- Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, the discount natural and organic chain that operates 66 stores in nine Midwestern states, will scale back its expansion in 2018, according to Chicago's Daily Herald. After opening 20 stores in nine Midwestern states in 2017, it will open 10 stores next year, including its first in Pennsylvania.
- The three-year-old company, headed by industry veteran Chris Sherrell, made three executive-level hires this year. In March, Fresh Thyme hired Carol Okamoto as its chief financial officer, then in May brought on Mark Doiron as chief merchandising officer. Last month, the retailer announced Dean Little as its new chief operations officer. All told, the three hires have more than 70 cumulative years of industry experience.
- Fresh Thyme added around 600 SKUs to its private label assortment this year, bringing its total to 1,000 products. In the coming months, the grocer will add store brand soups, Greek yogurt and kombucha, among other selections.
With people watching to see how Amazon’s $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods plays out, one grocery chain is quietly but determinedly going about its business. Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, has expanded quickly in its three years in business, building around 20 stores per year as it challenges traditional supermarkets and specialty retailers alike throughout its nine — soon to be ten — operating states.
Next year, Fresh Thyme will pump the brakes and open just half the number it opened this year. This isn't unusual in the grocery industry. National chains such as Kroger and Walmart, as well as regional players, are scaling back growth. With pricing pressure as intense as it's ever been, companies are cutting their capital expenditure budgets and choosing to focus on existing stores.
But it's a bit odd given Fresh Thyme's ambitious rollout to date and the fact that consumer demand for low-price natural and organic products continues to grow. Sprouts Farmers Market, by comparison, plans to open around 30 stores next year, while Lucky's Market has accelerated its growth in promising states like Florida.
Fresh Thyme receives financial backing from Midwest chain Meijer, though the supercenter retailer has been reluctant to discuss the extent of its involvement with the specialty chain.
Described as a crossover between Whole Foods and the slightly funkier Trader Joe’s, Fresh Thyme touts its fresh produce and dedication to healthy living — without Whole Foods' higher price tag. With a combination of value prices, a wide assortment of produce and the sense of fun in exploring the store, Sherrell says the store provides an experience that makes customers want to return.
“I don’t want to say it’s a treasure hunt, because that’s not what it is, but we want our shopping experience to be memorable in the sense that, it’s not the same thing day in and day out. We love bringing in new things, and bring back that fun experience,” Sherrell told Supermarket News.
That strategy seems to be working. Sherrell said the chain has exceeded $500 million in annual sales, led by the growth in organics.
Fresh Thyme works with local producers when possible to provide fresh food and natural products, including body care, vitamins, oils and teas. The store also offers gluten-free foods and hormone-free products, bakery items, a salad bar, bulk options and natural cleaning products.
Fresh Thyme has partnered with Amazon Prime Now in Chicago and other Midwestern cities. Consumers can order fresh produce or meat from Fresh Thyme, and within two hours, have the food at their door. Fresh Thyme has a distribution center in nearby Bolingbrook that can serve 100 stores.
Grocers such as Sprouts have hailed Amazon's e-commerce capabilities. But considering Amazon now owns competitor Whole Foods, the relationship with Fresh Thyme may become strained.
This underscores the larger threat Whole Foods now poses to the grocery industry as a whole. The grocer's discounts have lately been more about marketing than actually making Whole Foods cheaper, but further cuts, along with a disruptive e-commerce presence and Prime loyalty program, could steal sales away from even the most efficient specialty competitors.