Retail

Retail, REITs and Cannibalization

by Michele Reeves on May 4, 2012

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When he got his start in the grocery business with Fred Meyer decades ago, Gary Slabaugh said he knew EVERY property owner that surrounded the store where he worked. He knew them, their families, their kids’ birthdays. Part of managing the store was participating in, and being a member of, the surrounding community. Smart business if you are a retailer and property owner.

Fast forward a few decades, and contrast that with some of Gary’s more recent experiences as VP of Real Estate for Safeway, where he said some of their leased mall locations have been sold 12 times over the last few years. Each sale of the mall, he said, exchanged hands for more money, selling to another out-of-town Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).

How did these properties increase in value if rent wasn’t increasing as well? We puzzled over this question as I was moderating a panel at the Portland ICSC Alliance event this year on the subject of Retrofitting Suburbia. (Keynote presentations by Michael Freedman and Ellen Dunham-Jones are available on the right hand navigation bar, if you follow the previous ICSC link.)

The role of retail and restaurants in a city is vitally important. Stores and eateries act as activators. They are entertainers. They are draws. They provide identity. Yet, few cities actually manage this square footage like the precious resource that it is.

In fact, as Gary’s story so beautifully illustrates, the whole nature of retail, particularly along arterials and in suburban communities, has dramatically changed, shifting almost entirely into the hands of institutional investors, out-of-state owners, and large corporations. Accountants are not retailers, as my professional crush Paco Underhill notes in Call of the Mall. (One of the reasons he cites for malls being so ugly!)

This consolidation of properties and development into the hands of absentee number crunchers has not been good for America’s communities. It has led us to us being an utterly and completely over-retailed nation, diluting the positive impact that retail and restaurants can have on our cities and towns. And, it has left us with under invested or abandoned retail infrastructure that drives down property values, invites crime, and creates negative identity, like the arterial pictured above left.

Let’s compare America’s retail spaces to the rest of the world.

In a Costar report from 2010, the real estate database and analytics firm estimated there is at least 56 square feet of retail space per person in the United States. This equates to about 46.6 square feet of total retail space per capita in our country, according to ICSC estimates.

Juxtapose those numbers with retail space in a few other countries. Canada and the UK clock in at around half of the US glut, and places like Mexico and India are closer to 2 square feet of retail space per capita. A fraction of the real estate we have enshrined to consumption!

What do these statistics tell us? The United States has more retail space than it needs…more than it can possibly use.

Every time a city adds retail space, it is cannibalizing its own existing retail infrastructure. This trend gets exacerbated in areas with sales tax, as cities duke it out over who lures Wal-Mart from the next county over.

In a reality where we have a huge oversupply of retail space, why do we keep pretending there are unlimited dollars just waiting to be spent? Why do we think that all we need to do is build the next new mall and everything will be great in our towns, neighborhoods and corridors?

Let’s look at a local example of this from Gresham, Oregon. (Click on the map below for images and more information.)

There is a fabulous little downtown here, that had, and still has, a great street grid, charming buildings, and a nearby park with a Japanese garden that is being renovated. As this suburban downtown started to suffer the inevitable postwar decline that occurred everywhere, what happened?

A strip mall was conceived and built right along the edge of downtown. (Mall #1 on the map.)

Did this help downtown? Of course not.

Since the strip mall was a super block, it ruined grid connectivity, it visually eliminated any connection between downtown and nearby streets, and the mall was oriented so its back faced downtown, doing the strip mall equivalent of mooning this once thriving center in Gresham.

Eventually, this “new” mall became dated. Downtown continued to suffer. So what happened next?

Another mall!! Across the street from Mall #1. Literally. This shopping paradise was larger, newer and lifestyle center-y. (Let’s call it: Mall #2.)

Sadly, with this much retail space stacked on top of each other, this is now an environment that struggles with vacancy and turnover. And, this massive amount of mall space is dwarfing a great downtown, and hindering its revitalization as well.

There are several big lessons for cities in all of this:

  1. Large corporations with no connection to your municipality often don’t care about your city, they are making decisions for their bottom line first and foremost. I would venture to say that nearly every REIT and big box concept has built in places that were clearly bad for the city and the surrounding area. Remember, what may be good for an out-of-town company is not necessarily good for a city as a whole.

