The organics sector has achieved a massive 75% growth over the last three years
Open less than a month, the Organic Supermarket™ in Blackrock, County Dublin, has already attracted considerable media attention. Previously a programming manager with Dell, Darren Grant abandoned his career and sank every penny into becoming the first completely organic retailer in Ireland. His 960 sq ft store is audited and licenced by the Organic Trust, should there be any doubt as to its credentials, and his mission is clearly spelled out on his (recycled paper) leaflets: “To become the leading retailer of organic and ethically traded products in Ireland, by providing groundbreaking customer service, unique wholesome products, employee pride and environmental respect.”
A tall order by anyone’s standards. It certainly seems like a big gamble, especially in this climate, although Darren’s enthusiasm is quite infectious. “I put a business plan together and approached the bank managers and, in hard economic times, managed to convince them that this is a huge growth market, that even in a recession people still have to eat, and to eat good, proper quality, Irish produce is a must.”
, bringing its value to €66 million. In spite of these impressive numbers, it’s a personal passion rather than profit that drives Darren. “I always tried to eat healthily and look for that alternative,” he says, and this generally meant looking for it at a farmers’ market. Therefore, the aim of The Organic Supermarket is twofold; to offer customers of the farmers’ market a place to find their local, seasonal, organic products during the week, and to support the producers and suppliers who provide these alternatives.
The business targets value in a niche market and captures value for the customer, retailer and its suppliers
As idealist and wholesome as this sounds, spectators should not be fooled by appearances, nor by the small beginnings of The Organic Supermarket. “I fully intend to grow. The next store will be 2,500 sq ft; I could stock it with product, I have 27 suppliers,” says Darren confidently. His business plan provides for three store openings within fives years, each store increasing in size.
I have my doubts. Even if consistency of supply can be assured, his is a business that seems likely to have a limited following, and surely a narrowly defined demographic?
“But I’m competitively priced,” says Darren in response to such doubts. “If you think of any convenience store you walk into for anything you want to buy, I am well competitively priced. I’m competitively priced on fruit and vegetables with major retailers at the moment. Organic food doesn’t have to be elitist, you can bring it to the masses.
“What I decided to do was go for volume. I think a lot of supermarkets try to make it elitist and they put 50% margin on to it, or even more. If you lower those margins down to a realistic, normal margin level for a retail store, people will come in and say wow, that chicken is only €16, when it’s €22 in the supermarket.”
A lot of thought has clearly been put into the store’s layout and design, and a short tour quickly acquaints visitors with its aims and aspirations. Out of a total of 1,500 organic products in stock, we begin with the fresh fruit and veg offering, which comes from Marc Michel Organic Life Farm in Kilpeddar, Co Wicklow (also stocked at Superquinn).
The Organic Supermarket stocks most of the things you would expect to find in any small supermarket, including 60 varieties of organic wine and all the usual staples from coffee and cereals to (eco-friendly) cosmetics and domestic cleaning products
I’m surprised to see that some of Darren’s organic produce is actually cheaper than non-organic veg I’ve seen in other supermarkets. “What I’m actually doing is cutting out any middle man and bringing in the product directly from a farm,” he explains. This arrangement allows him to pass value straight on to his customers, and transportation costs are limited too.
Of course, from a traditional retailer’s perspective this system does have its limitations. “I don’t really order from him,” says Darren, “He basically tells me what’s in season and brings it up in the morning.” Shopping at The Organic Supermarket therefore, is necessarily a didactic experience, intended to make consumers re-programme their wants and needs in line with natural growth cycles in Ireland.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Darren’s customers are told what they can have rather than getting what they want. “What I’ve really tried to do is take anything you could find in any supermarket and find an organic version of it,” he says, leading me across the lavish handmade tiles towards another attractive display of product. “Organic ketchup, organic pasta, from Ireland! As soon as I put up the sign stating that this pasta was Irish it started selling much better. People really want to support local products.”
