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Upscale grocers get ready for Whole Foods debut

By   /   Monday, September 28th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Upscale grocers get ready for Whole Foods debut

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You can come out now, Santa Barbara. There isn’t going to be a food fight.

At least that’s what John Jurey, manager of the incoming Whole Foods grocery store, says.

When Whole Foods announced that it would open a Santa Barbara store in fall 2009, the city braced itself for an Old West-style showdown between the giant natural foods retailer and the longtime local specialty stores.

“I’m thinking about the opening, not worrying about them,” Jurey said, referring to the slew of existing area markets – Lazy Acres, Lassen’s, Trader Joe’s, Gelson’s. “We’re a little bit ahead of schedule and moving handsomely along.”

Jurey, who opens his store to the public on Oct. 7, said scoping out his competitors is just part of the job.

“It’s capitalism. Competition is healthy,” he said. “These [other stores] have been here a while, and we’re not hatching a plan to steal their customers or anything. We’re just pricing competitively.”

Lassen’s, which has been in the area for almost 40 years, doesn’t seem too worried. General manager Brian Evans said the family-owned grocer has a solid customer base.

Aaron Young, operations manager at the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market Association, said he thinks there’s room for Whole Foods to find its own niche among the area’s natural and fresh food grocers.

“It’s hard to say how it will pan out, but I don’t think Whole Foods will hurt the [farmers] market,” he said. “People are still concerned about where their food comes from, and Whole Foods might actually bring more attention to what’s in the produce aisle.”

A spokesperson for Gelson’s Market said the store is celebrating its 10-year anniversary on Oct. 4. Customers in line at Gelson’s seemed unaware of the upcoming milestone, chatting instead about Whole Foods.

“I can’t wait to check it out,” said Erica Smith, a student at Santa Barbara City College. “If I like it I might go there all the time. If I don’t, then I’ll be back in this [checkout] line.”

Whole Foods Marketing Supervisor Rae van Seenus is counting on students like Smith. Since there is a significant college-age population in the area, van Seenus has been promoting the store on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“We have a lot built up around the brand name,” van Seenus said. “And we’ve got a newsletter, promotions, events, partnerships … whatever we can do to keep the name out there and remind people that we have high-quality products.”

The challenge, van Seenus said, is communicating to the customer that high-quality doesn’t necessarily equate to high prices. She is working hard to make sure people will never refer to Whole Foods as Whole Paycheck after ringing up their groceries.

“People do have this misconception that we’re too expensive or too upscale,” she said. “We actually cater to a wide range; there are things for everybody here.”

The Whole Deal program helps customers stretch their food dollar with special deals, product coupons and shopping tips. Whole Foods spokesman Keith Creighton said the store’s prices on similar items are very competitive.

“The trick is to compare organic apples to apples,” he said. “Shoppers will find with our private label products that we often offer lower prices for comparable organic products, and in some cases our private label prices rival similar non-organic products.”

Shortly after the store’s opening, van Seenus will be conducting price shopping tours, where she guides customers up and down the aisles and points out bargain buys and local vendors.

Jurey said all of the store’s produce in the store will be grown locally and he even used area suppliers to stock the rest of the store’s shelves. When the Business Times checked in on him a few months ago, he was scouring the Tri-Counties for everything from local wines and olive oil to regional produce and cut flowers.

“If it’s available right here, there’s no reason to ship it in,” Jurey said. “We want to do things locally. We’re a community-oriented store.”

To prove it, Jurey is making it a priority to get Whole Foods involved in the community. Van Seenus already has “a giant list” of area nonprofits the grocery store wants to partner with, the first of which is The Santa Barbara County Park Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that “supports and enhances our county’s heritage of parks and open spaces.”

On Oct. 14, Whole Foods will donate 5 percent of the day’s sales to the Park Foundation.

Editor’s note: The new Whole Foods store in Santa Barbara will be located at 3761 State St.

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