Published on: September 8, 2015
by Kevin Coupe
When I go to stores, there are certain things I look for.
One, differentiation - an effort to create a format with a differentiated advantage.
Two, relevance - a realization that a store has to cast a very specific net, targeting customers specifically and effectively. No lowest common denominator thinking here.
And finally, I love stores that know how to tell a story. They are not just a collection of departments and products, but you get a sense of the guiding intelligence behind them ... one that lays out a narrative for customers, employees, even business partners.
This isn't to say that all stores need to have these elements, or that stores cannot be productive without them. But I think that stores are better with them than without them.
And, I found all three elements last Friday when I ventured up to the Allston neighborhood just west of downtown Boston to see the new "bfresh" concept created by the new Fresh Formats division of Ahold.
bfresh is the second small-store iteration created by Fresh Formats, the first being a 3,000 square foot unit in Philadelphia; this new one is 10,000 square feet, and is located in a densely populated, competitive marketplace - there are several stores (including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods) within a mile of bfresh, and 150 restaurants within a half mile.
The great thing about bfresh, I think, is the fact that it seems so specific to the place in which it finds itself - a neighborhood that is occupied by millennials in their first post-college apartments, as well as aging baby boomers moving back to the city after raising their kids in the suburbs. From the first moment one walks into bfresh, the overwhelming sense is of a food-centric store that is going for something different - something with style, some imagination, and a sense that something "epic" can be achieved even within as relatively small footprint.
You see - and smell - a largely scratch bakery that makes you hungry. There is a bank of foodservice stations - offering breakfast, salads, pizzas, soups, sandwiches - that has been inspired by La Place, a Netherlands-based company that handles catering duties at Google's New York offices. (La Place is partnering with bfresh, though it is not running the foodservice side of the business.) It has a terrific produce department, full grocery selection (tons of brands though not in every size), and a strong service meat and seafood counter. (You can see pictures of the store at left ... the company had a soft opening on Friday, with a grand opening planned for September 18.)
It is all part of an avowed effort to create what the company calls an "epic" approach to produce, foodservice and staffing ... and in this last case, bfresh is hiring for personality as much as retail experience. In fact, employees are auditioned as much as interviewed - the company wants to create a highly engaging and engaged sales floor.
The bfresh store even has a "culture ninja," who is charged with making sure at every level - employees, community affairs, even the music played in the store - the company is creating a fresh and consistent culture and retailing DNA that distinguish it from other retailers (including those in the Ahold family).
There's even irreverence - the best sale prices are marked as being "Kickass Prices." No stodginess here.
The concept will continue to evolve. Scott Miller, the company's "operations oracle" (I love that the company is eschewing traditional titles for job descriptions that are more playful and evocative), tells me that there are plans for introducing e-commerce, giving customers the ability to order and pay via their smartphones so they can simply pick up their orders when they arrive at the store. And while this bfresh is in an urban neighborhood, the next iteration will be in Fairfield, Connecticut - an assiduously suburban location that is a bedroom community for New York City.
No plans have been set beyond that, though I imagine that the Fresh Formats folks must have their eye on other locations that could suit them in terms of both geography and demography.
It will be interesting to see how Fresh Formats develops. I have to believe that if it continues to tell a specific, relevant and differentiated story ... finding new ways to evolve a culture and engage with shoppers ... this is likely to be a winning story.
bfresh isn't the first small-format urban store to be created by a major retailer to take advantage of current shopper trends. But it is a strong entry, and I have a lot of confidence in its ability to deliver value as long as it remains consistent with its stated values.
- KC's View: