Retailer of the Year New Seasons Market ushers in a new era of natural products retail stores.

“I ordered it online from a store based in Bangladesh.” Twenty years ago, such a statement would never have been heard, but today, the retail world is a very different place. Technological advances, the Internet, regulatory changes, globalism and environmentalism are all at the forefront of what it means to run a retail store today. Adapting to this new world can be a challenge for natural products retailers, especially when it comes to convenience versus quality. But one business has been a shining example of stepping up to the challenge.

New Seasons Market, based in Portland, OR, has evolved over the past 10 years to embrace this new era to create an increasingly successful business, while maintaining its core principles. Embracing new ideas (and improving upon old standards) about product offerings, customer service, community involvement and sustainability has helped this chain of stores grow. In 1999, three families and a group of friends decided they wanted to open a store founded on the principles of giving back and sustainability. Now, with this philosophy still the priority of its business model, New Seasons has grown to a total of nine stores in only 10 years with a staff coming close to 1,700 people, and more on the way.

Breaking Boundaries

While natural products stores and conventional shops once drew an imaginary line in the retail sand, today’s consumer has all but eliminated this dichotomy. Natural products retailers once held an exclusive band of shoppers, but things aren’t so black and white anymore. According to WholeFoods merchandising editor Jay Jacobowitz, the new “integrated” shopper is one who may pick and choose their natural/organic offerings, while still utilizing some conventional products. To not acknowledge this demographic would be a business blunder—one that New Seasons Market has certainly avoided. The store offers conventional foods right alongside natural foods, catering to the most die-hard natural and organic foodies, as well as conventional consumers tentatively exploring natural products.
new seasons customers
Lisa Sedlar, president and COO of the store, says, “Our intent is to be a neighborhood market that draws people from the communities around each store, and we want to make sure we have the products that the people in the community want us to carry. Our customers all have different priorities when it comes to their food choices, and they don’t need us deciding what’s right for them—we aren’t the food police. It’s important to us to offer a choice, and let our customers vote with their dollars for the products they prefer to see on our shelves.”

Because of its wide variety of customers, New Seasons offers outstanding education programs. “We try to offer a wide variety of classes, so I think it’s fair to say there’s something for everyone,” says Sedlar. “We offer classes specific to men’s and women’s health, special diets, physical and mental health, new parents, shoppers on a budget…and they’re all free of charge, because we want them to be accessible.” Recent classes include “Reversing Diabetes: Eating for Balanced Blood Sugar,” “Effects of the Environment and Chemicals on Women’s Hormones” and “Anti-Aging Diet.”

Local doctors, nutritionists and other experts in their fields, including the New Seasons Market nutritionists, teach wellness classes for customers and the public. The nutritionists regularly conduct store tours, offer customers information on special diets (including gluten-free), and on locating appropriate products and meal planning. They also participate in a lot of community outreach, giving classes for local nonprofits and wellness fairs.

Another unique aspect of New Seasons is its in-store cooking school at the Happy Valley location. For a modest fee, people can take classes ranging from wine and cheese pairings to cooking a delicious international feast! Many classes also focus on creating dishes based on vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets. If customers can’t make it into the store, tips, recipe flyers and how-to videos can be found online at For those craving just a little nibble, every store also regularly offers food samples and tastings.

Lending a Local Hand

One of the wonderful aspects of the natural products industry is the underlying belief that giving back is a priority. New Seasons Market has been a champion in the areas of supporting local agriculture, environmentalism and community outreach, priding itself on a foundation based on sustainability and local support.

A Round of Applause

The New Season’s 2010 Sustainability Report offers a glimpse of some of the outstanding ways the company has given back to the community and the planet:
• 605 nonprofits received donations from New Seasons in 2009.
• $76,361 was raised through Benefit BBQs in 2009, an
increase of 30% over 2008.
• $1,275,650 was donated by New Seasons Market in support of local schools over the past decade.
• $1,141,154 has been
donated to Loaves & Fishes by customers since the first store opened.
• New Seasons Market received an “Innovation in Philanthropy Award” in 2009
from the Portland  Business Journal.
• 1,694,291 lbs of CO2 were avoided by purchasing wind power in 2009.
• 5,169,390 lbs of composted food waste was diverted from the landfill this year, while 1,507,135 lbs of plastics were recycled in 2009.
• One million gallons of rain water cycle through the Seven Corners Store bioswale each year.
• In 2009, the company sold 1,152,661 lbs of apples that were purchased from 25 local growers. That’s about 2,305,322 apples!

