Taking root

Organic food is still seen as upmarket and expensive. However, a new store opening in west London this weekend aims to challenge the perception

Troy Smith and Michelle Jensen-Smith are entering an increasingly crowded marketplace. Not only are the conventional supermarkets continuing to up their organic ranges, but the natural food stores are fast becoming chains in their own right. This gives the pair the disadvantage of not being the real pioneers of the modern natural food store – this honour must go to Planet Organic – but has the bonus of allowing them to push the boundaries in an already defined marketplace.

So while their direct competitors go under the self-evident names of London-based Fresh & Wild, As Nature Intended, Greenways Natural Food Stores and, of course, Planet Organic, Smith and Jensen-Smith are truly breaking the organic health chain mould.

Their store, in Chelsea Farmers’ Market, London, which gets its soft opening on 16 September, goes by the name of Here, with the strapline “You know where we’re coming from”. It wasn’t always this way. Until Williams Murray Hamm got involved, the working title was The Organic Warehouse, and in retrospect Jensen-Smith and Smith agree that they could have got lost in the crowd.

But a crowded marketplace is not the only issue facing a new organic retailer. The recent comments from the Food Standards Agency that organic food is not necessarily any healthier than its conventional counterparts flies in the face of these alternative stores’ raison d’être.

So what’s the incentive for an American and a Dane with a toddler living in west London to put their own money into an organic retail venture? “We believe in organic foods and have been in the natural food industry for many years,” says Smith. He has set up retail companies in the US and the UK, while Jensen-Smith has worked in the industry in Denmark and also in the UK, including working for Fresh & Wild on its merchandising.

Smith has also had some worthwhile experience of the competition. He was headhunted in 1995 to set up the first Planet Organic, and was a director of the company until 1999, when he left after the founders fell out. It was around this time, when Planet Organic got new investors, that WMH was dropped from reviewing its brand, to be replaced by Pocknell Studio.

Here’s two founders insist that the store is going to be different, “much more cutting edge”, and not just in its image. For starters, it will offer a certified, full organic range only. This may seem obvious, but some of its competitors’ ranges are not entirely organic. They are doing this in order to create an offer which is “higher in environmental worthiness and quality”, according to Smith. “It’s about re-installing the trust with consumers,” Jensen-Smith adds, something which she feels conventional supermarkets have lost.

And they will always try to source new products. This means scouring the country for small, new or lesser known farmers and producers. “We’re about supporting the UK and UK suppliers,” says Smith, and their experience so far is that smaller suppliers often offer better quality.

Another differentiator will be the prices, which will be between organic ranges in supermarkets and traditional natural food stores. “We want to push the prices down,” says Jensen-Smith. And like their peers, these two appreciate the role supermarkets are playing in broadening the appeal of organic produce. “It’s good that supermarkets are making organic [produce] affordable,” says Jensen-Smith.

The process of setting up Here started for Smith two years ago when he left Planet Organic. As well as being self-funded, Here has private backing from people who are interested in organic foods, including the ecologist Zac Goldsmith, who will officially open the first store.

In the early days, Marketplace Design worked on the retail Organic Warehouse retail concept, but neither Smith nor Jensen-Smith were happy with the direction and that’s when they started talking to WMH. After a big lunch – organic, of course – the consultancy came up with the Here brand that afternoon. “We can’t state enough how WMH has made it all come together for us,” says Jensen-Smith. Although it will be a modern environment, the price point means Here won’t have an upmarket deli feel. So the design has been deliberately played down. “We don’t want the design to take away from the food. Most people want a place with an ambience to it and a specific style, without being Bohemian,” says Jensen-Smith, “We are trying to marry a traditional natural food concept to a modern world.”

Hence the warehousey look of the interiors, and elements such as the gravity feed bins, from which customers will be able to buy in bulk and more cheaply. Lumsden Design Partnership had a small involvement in the Chelsea store and is working up concepts to be rolled out elsewhere. The layout will be similar to a traditional supermarket, starting with the fruit and vegetable display, but, says Callum Lumsden, “The design won’t be anything like a supermarket.”

“We will sell everything,” says Smith, from meat and dairy products to body- and hair-care. Jensen-Smith is planning a baby department, stocking foods, care products and merchandise such as shoes and toys.

Initially, there will be 3000-5000 lines, with own-brand wines and oils. The own-brand lines are likely to increase to as much as 10 per cent of all merchandise. Without revealing specific sales projections for Chelsea Farmers’ Market, Smith and Jensen-Smith expect basic customer spend to be £12-£18 – similar to that of an average supermarket.

And the store will be staffed by informed assistants who take an active interest in Here’s philosophy. Jensen-Smith is a firm believer in staff training. She plans to send staff out regularly to suppliers, farmers and growers to work with them, perhaps in the field. “To keep someone going and give them an interesting job it’s important to have them more involved. I really feel it’s important to follow this through,” she says. And Here’s holistic approach to retail Smith adds, “We are very much about the experience of shopping.”

