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Bellingham natural food stores ready to compete with Whole Foods

A look inside Whole Foods Market before grand opening in Bellingham

Susan Livingston, head of marketing for Whole Foods Market in the Pacific Northwest, talks about why Whole Foods chose to open a store in Bellingham and offers a look around the new store on Monday, May 9, in Bellingham, Wash. The Whole Foods stor
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Susan Livingston, head of marketing for Whole Foods Market in the Pacific Northwest, talks about why Whole Foods chose to open a store in Bellingham and offers a look around the new store on Monday, May 9, in Bellingham, Wash. The Whole Foods stor

The Wednesday, May 11, opening of a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods store is expected to initially hurt sales at the existing natural food businesses in the area, but they are ready for the increased competition.

Stores like the Community Food Co-op and Terra Organic & Natural Foods have known for more than a year about the arrival of Whole Foods at the Lakeway Center, which has its bread breaking ceremony at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday before opening its doors at 9 a.m.

Based on what’s happened to co-ops in other cities when Whole Foods arrives, Community Food Co-op General Manager Jim Ashby said he expects some of his customers will want to check out the new store for a while. The Bellingham co-op’s goal will be to win those customers back.

“We’ve been working hard to prepare for this,” Ashby said. “Our goal is staying true to our core philosophy of being a community-owned store with a big commitment to local products.”

For Stephen Trinkaus, who operates the Terra store in the Bellingham Public Market at 1530 Cornwall Ave., he’s ready to show customers the differences between his store and Whole Foods. He’s expecting to lose some market share in residential areas closer to Whole Foods, like Sudden Valley and Geneva, but hopes the products and services that differentiate Terra from Whole Foods will lead to sales growth.

“We try to have things no one else has,” Trinkaus said, adding that Terra’s parking, prices and the mellow, not rushed vibe in the store will continue to attract customers.

While Terra and the Community Food Co-op now face more competition, they do have something that could play in their favor: a growing Bellingham market. Sales in grocery and convenience stores in Bellingham have risen from $58.5 million in 2006 to $79.5 million in 2015. If the grocery store pie continues to grow, the opportunity to add customers while holding onto a loyal base becomes more likely.

You can’t beat Whole Foods at Whole Foods’ game, so we worked on being as different as possible

Stephen Trinkaus, owner Terra Organic & Natural Foods

But keeping that loyal base is becoming more challenging because other grocery stores also are devoting more floor space to organic and locally grown products. The increased number of choices is good news for the consumers; Trinkaus said on Terra Organic’s Facebook page that while it means more intense competition for his store, he hopes Whole Foods succeeds in Bellingham because they are major purveyors of organic products.

“If you’re up for shopping at Whole Foods, I harbor no ill-will or resentment. I know we are still on the same side of the struggle for a more sane and sustainable food system,” Trinkaus wrote in the Facebook post. “But at the same time I hope (and plea) that our community will continue to prioritize the businesses and organizations that built the local organic / sustainable / slow food movement.”

Ashby noted that residents tend to shop at more than one store, which is also a good opportunity for the smaller, local natural food stores. He said while they have a core group of customers that do 100 percent of their shopping at the Community Food Co-op, a majority shop at multiple stores depending on what they need and how close the store is to home.

With that in mind, Ashby said they continue to work toward giving customers “as few reasons to split up their shopping” as possible. This includes adding several things in the past year, such as the new bakery and coffee shop building across the street from the downtown location. Inside the downtown store, the co-op added a hot food and salad bar as well as additional seating upstairs.

This has led to more customers hanging out at the store longer. The hot food bar has generated a bigger lunch crowd, which is what they were hoping for, but also a bigger crowd in the evening. Despite dealing with a parking lot expansion project, last week’s sales were the biggest of 2016 for the downtown store, Ashby said.

Grocery graphic online

Next up for the downtown store at 1220 N. Forest St. is completing the parking lot expansion, which is expected to be completed around mid-July.

“We are very pleased and appreciative with how people have adjusted (with parking lot construction),” Ashby said, noting that Pearson Construction has done a great job working on the project and helping customers get in and out. “It has had less impact than we thought it would on sales.”

Terra Organic went through an expansion in late 2014 that resulted in a boost in sales: Trinkaus said 2015 sales were up 36.2 percent at the store compared to 2014, while the first quarter of 2016 was up around 5 percent compared to a year earlier. The expansion also led to a nearly 30 percent increase in the number of customers in the store, he said.

With the expansion Trinkaus focused on making sure it didn’t imitate Whole Foods, bringing in new products and having different businesses inside the market, including adding Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine in 2014 and Film is Truth last year.

“You can’t beat Whole Foods at Whole Foods’ game, so we worked on being as different as possible,” Trinkaus said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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