30 years of growth – and evolution
As Nutter's Bulk and Natural Foods celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012, CNHR takes a closer look at this successful western Canadian retailer. Over the next few pages, we will get an inside look at this Alberta-based retailer through the eyes of its president, Donald Cranston, some franchisees and a handful of supplier-partners.
Like most natural food stores, Nutter's Bulk and Natural Foods started in humble fashion with a simple mandate. The first store opened in 1982, in a 900 square foot space in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
The visionary of Nutter's was Dr. Jim Cranston, a Medicine Hat doctor and entrepreneur, who started the business with a local partner. Dr. Cranston saw a need in western Canada for a new concept in food shopping. After the first year of business, it was apparent consumers were ready to adopt the idea of shopping in bulk and the new variety of products it offered. In 1983, the partners moved their small bulk food store into a high-profile 5,000 square foot location in town. With the new visibility and influx of customers came the requests for franchise information.
What began as one store quickly turned to 11 franchise stores in Alberta and Saskatchewan by 1984. With growth came the need to make operational, marketing and management changes and Dr. Cranston recognized the need for strong, full-time leadership of the company. It was at this time two promising young people joined the business – Dr. Cranston's daughter Lynn Cranston, and his nephew, Donald Cranston. Today – 28 years later – Donald and Lynn are the leaders of Nutter's.
Evolving to natural health
In the early 90's, as customer's tastes and needs changed, Nutter's anticipated the evolving market and shifted to a more health-oriented natural food store which continues to carry a large variety of Canadian-sourced products. From gluten-free, sugar-free and other specialized diet items, to thousands of vitamins, dietary supplements, body care, sport nutrition products and natural and organic foods, Nutter's has transformed into a truly unique retail experience.
A very important part of Nutter's success has been the strong relationships the company has built with its franchisees, suppliers and customers. This western Canadian family-owned company is proud of these relationships and its history.
The spirit of Dr. Cranston is still very evident throughout the company, and the staff continues to honour one of Dr. Cranston's favourite sayings: "There is not a 'Nutter' place like it." •
Competition keeps Nutter's fresh and relevant
Nutter's president Donald Cranston explains there is a lot of thought that goes into keeping a retail operation fresh and relevant to its customer base, and Nutter's is no different. He says it has always been an on-going process. "From the outset, we have looked at what is going to differentiate Nutter's from our competition. In the initial days, we were a bulk food store and we were different because of our huge variety and selection and in the way we promoted ourselves to the homemaker. As competitors started entering the market, we needed to differentiate ourselves from the mainstream grocery stores and we felt we could achieve this by going into the natural food, supplements and wellness business, that this would be a key to our success.
"We've also carefully listened to our customers," Donald said. "Certainly over the last decade, longevity and health are top of mind to all customers. So, we shifted our focus to those products that provided for a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.
"What keeps us relevant is we carefully watch what's happening in the industry, through solid contact with our sales reps and by attending the CHFA trade show in Vancouver every year. It's very important to keep on top of what's happening in the industry." •
Category management crucial for Nutter's buying, ordering cycles
Over the years, Nutter's has put a tremendous effort into category management, watching each department carefully and scrutinizing product movement. Donald says this is a necessary step in Nutter's overall success. "As retailers on a smaller scale compared to the larger box concept store, it's important we carefully look at our various departments and manage the strength of the products in each of these categories. It's really important we utilize our POS, and that we track which products have the greatest turnover so that we can better plan our ordering cycles and our opportunities for strategic buying.
"It's also important to know which products are not selling and make the decision to remove those products and add new ones, as shelf space is always limited.
"Having your managers and key staff in these departments carefully monitoring what is moving and what is not moving is very important. And as we track these changes in product categories, we have the ability to introduce new items into these key departments. To do so, we need the space – so as we experience growth in certain products, we massage our shelving and merchandising to allow for new opportunities." •
Meeting the geographic challenges of supporting multiple stores
Donald Cranston is the first to admit having stores located throughout four different provinces can present a few issues for Nutter's support team. "I think a big challenge facing our stores across western Canada is somewhat logistics and staying in touch with the franchise owners on a regular basis."
