Canada's business magazine for traditional natural health retailers

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Peaches & Green: serving mid-town Toronto for 25 years

Peaches & Green: serving mid-town Toronto for 25 years

Many people see Toronto as a big, cold city.  The truth is it is actually a collection of fascinating and interesting neighbourhoods, hundreds of them, stretching from Lake Ontario to the northern boundary, and in the west from the airport to the Rouge Valley in the east.  Some of these neighbourhoods were originally small villages and towns – places like Weston, Mount Dennis, Thistletown, Parkdale, Yorkville,  Forest Hill, Swansea and Mimico – that were eventually swallowed up during a series of amalgamations, starting in 1883.

 

Many people see Toronto as a big, cold city.  The truth is it is actually a collection of fascinating and interesting neighbourhoods, hundreds of them, stretching from Lake Ontario to the northern boundary, and in the west from the airport to the Rouge Valley in the east.  Some of these neighbourhoods were originally small villages and towns – places like Weston, Mount Dennis, Thistletown, Parkdale, Yorkville,  Forest Hill, Swansea and Mimico – that were eventually swallowed up during a series of amalgamations, starting in 1883.

Such is the story of Leaside, a neighbourhood in central Toronto.  It started as a village in 1913, merged with East York in 1967, then became part of Toronto in 1998.  Today, Leaside – like many other communities in Toronto – has its own small-town feel.  There is a sense of community when you walk the streets.  It is a neighbourhood, just like any of the thousands you’d find across the country. 

At the west border of Leaside is Bayview Ave., Starting from Eglinton Ave in the north and stretching for almost two kilometres to the south, Bayview Ave. is one of the area’s more popular and convenient shopping destinations.  Affluent, established neighbourhoods flank the street from north to south. 

25 years on Bayview

peaches and green health storeFor 25 years, Peaches & Green has been an integral part of this neighbourhood.  Store owner George Chow lives right in the community.  He has been a hands-on, in-the-store owner from the beginning, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of virtually everyone who enters the store, along with a good portion of the people who just pass by the door.    He has been a vital part of the community for a quarter of a century and can’t imagine doing it anywhere else but there. 

“Leaside is predominately a family-based neighbourhood,” he says.  “We’ve had the pleasure of seeing the children of our original customers grow up and start families of their own.  Leaside is located in midtown Toronto, which is desirable to many because of its close proximity to the downtown core, but with a quiet, safe neighbourhood feel.  One of the things I have found that makes this area unique is our customers are quite an engaged group, are very open to learning and staying informed.”

However, George explains, the retail landscape is changing in his neighbourhood.  “When we first opened, we had a large senior customer base. There has been a shift over the years as the neighbourhood has attracted more families.  In the last five years, the retail landscape has changed a fair bit with the introduction of a large mass commercial shopping outlet.  Back in the 90s, when we were the only independent health food store in our neighbourhood, it was a much more niche market. We started by catering to those with restricted diets (for example, celiacs). Now the awareness and prevalence of food sensitivities and allergies is far greater, not to mention supplements, and lifestyle products.  While it is currently far easier to find natural health products, our customers tell us that what is lacking in many providers is knowledgeable customer service.”

George says a major reason there is a lack of knowledge within some retail channels is the type of people who are getting into the business.   “As mentioned, there is much more competition in all channels, but perhaps most significantly, is that the type of retailer has changed. When we first opened, for the most part, entrepreneurs who opened health food stores usually had some sort of personal connection to health and wellness, be it a choice of lifestyle, a personal health issue, etc. Now, as this industry has grown, and is gaining more consumer interest, there are far more retailers in the field who have entered, strictly seeing this as a ‘good business’ opportunity. This is an important distinction.  So, our main competition is mass market channels, and discounters – but all competition is healthy.”

Facing competition

Elizabeth Ronan, who has been the store manager since 2008, says she, George and the staff have a game plan to stay relevant and thrive in the neighbourhood in the face of growing competition.  “We stay informed on the latest research and trends, both in our industry and in the health and wellness field.  This is a must. As a specialty store, we try to offer a unique product offering. We prefer to support local, Canadian companies, especially small independent businesses. Our emphasis is education, so we go out of our way to employ a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic team.  We will continue to employ and support an excellent team of staff, and focus on education and niche products, as well as partner with vendors who share a likeminded vision. Our focus is to provide the very best individualized service.”

Retailing is changing

peaches and green supplementsGeorge recently said during an interview, “From now on, the business of natural health retailing is going to be different.”  He elaborated on that statement: “From my perspective as a boutique store owner, there are many ways a business can be competitive in this evolving retailing landscape. Some will choose a price point strategy and others a strategy with a greater emphasis on education and service. Both will be successful if vendors understand that these are two very different kinds of retailers. Our vendor partners will be the most effective with a marketing strategy that meets these two distinct needs.  For example, vendors could support their sales teams so that they have the flexibility to adapt to meet the unique needs of different store types. Boutique stores will eventually fade away if all a vendor can offer is product and price.”