  2. Complete, and keep up to date, a retail capacity assessment in your city.

  3. Don’t over zone for retail.

  4. Don’t allow new large retail developments without considering how they impact all retail infrastructure in the city.

  5. Give preference to local developers who have a stake in the community and tend to hold their properties for long periods of time. Real estate is rarely developed optimally, and maintained at its highest and best use for the whole community, if it is owned, controlled, and managed by institutional employees as an accounting exercise in another state.

Map image is courtesy of OpenStreetMap, © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC BY-SA

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There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

by Michele Reeves on January 1, 2012

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If I were supernatural, I might choose to be an awning fairy. My mission? Roaming the land, eradicating horrible awnings with the touch of my sparkly magic wand. (By roaming, I mean that I would be flying, of course.)

Sadly, I am coming around to the fact that I won’t be manifesting any special powers in the near future. But, I have not let the dream die entirely. No, I try to do the work of the awning fairy without extraordinary skills. In my war against underperforming mixed-use districts, I do battle with over-awninged places using just my voice, a whole lotta pictures, and field trips.

LEVERAGING HISTORIC DOWNTOWN ENVIRONMENTS

To maximize the economic return on historic infrastructure, it must be highlighted in every possible way, particularly for pedestrians. These renovated buildings in Tacoma, Washington, pictured to the left, are a good example. A visitor on the sidewalk should experience the grandeur and unique character of the building stock when looking down the same side of the street on which they stand, or when gazing across the road.

Interconnected and unique buildings are a huge part of what creates a great ambiance in a downtown or Main Street environment.

In a struggling mixed-use district, there are myriad examples of not leveraging historic infrastructure properly. But today, I want to focus on one particular culprit—the awning, something that is often invisible to stakeholders and which can be particularly difficult to eradicate. In a downtown that lacks vitality, it is very common to view a plethora of awnings that are inappropriate architecturally…a sea of moldy awnings…tons of tattered awnings…and awnings that are so large they take up one third to one half of the vertical face of the building.

In the photos below (please click to enlarge), you can see that instead of this district differentiating itself through its superior historic infrastructure, it has instead been turned into a sort of umbrella corridor, where the sidewalk experience is one highlighting unattractive awnings and the metal infrastructure used to hold them up. Or, the awnings block building and storefront visibility from across the street.

DOWNTOWN DISTRICTS WILL NEVER PROVIDE “RAIN FREE” SHOPPING EXPERIENCES

“But what about the rain, Michele?”

I hear this a lot. And okay, I grant you, many of the communities I work with are in the Pacific Northwest. But really, at the end of the day, no one is making a decision about where to shop based upon whether or not a building has an awning.

This desire to create a rain-free shopping environment is a vestige of the postwar abandonment of downtowns and mixed-use districts for the mall. And, it doesn’t work.

An economically successful downtown has striking buildings and vibrant, engaging storefronts with well lit window displays. It should be an environment that entices visitors to stay, to shop, to grab a cup of coffee, to want to discover what is around the next corner. Any shopper that comes to one particular store, becomes a potential shopper for every other store. The pedestrian is king and they are what drive sales per square foot. These browsers have to go to and from their car. They have to cross the street. They cannot be protected from the rain every single moment they are in a downtown district. So don’t even try to provide this service.

The question I always ask property owners and business owners is this: “If a potential shopper is standing across the street from your building, will they make the journey through traffic to walk to your store?” I want to know if they see anything compelling, because a true test of a district’s health is a walker’s willingness to cross the street to sample wares on the other side of the road.

As these owners contemplate their buildings and businesses (I like to do this literally standing outside, gazing at their property), I follow up with these inquiries, “Do shoppers think, ‘Hey, there’s an awning over there, and it’s huge, so I’m going to go to that store!’ Or, is what really grabs their attention the quality of the building, the visibility and attractiveness of the storefront, and how well the products are merchandised?”