Staying local. The company highlights products that come from its “Home Grown” region, which encompasses Oregon, Washington and Northern California, through signage, shelf tags and its private label line. The company believes the store brand, called Pacific Village, will “help strengthen Pacific Northwest family farms while encouraging more sustainable agricultural practices.” As of now, the Pacific Village line includes entirely Home Grown organic butter, organic milk, natural pork, free-range chicken, natural beef and organic buffalo. Home Grown products are easily found on the shelf with convenient yellow tags.

Sedlar says, “By choosing to support farmers, ranchers and manufacturers from the Pacific Northwest, we’re not only keeping the money from those purchases circulating in our own economy, but the food travels fewer miles and is fresher, and fresher means better tasting.”

But the company’s efforts don’t end there. The Pacific Village grants, which are given primarily to local farmers markets in an effort to support small family farms in the area, are funded through the purchase of Pacific Village products. As more products are added to the Pacific Village line, the company hopes to add more money to the fund and expand its support of neighborhood farmers markets, says Sedlar.

Beyond supporting local farmers, there is the inspirational hope that individual customers and families will become more connected to and appreciative of their food. Sedlar says, “We hope to help our customers make the connection between choosing local products and their own livelihoods: When you choose a bunch of spinach that’s grown on the farm next door to where your grandmother grew up, or you buy ground beef that was raised on the ranch that you drive past on your way to the mountains, you’re supporting the folks who rely on the same community network that you do, and you’re helping them take care of their own families.”

For its efforts, New Seasons won the 2010 BEST Award in Sustainable Food Systems from The City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. These awards are given annually to businesses demonstrating extraordinary commitment to supporting social, environmental and economic sustainability in the local agriculture and food isupporting local growersndustry.

As the store has grown, so has its ability to make an impact. Sedlar says, “We’ve been able to build greener stores to begin with, and we’ve retrofitted our older stores with more energy-efficient fixtures. We’ve also been able to pioneer a large-scale composting program in all of our stores, something that local waste haulers wouldn’t have considered to be worth their time on a smaller scale.” Smaller stores shouldn’t give up on giving back. Volunteering in any way is always a low-cost option, and often, the community surrounding a natural products retail store will be the first to step up if an event were to be organized.

Community. New Seasons recognizes the importance of community and does an astounding job of reaching out to support it. The company gives 10% of its after-tax profits to local non-profit organizations and is constantly thinking of the next great fundraiser or outreach program. For example, despite a rainy day (although quite customary in the Portland area), the company’s most recent Benefit BBQ on May 22–23 raised $8,700 for local Habitat for Humanity affiliates. Over the last decade, an astonishing $1,275,650 was donated by New Seasons Market in support of local schools. For more of the company’s most recent accomplishments, see the sidebar, “A Round of Applause” on page 25.

A Labor of Love

New Seasons EmployeeAs every business-savvy person knows, a store is only as good as the people working in it, and New Seasons is no exception. The work–life balance is always a concern in today’s business world and New Seasons makes sure its employees are healthy and smiling. Sedlar says, “Our employees are our biggest asset, and making sure that they’re happy is the key to a successful business.”

Sedlar provides the following pointers on filling a store with optimal staff for a successful business:

 Hiring the best (for you). It may not always be productive to hire a grocery guru. Product information can always be taught, but understanding the core principles of a company’s mission may be more crucial. New Seasons looks for people who really “get it” when it comes to customer service, and who understand the New Seasons Market philosophies. “We want people who are passionate and intuitive about great service, sustainability and good food,” says Sedlar.

Try not to stifle your employees’ individuality too much either. “I think our staff members are the most unique thing about New Seasons Market—because we let them be unique. We don’t have a bunch of stupid rules or a giant policy guidebook. We have an incredibly diverse and talented group of folks who work together to make sure each of our customers leaves our store having had the best possible experience.” Allow employees’ strengths to shine and your store will soon be full of enthusiastic go-getters, ready to create a distinctive store.