The company continues to find ways to eliminate and minimize the geographic challenge. One solution is communication, which is open, accessible and achieved through technology – constant emails, internet, web access and toll-free telephone communications.
"Our field support team is in each of our franchise locations twice a year to do product reviews and general operational updates. Our head office team also works very closely with our stores, providing them with promotional support, flyer programs, merchandising suggestions, buying opportunities and review of top products categories, as well as identifying where they may have any local competitive issues they may need to address locally.
Donald says an annual gathering each fall plays a huge element in better communication. "Our stores have the opportunity to come to our convention each year in September in Medicine Hat, where we have our trade show, and provide education, business development and operational workshops to help strengthen our franchise group and their businesses." •
Trust between stores and HO helps keep Nutter's flexible and nimble
It might be hard to conceptualize how a 24 store chain – spread across four provinces – can be as flexible and nimble as Nutter's is, at least when it comes to introducing a new product or making merchandising changes. But the truth is – Nutter's has implemented a number of things to make it possible, so it can react quickly, much like a single small store would.
The trust, communication, cohesion and coordination between the Nutter's retailers and the head office support team is the major reason this can happen with such speed and quality. Donald agrees with this theory.
"This has been a key advantage for us. When we see a trend developing or a growth opportunity, we can shift our business plan and tweak our merchandising very quickly. We can assess product categories very carefully and make specific changes in our product mix in order to take advantage of changing trends and customer needs. An experienced field support team can take flight at a moment's notice to get new products into stores, giving Nutter's a competitive edge."
Donald also credits Nutter's annual vendor trade show and conference as another major reason. "This is very true. Through our trade show and convention in September, we gather and align the sharing of ideas and opportunities as a retail group. At head office, we're not afraid of trying new ideas, modernizing our stores, and taking the first step in changes and seeing how customers' response has been. If we see success in these areas, we then share these with our franchisees. Listening to the ideas of our franchise operators is also a key ingredient to our success. Each operator brings a unique perspective to the Nutter's group: we can collaborate on ideas, learn and then take them back to our business." •
Store managers buy to meet local market demands
One of the things store managers and franchisees like best about working within the Nutter's framework is there is a certain amount of freedom when it comes to product selection.
"With new stores, we provide a recommended start up list," explains Donald, "but principally, our strategy has been to guide the stores to address local market conditions and develop a product mix that meets customer lifestyle and wellness needs. We carefully identify categories for our stores to implement in their local area. And I would have to say that 85 to 90 per cent of all products are consistent from market to market."
However, adds Donald, it is important for stores to have some flexibility in product offering to meet the needs of their customer base. "As we cross four provinces, the areas vary dramatically. Our demographic mix in Canmore, AB is very different than our mix in Estevan, SK. So, we need to tailor product offerings and presentation to fit the local market." •
Transforming Nutter's from a bulk store to a natural health focus
After 10 years as a successful retail chain, Nutter's had to make a major decision regarding its business model. It required changing how the company had done business for a decade. And it resulted in Nutter's making perhaps its boldest change in corporate philosophy in company history. Donald Cranston explains:
"As we saw the retail landscape changing for a conventional bulk food store, it required us to re-think our retail concept.
The major supermarkets were shifting into bulk, and we needed to differentiate ourselves from the typical large format grocery store. And that's why in 1992 we initiated a new business plan, introducing vitamins and a selection of packaged natural foods. The evolution of our store from a traditional bulk operation to a natural food specialty store has taken many, many years."
Donald says the company didn't rush into the change; rather, it moved in a careful manner, researching the potential of adding supplements and other natural health products. "We prepared for growth by reviewing opportunities on a regular basis. We attended a number of natural food shows in the USA, as well as going to Vancouver to see the opportunities in natural foods. We started slowly and evolved our product mix as we saw demand for these healthy new items grow."
