in December 2011 to revive the brand originating from the former natural and organic food chain that was ultimately acquired by Whole Foods Market — as integral to efforts to wield its procurement clout and pass along “scalable savings,” the mega-retailer promises, through its new offering, to prime an equal-opportunity organic pipeline that will offer savings in excess of 40 percent.

While it remains to be seen whether the retail giant’s organic motives are purely economical, as part of its larger quest to recapture its once untouchable grocery dominance, or instead aimed at further fueling its evolving business model, Walmart’s other formidable foe, Target Corp., is also making waves with its Made to Matter line of sustainable products.

Minneapolis-based Target’s latest signature product/partner alliance, which will feature up to 120 new and limited-time exclusive products, is headlined by 17 leading better-for-you brands, among them Chobani, Burt’s Bees, Annie’s Homegrown, Clif Bar, Horizon Organic, Kashi and Plum Organics. The “collection” will include all existing items currently offered at Target by the participating brands, plus at least one exclusive item in-store from each (select products will also be available on Target.com and its mobile app). More “handpicked” products will be added to the line for rollout throughout spring and summer, with the full collection ripe by September 2014.

Looking back on the ecological strides the industry has made in the past four decades — and forward to what the next four decades might bring — the road ahead is bound to present a new set of growing pains, particularly in relation to how organic production will keep up with significantly higher mainstream demand. In the interim, with growing numbers of consumers identifying ingredient transparency as an increasingly important consideration in purchase decisions, it’s also clear that organics are just one piece of a larger puzzle that grocers will eventually be required to assemble. PG

The road ahead is bound to present a new set of growing pains, particularly in relation to how organic production will keep up with significantly higher mainstream demand.

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