Be all ears. Having open communication is key for a successful employer–employee relationship. Sedlar says, “One of our main messages to our staff is, ‘Speak up’ and we mean it. We get tons of great ideas from our staff in the stores, and we really pay attention and respond when they have feedback to share.” In turn, keeping staff aware of company happenings is extremely important. “We speak frankly and share information very transparently with our staff about the state of our company. The result of being so open is that our staff feels really invested in our collective success.”

In addition to healthy dialogue, the store places a strong emphasis on keeping everyone healthy through food safety, having just hired a full-time food safety coordinator. The stores also are audited by an independent third party for safety.

Sharing is caring. The store provides a generous staff discount, and gives 20% of its after-tax profits back to staff in the form of a flat and equitable profit sharing program. In addition, New Seasons offers New Seasons Employeesaffordable healthcare to all staff who work at least one shift a week, as well as covering dependents and spouses/domestic partners. Before looking for outside hires, the company prefers to promote from within the company. According to Sedlar, the company has a low turnover rate relative to the industry—90% of the people who work at New Seasons Market have been there for more than a year.

Sedlar affirms, “There’s a real sense of family throughout all of our stores.”

Making Online Shine

While many retailers may be hesitant to enter their retail enterprise into the digital world, New Seasons is an example of how successful it can be. It can’t be ignored that the Internet can be an integral part of business success. New Seasons boasts an expansive Web site that includes information about upcoming community events, classes, job openings, nutritional information, weekly specials and more.

According to Sedlar, “We love to educate our customers, and they’re full of great questions.” Being open to customer questions and concerns through a digital interface is a great way to boost store loyalty and earn new customers via the online grapevine. New Seasons is so invested in this principle that it has two full-time customer advocates who are responsible for responding to every customer comment card and email.

Online ordering.
To address today’s consumer’s desire for convenience, the store has Web-based deli system, where customers can order soups, salads, farm plate specials, beverages, desserts and create their own sandwiches and then pick up their orders in 20 minutes at their store of choice. Sedlar says, “We introduced our online shopping program in 2006, and our customers love it! Our online ordering system allows for a lot of customization within each order, so our online customers get the same great service that they’d receive in the store.”

20th Anniversary of the Retailer of the Year Award
This year, as we celebrate New Seasons Market’s accomplishments, we are also celebrating the 20th anniversary of honoring the industry’s most notable retailers. Congratulations to all past winners of the Retailer of the Year Award. We’d love to hear from past winners and retailers nationwide—tell us what’s on your mind! Click here to share your thoughts and to see how these businesses have fared over the years.
* What does it mean to be a successful retailer?
* For former winners, what has changed about your business since the time you won the award?
* How have technological advances changed your store?
* How do you envision the natural products industry evolving within the next 5–10 years? What might be the next “hot” thing?
* Are you involved in any legislative efforts that affect your business and the industry as a whole?

As far as starting such a program, Sedlar says, “I wouldn’t say that it was an easy program to implement, but I think that our customers were mostly unaware of the challenges that we faced on our end and their feedback helped us make it better.“

Social media.
The social media craze that has swept through the nation is finding its place in the natural products retail environment. Retailers shouldn’t be afraid to embrace this new technology, as it can be a real boon to business. With a Facebook page that is well over 8,000 fans, New Seasons is proof that an online community can add a lot to a store. Sedlar confirms, “We’ve found social media to be a great platform for talking with our customers. Information spreads like wildfire through these channels and it’s great to have the opportunity to address any questions about our stores, real-time. We think it’s essential to have a dialog with our customers and to respond quickly to anything that needs attention.”

The company also has a strong presence in the blogosphere, with many company members regularly expressing themselves in their own blogs.

Regardless of which media platform, what is comes down to, says Sedlar, is, “We have a lot to say!”

Looking Forward

The company just celebrated its 10th anniversary in February, with tons of giveaways, special events and discounts. In honor of its years of success, the company raffled off thousands of doNew Seasons Marketllars worth of gift cards and products, a bunch of snowboards, and one lucky customer even won a Smart Car.

Now, as the company looks toward the next decade, it is finishing construction on its 10th  store in Hawthorne, OR, offering about 140 jobs, and will soon begin on its 11th  in the Progress Ridge area of Beaverton, OR, which has the potential to create 200 jobs in the area.

According to Sedlar, “We’re looking forward to continued growth within the Portland area, while sustaining the values that have gotten us this far.” WF


Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2010