As a retailer embarking for the first-time on a supplement path, Donald says Nutter's had lots of support from suppliers. "I can't emphasize enough how important Natural Factors was in our initial growth. Jean Robertson of Natural Factors was instrumental from the beginning and has been tremendous in working with Nutter's, providing product knowledge, educational support, industry trending and marketing ideas. I can't thank Jean enough for her encouragement, guidance and friendship."
Donald says other companies were instrumental in helping with the change-over, as well. "Prairie Naturals, Preferred Nutrition, Nature's Way, SISU, Flora, Nationwide Natural Foods, UNFI and many more have helped us over the years with educational and sales rep support and business ideas – all of which has helped shape our company and our long-term vision." •
Stores supported by strong head office and field team
Stores in Western Canada know they are not alone in their retailing endeavours: they are supported by an experienced and dedicated head office team, working out of Medicine Hat, AB.
Donald Cranston and his cousin, Lynn Cranston, are the most senior members of the support team. They joined the family business (started by Lynn's dad) in 1982.
Lynn, in the capacity of vice-president, is primarily focused on many of the day-to-day administrative operations of Nutter's, overseeing payroll, payables, receivables, as well as the company's very important annual trade show and convention in Medicine Hat, and the Christmas gift tray program. As company president, Donald's responsibilities are more closely associated with strategic growth of the franchise, assessing new market trends, vendor relations and educational initiatives.
As well, Donald looks at the overall vision for the company and positioning for future opportunities.
In reality, Lynn and Donald are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to store support. Currently, the head office support team consists of 14 staff, with over 200 years of combined retail and franchise experience.
Donald is quick to give credit where credit is due. "Our head office staff has been a key to our long-term success. Several of our staff has been with us for over 25 years, and many have been here for over 20 years.
"Each of these key members have played very, very important roles in marketing, purchasing, administrative and operational support. We have worked very well together as a team and Lynn and I couldn't have expanded and enjoyed the success we have today without these key members." •
Customers' shopping experience driving the changes in Nutter's stores
In recent years, many Nutter's stores have undergone "cosmetic" changes: some have been minor in nature, while others have been major. Donald explains these physical changes were necessary to freshen up the look of many stores and to address dramatically changing department categories.
"At one time, almost all our Nutter's locations had fresh deli departments in them...now we only have one. As we saw competition expanding into the fresh deli and other departments, we needed to make space and changes in our floor plan to allow for growth categories such as natural foods and gluten- free products."
Donald says it is important to keep the stores fresh and vibrant, adding investing a few dollars in paint and merchandising has been a key to Nutter's ongoing success. "Our goal of re-investing capital is to make the customer shopping experience more enjoyable, by de-cluttering stores, widening aisles, and adding more product opportunities, and to better connect with our customers. Having an improved store layout provides for better merchandising such as end caps and case stacks and overall shopping presentation. It makes for a more enjoyable customer experience and – hopefully – better sales." •
After 30 years, Nutter's is still evolving and growing
As it has for the past 30 years, Nutter's is still in a growth mode. "We are actively looking at new opportunities for Nutter's," expressed Donald. "Over the past several years, we have renovated existing stores and strengthened existing operations as best we can. Now that this has been completed, we are carefully looking at new franchise and corporate store opportunities, primarily in the four western provinces. We are very careful in our location selections so we can maximize the best opportunities for any new franchise operators."
When asked where he sees Nutter's in 10 years, Donald doesn't hesitate with his answer. "We plan on continuing our commitment to improved customer service by providing more knowledgeable, informed and educated staff and carefully addressing our customer's needs to meet with their changing lifestyle and wellness requirements. We'll continue to work carefully with our franchise operators, so that they can become stronger managers.
"As they experience competitive challenges in their marketplace, we'll continue to provide operational and marketing support. After being in business for 30 years, I learn every day. It is important to understand that retail change never ends, competitors challenges never end, and customers will continue to seek new products and shopping experiences. So, we have to become very adaptable and flexible, in order to remain competitive and retail relevant in our communities.