Contrary to the principles of other traditional retail models, it is the limitations of Darren’s product mix that is precisely what his customers want. “Even in this time of recession people are trying to revalue food,” says Darren, “No chemicals, no preservatives, no E numbers, is an important thing nowadays, and local too.”
“I wanted it to be like it is in a farmers’ market, you’re not set down aisles as you are in other shops where everything is in a predictable location. I’m trying to mix it up a bit” (Darren Grant)
The anti-category management approach
The Organic Supermarket stocks most of the things you would expect to find in any small supermarket. He carries 60 varieties of organic wine, including one at €9.75 which is one of the shop’s bestsellers. In stock are all the usual staples from coffee and cereals to (eco-friendly) cosmetics and domestic cleaning products. “Lilly’s in Cork is by far the bestselling brand,” says Darren, “Lilly’s is completely niche, it’s Irish, and people ask for it. It’s natural, there are no chemicals in it.”
To his customers’ delight, he now also offers refills of Lilly’s products, which, while not exactly convenient, is great value for money and even more environmentally friendly. Products such as these, or his ranges of organic baby foods, demonstrate the broad spectrum of departments now catered for by organic and ‘all natural’ suppliers. It also demonstrates the scale of the demand for these products.
In addition to simply stocking organic alternatives for all the typical items, Darren deliberately tries to find very different products to tempt his customers. “I’m looking for something different. I actually source most of my products from farmers’ markets,” he informs me, “I’m trying to get a range of coffees that are unusual. I don’t want to have normal brands.”
The strategy has been particularly successful in his fresh prepared food section, which enjoys a roaring lunchtime trade on a daily basis. I recognise immediately the handmade pies of Morrin O’Rourke Farm Foods, a regular fixture at the Temple Bar market. “His mother makes the pies on a Saturday but he drops them into me now three times week. They are fantastic.” He stocks a range of homemade chilled, fresh soups, a selection of cheeses, fresh-baked breads, and a range of chilled vegetarian products. One thing Darren has been unable to find, as of yet, is a supplier of fresh wholly organic sandwiches and salad bowls for his ample lunchtime trade, “I’m literally turning people away. Everyday I have people looking for that alternative,” he says, “Huge demand, no supply.”
Talking about his suppliers and the special deliveries they make to his store, it is very obvious that he enjoys building relationships with them as much as with his customers. At special in-store tastings, he invites his suppliers to come and engage directly with his customers, which in turn enhances the store experience. Darren tries to keep the feel of his shop as close as possible to that of a farmers’ market, deliberately avoiding ordered departments. “I wanted the whole feel of the store to be relaxed. None of the shelving comes above eye-level. I wanted it to be like it is in a farmers’ market; you’re not set down aisles as you are in other shops where everything is in a predictable location. I’m trying to mix it up a bit.”
The first ever fully licenced organic supermarket, this business is strongly branded and set to expand rapidly. Darren plans to open three stores within the first five years of trading
A modern independent retailer
Rather than just providing organic food, Darren wants his shop to mirror those that once used to exist in every town in Ireland. He believes that the loss of small independent stores has led to the loss of a whole way of life, replaced by “soulless” and “faceless” purveyors of homogenous, branded products, that play no part in the community.
Darren also wants to be a part of a movement to revitalise the independent retail sector in Ireland. “Even the term ‘getting the messages’, was going down to find out what was happening in the community,” he says fondly, “I think that’s what people like about this store. They’re chatting to the guys, they’re slowing down, and we’re listening to them. If they say they want soup in, I’m going to get soup in. If they want Greek low-fat organic yoghurt – which took me ages to find – I go off and I find Greek low-fat organic yoghurt.”
In a world where convenience and middle-market grocery retailing is reaching saturation, you can’t fault a model that seeks to target value in a relatively untouched niche, where store experience is of equal weight to product, and consumers can get what they want and need in way that captures value for them, the retailer and its suppliers. Perhaps the success of Darren’s store so far signals good things not only for organics, but also for a viable future for independent retailers in Ireland.
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