But the store and its own-label products are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where they want to take the brand. Smith won’t be drawn on their plans, only saying “We want to do lots of things with the brand – it’s a communication piece.” These things will obviously be based around environmental issues, and could include clothing ranges or cafés.

In the meantime, there is a website (www.herestores.com) with information on Here’s products, and a home delivery service will follow hot on the heels of the first store’s opening.

And the pair are already searching out the next sites, steering clear of areas which are already served by natural food supermarkets. Chelsea was a good place to start, says Jensen-Smith, as it is affluent and people are more savvy about organic issues.

They are currently looking at a couple of other sites in London, and plan to open another two stores within 18 months, building it up to perhaps nine over the next three to five years. The couple sees London as the best place to be for organic retailing at the moment. “It’s a growing industry here,” says Smith. Jensen-Smith contrasts it to what is happening in Denmark, where conventional supermarkets already carry vast organic ranges.

Stores outside the capital will be considered in two or three years’ time. They mention Bath, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Brighton and Bristol as possible destinations. “We will roll out as many as there is customer support for,” says Smith. The next stores will be bigger – the Chelsea Farmers’ Market site is only 278m2. They will have a juice bar and a takeaway food offer.

In the long term, and if the brand proves to be as strong as they hope, their sights are set even further afield. “We have not ruled out Europe. I think the brand can carry itself throughout Europe,” says Smith.

So expectations for the brand are running high, articulated by Smith and Jensen-Smith’s prophecy: Here will do for organic groceries what Camper did for shoes.

Soil Association

Organic facts and figures (August 2000)

In 1999/ 2000 the projected figure for organic food sales in the UK was £546m. Total household food and drink sales for 1999 was £54bn, so organic food accounts for approximately 1 per cent of all food sales. Total organic sales are expected to reach £1070m by 2001/ 2002. Consumer demand for organic food has risen for the past two years at 40 per cent: in 1996/ 97 the total retail value of organic food sales in the UK was £200m, in 1998/ 99 it was £390 million.

The majority of consumers – 74 per cent – buy their organic products at the supermarket; 17 per cent buy from independent retailers and healthfood shops and 9 per cent from farmgate/ box schemes/ market stalls.

77 per cent of the British public do not want genetically engineered crops grown in the UK and 61 per cent of the British public do not want to consume genetically modified organisms.

Consumers and Organic Food

In May 1999 the average weekly expenditure on organic food was £12.66. By May this year the figure had risen to £20.77. Between May 1999 and May 2000 the percentage of households buying organic lines had risen from 43 per cent to 57 per cent.

References

MAFF Press Office. March 2000

The Organic Food and Farming Report 1999. Soil Association Publications

MORI’s Public Attitudes to Organic Food, June 1999. Soil Association

MORI June 1998, Genewatch

The Design

Branding by Williams Murray Hamm

Interiors by Lumsden Design Partnership

‘Our starting point was to create something that was different [in that sector],’ says Garrick Hamm. ‘The organic market is full of logos featuring wheat sheafs or potato prints. But organic food is about honesty and truth, and trusting where the food comes from. The days of organic food being about chestnut bakes are over.’

Once that had been articulated, WMH decided to stop there, and came up with the hand-drawn name, Here, the arrow, and the strapline, You know where we’re coming from. ‘We’re not going to dress it up. It’s all about fact,’ says Hamm. He commissioned photographer Pete Seaward to take pictures of the farms which supplied Here. ‘We took shots that weren’t over-stylised and scrawled the brand name over the top. My idea came from a holiday postcard,’ says Hamm. These landscapes are being used as in-store graphics, leaflets, own-brand packaging and on vehicle livery for the home delivery service.

WMH deliberately avoided the word ‘organic’ in the name. ‘It’s a simple concept that works across all the stationery, “from here” and “to here”.’ The consultancy has come up with a host of applications which pun on the name. For example, a postcard to launch the store will go out, reading ‘Wish you were here’, and the website, whose home page WMH designed, reads, ‘click here’.

The store front features a huge blue neon Here sign, which is back-lit at night. ‘We wanted to do something quite American, almost Californian, and a bit warehousey,’ says Hamm. This continues on to the carrier bags, some of which list the names of Here’s suppliers.

Lumsden Design Partnership only had a small involvement in the Chelsea store, but is working up concepts to roll out at other sites. Lumsden describes the principle of the store interiors as ‘the antithesis of everything to do with health food shops’. There is nothing hippy about it, he says, but rather it is an organic product for the 21st century.

‘The look of the interiors will be about abundance of product, not about shopfitting. There will be carefully constructed mountains of products,’ he says. The approach to product display is market style rather than compartmentalisation, he adds. n

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