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REENSBORO, NC-Based on a family-owned store founded here in 1982, Fresh Market Inc. is now a family-owned business with 52 units in 12 states. It plans another approximately 12 locations next year, 15 more in 2007 and “about a 20% growth rate for the foreseeable future,” Eric Blaesing, director of community relations, tells GSR. This year Fresh Market branched beyond the Southeast to the Northeast and Midwest.

Fresh Market can be described by what it is not almost more easily than by what it is. It is not a gourmet food store, nor is it an organic food specialist, although it has products that can be found in both. And it is certainly not a supermarket. “There are many things a supermarket carries that we don’t,” Blaesing says, citing pet foods and paper supplies, for example. “We’re a complement to a supermarket,” he says.

During an ICSC Idea Exchange in Philadelphia recently Rob Koch, the company’s real estate manager, described Fresh Market as a “specialty neighborhood grocery store with a strong focus on high quality perishables.” The average store is 20,000 sf and includes a butcher shop, deli, bakery and fresh seafood, prepared foods, cut flowers, cheese, coffee, candy, wine and beer.

Asked to describe the company’s demographic target, Blaesing bypasses the usual descriptions of age, income, and educational level, and says, “our customers are ‘foodies,’ people interested in the whole eating, dining, entertaining aspect of food. These customers shop frequently and look for unique food items.

“Our competition is anyone that sells food, including restaurants. While we’re not like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, they and the national chains are competitors,” he acknowledges.

Fresh Market “represents a new generation of competitors in an area that has been dominated by Whole Foods,” says Bill Bishop III, head of Willard Bishop Consulting, based in Barrington, IL. The other is Wild Oats, according to Bishop. “But Fresh Market,” he says, “seems to have been able to grasp the kind of food selection its demographic wants and has also done a nice job of understanding their desire for a pleasant environment.

“The company understands how to get into the right neighborhoods,” Bishop tells GSR. “That upper 20% of shoppers, income-wise, certainly want to be sure they’re buying the best quality food, but they also want a more pleasant shopping environment.”

Blaesing acknowledges that the market he describes as “foodies” probably does have a somewhat higher income and educational level than other groups. “Before we look at a market area, we make sure our suppliers can serve it with fresh produce,” he says, “then we rely on our real estate people to find a location that meets our other criteria,” which he declines to detail.

Units can be free-standing or in a shopping center. They do not follow a standard exterior prototype, but the interior layouts are very similar, Blaesing says. “We try and make it so that if you put a customer from one Fresh Market into another, he’d know where he was. All stores have the same products,” he adds. Those include some branded and some private label groceries.

Bishop believes the concept of providing food-conscious, upscale consumers with assurances they’re buying high quality food is a sound one. Equally important, he says Fresh Market’s method of providing that assurance in an atmosphere that’s inviting makes it particularly valid.

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