FORM SHOULD FOLLOW FUNCTION—AWNINGS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO ECONOMIC SUCCESS

In a district where all of the buildings have had awnings forever, it is very difficult to get people to change their approach to building and storefront design. They tend to assume the awning will be kept and that all decisions related to appearance will stem from there. This is designing from the awning inward. Instead, owners should be designing from the building/store outward. First, make the building as appealing as possible. Second, draw attention to the storefront and merchandise. Third, come up with an attractive sign and lighting scheme. Then and only then should you contemplate an awning. I can’t tell you how often I have to stress that an awning is an accessory, not the main attraction, and it should be considered last in the design process, not first.

My general rule of thumb is that awnings are useful when they:

  • Do not dominate the vertical facade of a building; and
  • Are defining an outdoor room that is an extension of the storefront, bringing the business out to the sidewalk, engaging pedestrians in street level dialog.

But remember, awnings are difficult to light appropriately, often detract from building appeal, invariably block transom windows, and create dark caves that decrease storefront visibility. So, unless a business is going to aggressively make the area under their awning part of their store or restaurant, then lose it. Just forget about it.

Good examples of awnings that create positive, engaging ground floor environments are shown in the photographs below (please click to enlarge).

A final note on the role of the public sector in regards to awnings: cities should not be in the business of requiring awnings, especially as they are often temporary finishes on existing buildings. Making structures host an awning unnecessarily constrains architectural design for new buildings and puts a huge burden on existing buildings, which must shoulder these appendages even when they literally have no use. Stipulating awnings also has the unintended consequence of ensuring that there will be a plethora of canopies in poor condition because those who don’t really want an awning will refuse to incur the expense of replacing it, so tired old awnings will become the norm.

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Call of the Mall, a Review

by Michele Reeves on May 20, 2011

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I should preface this review by saying that I have a total and unabashed professional crush on Paco Underhill. There. I said it. It’s out there. Objectivity compromised.

In the breezy Call of the Mall, published in 2004, Paco takes the reader on a personal tour of the mall…top to bottom. At various points, different shoppers and experts join you on the tour, but Paco is the master of ceremonies and the reader is along for the ride to observe and learn.

The book flows quickly and easily, so much so that one could make the mistake of thinking it too frothy, but, as usual with Mr. Underhill, there is much to digest about the strengths and weaknesses of the enclosed mall: the horrible exterior architecture, the lack of activation in the sea of parking, the store mix and how it has changed over time, how the mall is laid out and the subsequent challenges to merchandising, the rise of entertainment in the mall, the demographic draw of the mall, how other countries put their cultural stamp on the enclosed mall…it’s all there.

Although this edition was published some time ago, it is still very topical, with the exception perhaps on trends regarding mall relevancy. For instance, the recent recession has hit strip malls more heavily than enclosed malls, on average, which is a bit counter to the conclusions of this book. I also found myself wanting to dig more…wanting more in depth analysis on the future of the mall, and a clearer idea of where exactly the enclosed mall still thrives, where it does not, and why. These are important questions because we’ve had a roughly ten-fold increase in the amount of retail space in the US since 1960, and as a result, I don’t believe it likely that we’re going to be absorbing a lot of new shop square footage without cannibalizing existing malls. Where is this abandonment likely to happen, how do we prevent it, in what ways can we mitigate the effects?

In fairness to Mr. Underhill, a lot of my aformentioned questions were not really within the scope of Call of the Mall to answer.

Highlights for me included:

  1. His observation that enclosed malls are built by real estate people, not by merchants, and that this is evidenced by their design: walled fortresses ringed by a sea of unattractive parking that no retailer in his right mind would create as an enticing entrance to a shopping experience.

  2. The dramatic shift in how we demonstrate our wealth, a casualty of which is the jewelry store. In the past, successful men descended into the guarded inner sanctum of a jewelry store to discreetly purchase baubles for their women — wives and mistresses — who proudly wore these very public symbols of their man’s success. In this day and age, it’s hard to picture someone like Mark Zuckerberg dipping into high-end jewelry stores with regularity to buy outrageously expensive items for his girlfriend, a la Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the idea just seems silly. The other change impacting the jewelry biz is that women actually buy their own pretty bangles now, and they have vastly different expectations about store environment, product selection, and pricing than the model that has worked for generations.