"Continually learning about our business, new products and changing customer needs are all part of remaining successful." •
Nutter's retailers love the support from head office – and from each other
What's it like to be a franchisee? According to a number of Nutter's retailers CNHR interviewed, it's a great experience.
As an example, Janine Favreau is the store owner in Prince Albert, SK. She became a Nutter's franchisee 28 years ago and – in her words – "we've been successful from the start." She easily identified the most appealing part of being part of the Nutter's group. "We have the freedom to operate as you see fit in your community. We are not 'straitjacketed' by restrictions on products, innovations or methods of operation."
Two levels of support
Janine also identified two levels of support she can count on to help her business thrive. "Donald Cranston, Lynn Cranston and their head office team offer continuing support by elevating product knowledge, introducing new items and new vendors, and improving overall retail operations."
The second level of support comes from people like Janine: other hands-on store owners, working in their own communities. She says it's an excellent resource – people who can instantly identify with any challenges she may be facing. "We discuss new trends, products and operational improvements."
Flexibility, co-operation, and support
Roughly 800 kilometres south and west of Prince Albert, Denise Pallesen is the owner of the Nutter's store in Cranbrook, B.C. And like Janine, she has enjoyed great success with Nutter's since becoming part of the group 15 years ago.
Denise identifies the biggest benefits to her is the flexibility, co-operation and support from head office. "Nutter's allows its franchisees the flexibility to purchase what is pertinent to their community, rather than a 'company mandate' of products. This allows us to work with suppliers and advertisers in a very cooperative manner while remaining competitive in each of our markets. The Nutter's group of franchisees and head office work together for the continued success of the franchise as a whole.
"Nutter's head office team supplies any support that is required in the day-to-day operations of our stores, whether with respect to suppliers, shippers, advertising or renovations to our stores."
Retailers offer support to each other
Denise also appreciates the interaction she enjoys between herself and the other Nutter's store owners and managers. "When the Nutter's franchisees get together, we discuss advertising, suppliers, concerns with competition and other issues affiliated with operating bulk and natural food stores. We also offer support to each other with customer concerns, product queries and training issues."
For a store owner who is relatively new to the Nutter's experience – she joined the group two and half years ago – franchisee Lesa Seipp in Estevan, SK says she appreciates all the assistance available to her and her store. "The largest benefit of being part of the Nutter's group is the support they give us. This is apparent from being able to call them any time – for help, ideas and suggestions, to the companies they recommend we use.
Head office help is diverse
"The help I get from head office is diverse in many areas. I can call and get help on everything from accounting, to ideas and information on products to advertising. Nutter's has made it a high priority to provide many learning opportunities through classes when we meet twice a year. They bring in representatives from the various companies and we have a chance to be taught and ask many questions, so that we are informed on their products. Nutter's has also provided me with one-on-one training in their corporate stores. At these meetings, they also provide time for round tables to air not only problems that we encounter but new ideas and ideas that have worked in the other stores. Because Nutter's has their own corporate stores, they can help me, as they are dealing with the same things that I am dealing with.
"Through the Nutter's group, it is refreshing to have support behind us that provides forward thinking and adaptability to the marketplace. They also provide encouragement and a caring environment."
Lesa says the connection between Nutter's retailers is very strong and extremely helpful. "The Nutter's group is very close-knit, who warmly welcomed me in and offered any support that I needed. As I am a fairly new store, I find moral support and encouragement from the other stores when we meet semi-annually. It is comforting to know that if I am in need of help, I can pick up my phone and call any store."
