(Sept. 10) Can you imagine running your produce department with a single employee?

If that sounds unreasonable, then you haven’t visited Vitamin Cottage, a fifteen-store chain based in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, the produce department might appear small, but the customer service is overflowing.

Stan Sweaney is the lone produce employee at the store. He has been immersed in the produce industry for the past 15 years. Names like Albertson’s and Wild Oats appear on his resume in addition to Vitamin Cottage, where he was hired in August 2001. His passion for organic produce is more than surface level — Sweaney has been eating only organic fruits and vegetables for the past 10 years because of their health benefits, he says.

Sweaney says his personal attention and advice plus the store’s low prices on organic produce is what keeps consumers coming back for more despite competition from national organic chains.

CUSTOMER SATISFACTION

When you walk in the store and make your way to the 350-square-foot produce department in the front left corner, you can’t help but notice the sign that hangs above. It reads, “We are committed to organic. Our produce department proudly sells only organic produce. Join us in supporting sustainable farming practices, which don’t harm farmers, consumers or our planet.”

Sweaney confirms that level of commitment to his customers.

“I get to know the consumers on a personal level. I was surprised by how many times they came back to the store compared to when I was at Wild Oats. I have a lot of repeat customers,” Sweaney says.

Sweaney, the one-man show in Vitamin Cottage’s produce department, says that his customers tell him they made the switch from Wild Oats because they were disappointed by the customer service. He also says it’s not hard to compete with Wild Oats or Whole Foods because the store’s prices are cheaper. Debbie Pitcher, store manager, says the Vitamin Cottage chain operates on a low profit margin.

“We hear from our customers on a daily basis that our prices are lower than Wild Oats,” Pitcher says. “We don’t necessarily try to compete with them. We just try to get a good price and pass that on to consumers.”

Pitcher says consumers prefer buying organic produce at Vitamin Cottage because the store only merchandises organic items.

“Other stores sell both organic and conventional produce, and that makes a difference to a certain percentage of customers,” she says. “Some customers are so sensitive that they can’t tolerate having their organic produce near conventionally grown produce.”

Unlike Wild Oats and Whole Foods which carry hundreds of produce stock-keeping units, Vitamin Cottage only carries about 35 to 40 fruits and vegetables depending on the season. Pitcher says that’s part of the store’s goal — to stick to the basics and excel in customer service.

Sweaney’s customer service doesn’t stop when he leaves the store. Pitcher says that since the produce department is run single-handedly, it poses some challenges. Sweaney can’t work around the clock during business hours so after he leaves, employees from other departments keep an eye on the produce.

She says the department doesn’t have an automated sprinkler system, so a store employee hand mists the produce during the evening and refills displays.

“But before Stan leaves every day, he takes the time to stock his racks as full as possible filling them enough to last the rest of the evening. He usually leaves about 4:00 p.m., and the store closes at 8:00 p.m.,” Pitcher says.


INCREASING CONSUMER AWARENESS

Sweaney says organic produce isn’t as popular in Colorado Springs as it is in other Colorado cities like Denver or Boulder. He says the city’s population has been traditionally conservative, but that is changing. The liberal population is becoming increasingly more aware of organic produce, as are senior citizens who want to eat organic produce for its health benefits.

“I used to work in conventional supermarkets, but organic stores seem to attract more down-to-earth consumers,” Sweaney says. “They are friendly and interested in their health. Organic stores’ employees are usually the same way.”

Although the store’s customers vary in description, Sweaney says the majority of them are married women in their 30s and 40s.

“They are shopping for their families, and they want to provide safe and healthy produce for them,” he says.

In the past year, the increased organic consumption has been evident. Produce department sales have increased from about $500 per day to $750 per day. Pitcher says department sales represent about 6 percent of total store sales. Organic carrots top the list.

In an effort to keep consumption up, Sweaney conducts organic demos.

“I put out a lot of demos because normally, if someone tastes something, they are more apt to buy it, especially if they haven’t had it before,” he says. “That not only sells the item but introduces it to consumers who might not have tried it before.”

Sweaney wants to implement tasting fairs (sampling more than just one or two items per day) to build consumer interest.

He also thinks that the new organic standards implemented in October will help consumers better understand organic practices and organic fruits and vegetables.

LOCALLY GROWN LOYALTY

The store’s L-shaped produce department, made up of two refrigerated wall cases and one 16-foot long Euro table, contains locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. The produce is sourced primarily from Boulder Fruit Express, which is owned by Albert’s Organics, Denver, and other local growers.
“We have a few local growers in the Western slope and some around Pueblo, (Colo.),” he says.

In the past six months, Sweaney has had local growers from Colorado Springs ask him how they might be able to sell their organic produce they grew in the own backyard.

“They ask us what they need to do and how they can be certified, so there is a lot of interest on the local level,” Sweaney says.

Sweaney uses colorful computer-generated signs to let consumers know which products come from which local grower. Some of the signs contain pictures of the farms.

Vitamin Cottage merchandises its produce on the Euro tables mostly on wooden crates, barrels and wire-bound crates to create that fresh-from-the-farm feel. To enhance that farm feeling, demos remain simple: a bowl of sliced oranges set out on a wooden television tray with a decorative placemat on top; and ivy-covered lattice and a hand-painted mural of a farm decorate the top of the refrigerated cases.

“I pride myself in helping the community in a healthy and more earth-friendly way,” Sweaney says.