Originally printed in the April 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Pacific Northwest Store Showcases Produce On Arrival.
Colorful arrays of produce greet shoppers entering the produce department at the Ralph’s Thriftway in Olympia, WA. On one side of the produce department is a large display of organic Fuji apples, along with wooden carts holding Cosmic Crisp apples. A big display of avocados placed next to bright orange mandarins emits their colors on the opposite side.
The wide use of color breaks is characteristic of the pride Ralph’s Thriftway and its sister store, Bayview Thriftway, take in merchandising fresh produce. “Produce is a pivotal thing with us,” says Nathen Conat, who manages both stores. “We are doing a lot more fresh than before. People want freshness. It’s not always about having something super-cheap. It’s about having the best.”
Every other week, the stores refresh entrances and use the critical zone to promote fresh fruit. Changing things up and giving different looks to the stores’ entryways prevents shoppers from walking by and overlooking displays they’ve become accustomed to, says Conat. “My goal is to always look fresh and be ready to go every day and have the best quality product out there for our customers,” he says.
While many competitors receive produce weekly, product is shipped to the Thriftway stores six times, sometimes seven times a week. “We may be a little more expensive, but our produce is always fresher,” says Conat. “Our produce lasts longer in shoppers’ fridges.”
FAMILY BUSINESS SINCE 1944
While a teen in the 1920s, Ralph Stormans began working in the grocery industry at Piggly Wiggly stores. In 1944, he opened Ralph’s Food Center across the street from the Safeway he managed in Olympia. Over the years, the original store morphed into different remodels and name changes. In 1952, the site housing the Bayview Thriftway store, in Olympia’s downtown, was acquired. In 1992, it was remodeled and expanded. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Stormans opened other stores, which were closed or sold.
Ralph Stormans, who died in 2003 at 94 years of age, worked with his son Ken Stormans, who is retired. Today, Ken Stormans’ children run the business. Kevin Stormans is president, while Greg Stormans and Charelle Foege are vice presidents. Like themselves, their children, the fourth generation, have all worked at the stores.
Ralph’s is between 4th Avenue and State Street, two of Olympia’s major thoroughfares, inside the city’s Eastside neighborhood. Bayview is next to a yacht club on Budd Inlet, a part of Puget Sound. Ralph’s demographic is mostly middle class, while Bayview leans a little more toward upper class.
Competitors, including Safeway and Fred Meyer, are a couple of miles from Ralph’s. With new construction, Olympia’s downtown is experiencing revitalization, which should affect the demographics of both stores, says Conat. “This area will be more big-city living,” he says. “People who live in the city won’t have to drive three miles to shop somewhere when there’s a store next door.”
Manager specials promote high volume items like avocados. Signs navigate customers to the price-driven specials. Ad circulars, written by Northwest Grocers in Tukwila, WA, are distributed in the stores. Reader boards promote hot deals and organic items the stores are testing.
By design, displays aren’t large. The stores prefer to merchandise smaller amounts of produce in colorful bowls and trays on tables. The smaller playing field improves rotation and allows better quality control and freshness.
Ralph’s sells in a 38,000 square foot store, while Bayview is 26,000 square feet. Each carry about 1,000 stock-keeping units of produce. Major wholesale suppliers are Charlie’s Produce in Seattle and United Salad Co., in Portland, OR.
Fortified by large displays of organic vegetables, salads and fruit, the organics category constitutes about 40% of the produce departments’ sales and increases every year.
During the winter, Ralph’s and Bayview work with three local growers. Less than two miles away, Ellis Creek Farm supplies greenhouse microgreens and salad mixes. Two other mushroom suppliers send conventional and specialty mushrooms.
During the late spring start of Pacific Northwest production, Kirsop Farm, in Rochester, WA, brings organic kale, chard, bunched beets and bunched carrots. Martin Family Orchards, Orondo, WA, supplies Bing Rainier cherries as well as peaches, nectarines, apricots, Anjou and Bartlett pears and a wide variety of apples.
“Local is huge,” says Conat. “We love that we can sell produce right out of our backyards.”
When designing display tables, the stores don’t want monochromatic colors, says Conat. “You really want to visually grab ahold of a shopper,” he says. “Color is huge.”
A pear display may sit adjacent to heirloom organic citrus, while bright red tomatoes mingle with dark green avocados. “It is really important to have those breaks and not have the same colors next to each other, which may lead to blandness,” says Conat. The beauty of colorful displays stops shoppers in their tracks and prompts them to purchase the produce, he says.
SHAKING UP THE AISLES
Shaking up the produce department is vital. To prevent shoppers from becoming complacent from always finding their produce in the same spots, Ralph’s and Bayview relocate items every year or so. “We like to change things and give our produce departments a different look,” says Conat. “It gets people to think where are these items, and it allows them to find some different things they didn’t see in that spot last week.” The relocations also allow produce workers to better engage with customers.
Forward customer service is also good for business. The stores’ workers go out of their way to provide customers a friendly shopping environment. When a shopper cannot find an item, employees don’t only point to the aisle. They walk them to the item. As when Ralph Stormans ran his stores, customers are greeted upon entering.
Stormans remained dedicated to his store and customers. Even at 80 years of age, he would visit his stores and refresh the milk display. “His dedication to the store and his love of the community were just amazing,” says Conat.
Department cooperation is indispensable to the Thriftway stores’ success. “We have a different philosophy from others,” says Conat. “We don’t think of only ‘my’ department. We are involved in the whole store and consider how what we do in our departments will make the entire store better.”
The departments piggyback on successful product sales by cross merchandising in other store areas. “You want every department to be successful,” says Conat. “It’s a team effort, not ‘my department doesn’t care what you are doing.’ Each department is a small business inside a larger business. We want the meat and deli departments to survive as much as we want my department to thrive. When all do well, it’s good for business.”
1908 East 4th Ave., Olympia, WA 98506
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