By Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the grocery industry, competition is the name of the game.
Groceries are no longer found only in the grocery store. You can find them at big box stores, convenience stores, club stores, traditional grocery stores, natural foods stores, discount stores, online retailers and more. It’s an extremely crowded market, and with a finite number of eaters, the competition is stiff.
The grocery business is a very low-profit endeavour (typically about one-to-three percent of sales). Typically, grocers rely on selling large volumes in order to be profitable. With the current proliferation of food stores, it’s getting tougher and tougher to out-compete other retailers to reach these volumes. As you might expect, tougher competition leads to lower prices.
Lower prices force retailers to find other ways to make their 1% profit. Each business approaches this a little differently, but increasingly their strategies involve some hardship to their vendors—grocers strive for greater efficiency by cutting out small or inexperienced vendors, they pay vendors less, and sometimes even charge vendors fees simply for stocking their product.
At Willy Street Co-op, we put a great deal of our focus on making sure that the prices we offer are competitive. Will we ever be the cheapest place to shop in the Madison area? Probably not, but we make sure that our prices are in-line with other retailers of our size.
Unlike other grocers however, staying competitive is not the end of our work—in some ways, it’s simply a thing we do in order to be able to do the more important work of building and supporting a strong local and organic food system.
That’s where our Retail Ready Lab comes in.
WHAT IS THE RETAIL READY LAB?
The Retail Ready Lab began when we noticed that we were saying “no” to many more small local vendors that we wanted to. There were a variety of reasons for this—sometimes the price that the vendor needed to make their business work was more than what our customers would be willing to pay, sometimes we simply did not have the shelf space in our small stores to devote to a given product, and sometimes the vendors were so new and unfamiliar with the requirements of selling their product to a retailer that we weren’t able to begin working with them.
With fewer grocers willing to take a chance on these startup vendors, many of them simply didn’t have anywhere else to go to get their business off the ground. We felt a need to figure out a way to say “yes” to more of them, and so the Retail Ready Lab was born.
The Retail Ready Lab is an incubator program for small local vendors who are bringing a product to the retail market for the first time. Vendors apply for a monthly rotating slot. Before their month begins, our Purchasing team works with them to get their product as ready as it can be for primetime—from helping with packaging design, acquiring a UPC, to advising what legally needs to be printed on a package, and what kinds of permits are needed.
During their month, Retail Ready Lab vendors’ products are displayed at all three Willy Street Co-op locations. The vendors come in and sample their products, and customers and staff are given the opportunity to give written feedback in order to help perfect it even farther.
After the month is over, we look at sales data and at the feedback we’ve received, and make a decision about carrying the product in our regular offerings.
I’ve presented at several conferences about our Retail Ready Lab program, and every time I explain the concept to other people in the grocery world, the first response is, “You do all that for free? Why don’t you charge vendors for this?” The answer is simple. Yes, of course we do it for free. Our ability and willingness to disengage from the cut-throat game of grocery competition to do this kind of work without looking for our own economic gain is intricately tied to our mission statement—it truly is why we exist.
We launched the Retail Ready Lab a year ago this month. So far 20 vendors have gone through the program. All together, Co-op customers have spent over $30,000 to support them, and 12 have “graduated” into regular Co-op vendors.
Here are just a few of the Retail Ready Lab graduates that you can find on our shelves. I hope you take a minute to visit the Retail Ready Lab in any of our stores in the next few months!
TRULI JULI BISCOTTI
Juli Karpus started Truli Juli Biscotti in 2013 in the Chicago area, after an 18 year career in clinical pathology administration. She and her husband moved to Madison in 2015, and she essentially started over again, selling her biscotti at the Hilldale Farmers’ Market.
In 2017, Juli was ready to take her business the next step, and was featured on our Retail Ready Lab in October. You can find Juli’s delicious biscotti in flavors such as Lemon Poppy Seed, Cranberry Pistachio, and Classic Almond near the Juice Bars at Willy West and East.
JULI’S ORGANIC APPLE BUTTER AND APPLE SAUCE
Juli (pronounced You-lee) McGuire is one of the farmers behind Two Onion Farm, a local organic vegetable farm and apple orchard in Belmont, Wisconsin. We sell Two Onions’ fresh apples in season in our Produce departments, but Juli struggled with finding an outlet for apples that were less than perfect. Apple butter and applesauce were the answer!
Juli’s delicious products were featured on the Retail Ready Lab in December. You can find her apple butter at Willy East and West, and the apple sauce at Willy West.
COCOABEAN AND CO
From a very young age, Alix Shabazz struggled to find bodycare products that work for her combination skin-type, and so she started making her own. This knack for making quality all-natural bodycare products eventually became Cocobean and Co. All of the profits from this Madison-based company go toward the building of a larger project to build Black Queer economic development.
We were intrigued with Alix’s mission, and once we tried her decadent body butters, we were sold! CocoaBean and Co. was featured on our Retail Ready Lab in March to rave review from customers. All of our locations are now carrying their body butters in two flavors—Vanilla Wafer and Lemon Pound Cake.
CULTIVATING THE COMMONS
When Clint Freund and Kass McKinnon first approached us with their idea for a local seed business, we weren’t quite sure it would work at our stores. Yes, we sell seeds, but they’re not exactly what we’re known for. Given our reticence, the Retail Ready Lab seemed like a great place to try out the concept.
Boy, were we wrong. These beautiful seeds sold really well and got all kinds of good feedback, in fact, Clint and Kass completely sold out of this year’s supply! Look for Cultivating the Commons seeds at all three of our stores next spring!
LITTLE FOOD COMPANY
As a mother of four and registered nurse, Amanda Santoro has had lots of experience making baby food. That experience, plus a love of healthy eating and nutritious foods sparked her dream of creating a different kind of baby food company.
Based in Appleton, Wisconsin, Little Food Company makes frozen, whole food baby food using the freshest local and organic ingredients, and flavorful grownup recipes like Pear Carrots Fig, and Apple Avocado Amaranth. Little Food Company was featured in our June Retail Ready Lab, and can now be found in the freezer sections at Willy West and North.