"Twice a year, when the Nutter's group gathers, we discuss products that have sold well in our stores, as well as ones that haven't. This is also a time to bounce marketing strategies around. We discuss things that we would like to implement in our stores and how to accomplish them." •
What Suppliers are saying about Nutter's
Clear vision and leadership are the keys
A clear vision and leadership from Donald and Lynn Cranston and their dedicated staff is one of the top things that has contributed to Nutter's growth, says Jean Robertson, client relations for Natural Factors. "The key is to continually adjust to the current trends within the community and the larger marketplace," says Jean. "Nutter's has stayed on top of industry trends and made the necessary adjustments to the business plans by attending trade shows, reading current industry trends, and having discussions with vendors."
"Since I was involved with the introduction of supplements to the chain 20 years ago and the fact that I have watched them evolve and improve, I have a keen interest in their continued success," says Jean. "They are part of the smaller communities throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC. Since I came from rural Alberta, I know it is important to have locally owned and operated businesses within the community. They are the cornerstone, the money remains in the community and supports the fibre of everything that happens locally."
When John Stephen of Natural Factors was asked to reflect on what he believes has contributed to Nutter's growth over the years, four words came to mind: leadership, adaptability, loyalty and commitment. "The Cranston family has shown true leadership in providing a solid foundation to all its operators and staff. As the retail environment changes, they have been able to adapt and understand the consumer and offer the products they are looking for. Throughout the entire Nutter's organization, loyalty and commitment to consumers, staff, franchise operators, vendors and their community is a high priority and thus their business has simply flourished."
He adds that professionalism, good business practices and quality people are the back bone of the Nutter's operation. For this reason, says John, consumers and vendors alike are attracted to their stores and help make them the success they are. "It is truly a pleasure to work with the Cranston family and all the staff and franchise operators at Nutter's. •
Diversity is key
Nutter's ability to offer diversity in products has played a key role in their success, says Bill Burrell, Alberta territory manager for Nature's Way. "This attracts a broader cross-section of the community."
Bill also acknowledges the friendly, professional customer service and says staff is always willing to go the extra mile to ensure the consumer is happy. "The 'power Tuesdays' are very popular, and I know that many consumers eagerly await that day."
And customers aren't the only ones getting the royal treatment. "As a representative of a supplement company, I find that they treat me as a partner, are willing to try new programs and are open to change. I really appreciate the Nutter's annual trade show where we have the opportunity to spend quality time with the store managers."
Strong team spirit
It's all about the people, says Deane Parkes, president of Preferred Nutrition. "From management on down to their franchisees and store managers, everyone seems to have the Nutter's team spirit. They have done an excellent job attracting people who resonate with their Nutter's values."
Deane says the people are the best part about working with Nutter's. "They are very supportive and fun to work with while being good retailers in their communities," says Deane. "And to me, it starts from the top. Donald Cranston and his partner Lynn Cranston are really fine folks who care about their people, customers and suppliers."
"I have noticed what has helped Nutter's grow their business is working with the owners/managers one on one," says Randy Sihota, of Nationwide Natural Foods. "This includes being very customer oriented and having staff available at all times to help when needed."
And Randy believes Nutter's continues to be successful because Donald, Lynn and their team are collectively researching to see what customer demands are and they meet their requests in a timely fashion.
"What I truly enjoy about working with Nutter's is the down-to-earth attitude from the corporate office to the person working the shelves as well as from the franchise owners who are very excited when you see them working in their stores," says Randy. "The attitude is awesome and everyone looks very positive in what they are doing."
More like a family
Garry Edwards of UNFI says Nutter's has made sure to keep up with the growth of natural and organic foods. "Nutter's has moved their stores to a product selection more in tune with consumer wants and needs."
In addition to this, Garry says Nutter's success can be attributed to the "best service and most knowledgeable staff," things consumers expect and what ultimately keeps them coming back. Nutter's delivers on both.
This relationship-building goes well beyond customers. "I've been calling on Nutter's stores and the head office for 15 years and while other things have changed, most of the people are the same," says Garry. "The calls are as much personal as they are business, which makes it a lot of fun. If you've ever been to one of the Nutter's trade shows, you will see a family rather than a retail group. None of their stores are in the same town or city, yet they are all like brothers and sisters. Pretty unique!"