Turning point for Peaches & Green

If you spend any time with George, you’ll see quickly that one of his strongest personal traits is his sense of humour.  But he is serious when he points out one of the key moments – a turning point – in Peaches & Green’s history.  “After being at the helm for the first 17 years, I handed over the reins to Elizabeth, my manager.  Changing times demand an updated, fresh outlook - the future lies in our youth!” 

His reasoning for this is extremely logical.  “Just because I started it does not mean I’m the best person to carry it forward.  Elizabeth handles the operation part, but she also gets what we are all about.  She wanted to fit into what we had created and leverage the skills she had to help make the store better and raise the bar.  And that’s what she did…she raised the bar, with her ability and perspective.”

Elizabeth is just one of George’s outstanding staff members.  He has historically had good luck finding and keeping excellent people.  “We truly feel that we have THE best staff. They are all practitioners from a variety of backgrounds, so we share and learn a lot from each other. More importantly, however, our team is made up of genuinely caring, compassionate individuals. We try to make our work place environment as welcoming and supportive as we possibly can - and having fun is mandatory!   So is laughing at my jokes....”

The birth of Health First

One of George’s great industry accomplishments is the part he played in the founding of the Health First Network (formerly United Health Merchants) in 1999.

What started as a retailer buying group – working with the manufacturer Vita Health in Winnipeg – evolved into something more formal and ultimately very valuable for George and the other 14 stores who were in the original buying group, plus the many stores who have followed over the years. “As an independent, I realized I needed this group…I would not be able to grow and learn on my own.  I needed that group.  In order for me to achieve my goals, and sustain growth, and stay at the head of the pack, I would have to get into this group.  I needed to be surrounded by like-minded people.  There are people who are much, much better at business than I am.  This is typical of an entrepreneur.  Why I do this is because I want to help people.  And I want to get better at helping people, to create a store – an environment – that people are going to embrace.”

In this new world of natural health retailing, where products are available on-line and at virtually every street corner, specialty stores need to offer something other outlets cannot.  George explains:  “We are not for everybody.  I just want to help those who are seeking help, not just wanting to buy stuff.  We do our best to offer products that are going to help the most…we are specialty store, a boutique in that manner.  We deliver a different offering than a mainstream store.  That is what differentiates us from the mass and even other health food stores… we have a very specialized products offering and we deliver an individual message.”

Doing “what feels right”

When George started in the business 25 years ago, he didn’t base his technique on a manual.  “I did what felt right for me, and what I enjoyed delivering to the consumer.  Mass embraces something different than what we deliver.  We don’t focus on price.  I can’t and won’t do that. We don’t attract customers with sales:  we impart knowledge so they can help themselves. 

“I know our message resonates with some people.  Those that buy into what we do, they come in and buy and go away happy.  They don’t ask about price.  The reason a person comes in here is for what they leave with: an experience that pleases them.  They walk away feeling confident in their experience with us.  Usually people come here for help.  What does this have to do with price?  Just because something is on sale shouldn’t influence people to buy something.  We are here to address certain health issues, not focus on price.  Price is a factor – it always is.  However, we speak to a different market.  Some people lump us in with other health food stores.  But once they know what we deliver, they get it.  Those that get it, they are really loyal.” “At the end of the day, the important thing is how I feel. When I am helping people, it makes me feel good…it’s not about pumping the cash register, or counting sales at the end of the day.  It’s about helping people.”

For a person who has been such an important fixture in his retail neighbourhood – and in the natural health community – for more than a quarter century, it is surprising to hear George talk about how it wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did.  “My plan was not to be here this long…I thought maybe I’d do this five years, then move on.  However, I truly found this calling sits well with me.  It allows me to be creative in my own way, to set my own agenda.  I want a happy place to be in, so I can determine who my staff is…I want happy people who want to help people.  I want to be surrounded by people who want to be here and knowing it’s going to work for them.  I love coming in every day.”  •

Re-branding of Peaches & Green

peaches n greens logoElizabeth Ronan, store manager for Peaches & Green, says a recent re-branding of the store was something that needed to be done, and she says it is paying off already.

Why the re-branding?

When we thought about how we could best mark our 25th anniversary, a brand ‘refresh’ seemed like a natural choice. We wanted to bring some new life and excitement to the store. It’s important to stay fresh and current, and this small change really communicates that to our community. 



What steps did you take?

As part of our plan to promote our anniversary, we hired a terrific PR firm here in Toronto, Duet PR. In addition to streamlining the appearance of our store, they recommended an amazing Ottawa designer, Taralyn Carve. We brought her inspiration, and she created a beautiful new look for the store. We’re thrilled with the result!



What were the things you did to re-brand?

We started by collaborating with our designer to create a new logo. Once that was done, we updated our store front awning, and used the new branding to create a window decal to bring some attention to our 25th anniversary. We’ve also updated our website, and social media platforms with our new look. 



Has there been any feedback yet?


Absolutely, people seemed to notice right away!  Although we have been in the same location for 25 years, we have new customers coming in to ask if we are ‘new to the neighbourhood’.

Do you think it has created an impression with customers?

Yes, I think that our customers appreciate that we are taking steps to keep our business fresh and relevant. In an industry that is growing to be ever more competitive, a brand re-fresh helped us to remind our customers that we are here, and that we are invested in supporting them on their path to wellness for another 25 years!

 

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