  3. The way other countries put their own cultural stamp on the enclosed mall, particularly with the incorporation of fine dining, healthy dining, and/or high-end grocery stores. I remember when I lived in Taiwan, I would shop at the Japanese Sogo department store, which occupied a huge multi-story building. The basement was a wonderful supermarket and the ground floor had fresh bakeries, amazing prepared food and small restaurants. It put an American food court to shame! (I am swooning at the memory.)

  4. I learned that fragrance being located near the front door of department stores is a holdover from the days when the main entrance would open to a street filled with horse manure. Fascinating!

  5. His insights about how teenagers use the mall, particularly girls, were riveting.

    Teenage girls love malls best, I think — and here, according to a survey, is what they say they want in malls: a hangout-type Internet café-coffee shop (the kind of slacker paradise you find in cities, usually peopled with unemployed dot-commers); movies theaters; big seating/socializing areas; places that boys might like; amusements, such as Ferris wheels and so on; and sports, including bowling alleys, batting cages, miniature golf, tennis. It’s a long list.

    One teenage girl tried to describe what would be in her perfect mall.

    “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Washington Square in New York,” she began, “but it’s this park, and they have these tables with like built-in checkerboards on top?”

    These kids crave cities — they want to be a part of the human spectacle that exists whenever people come together. Sadly, what we’ve given them instead is malls.

Photo by Flickr user Christopher Woo used under a Creative Commons license.

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So, You Wanna Open a Restaurant in Portland…

by Michele Reeves on April 13, 2011

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Portland, Oregon is a foodie mecca these days, luring chefs and inspiring restaurateurs with our unbeatable access to an incredible array of locally grown produce and meat. (And when I say “local,” I mean practically a stone’s throw from the city.)

If you count yourself among the intrepid souls who want to make their culinary mark in Stumptown, then read on because this is what you need to know…

We keep senior hours. Portland is a tough town if you plan on completing two full turns a night for a sit-down restaurant, because everyone in this city wants to eat between 6:30 pm and 7:00 pm. That’s it. Not before. Not after. And we don’t do late night en masse. 8:45 pm is late night here. Really late. (Tony Ten01 closes January 2011.)

There are five people with money to burn in Bridge City. We just don’t have the wage base to support a lot of high-end restaurants…so we don’t. They come, and, unfortunately, they go. If your entree items are all consistently over $25, you are going to have a tough time making it. Successful restaurants that do well in good times and bad usually are perceived to be a good value (large portions, for instance) or carry a perception of value (tapas, for instance, something you could order a few wee bites of and leave with a small check. You never do, but you could…). (Lucier lasted approximately seven months).

We’re a one horse city. I mean that affectionately, and love everything that it implies. Unfortunately, for restaurateurs, that means our people to restaurant ratio is low. So, unless you sell massive amounts of really cheap food along with a low-margin item that you produce yourself (beer, for instance), don’t even think about opening a restaurant much bigger than about 1,500 SF. If you do, I can guarantee (okay, almost guarantee) that you won’t fill it and you won’t make it. (12,000 SF Todai closes in January 2011).

Don’t recreate the Taj Mahal. Many a great restaurant has been felled by ambitious buildouts in this town. For all of the previously-mentioned reasons, you have to keep your establishment nimble. Tenant improvements should be simple and cheap and square footage (and therefore requisite staffing) minimized as much as possible so that you have manageable overhead expenses. If you don’t, you will be treading water and losing money until you close. The smartest operators are very savvy about finding spots with landlords willing to do a lot of tenant improvement work, taking over existing restaurant space, or buying a failing restaurant that they can rebrand. (Fenouil Falls in April 2011).

The food press/blogs have their favorites! They adore their native sons here — not necessarily homegrown talent, but people who have worked their way up through the ranks in well regarded local establishments. Like all cities, there are incredibly mediocre restaurants that get great press, and there are gems that get no lovin’. Just remember, if you are a hotshot chef from another city, don’t expect to ride into Portland and be greeted with fanfare. (Kin Restaurant Review).

Location, location, location. Portland has a ton of retail options, which is great…and not so great. We have neighborhood commercial, downtown, and dense mid-rise and high-rise districts. And, within these, are a million micro markets with very powerful and distinct identities. On top of all of that, we are loathe to leave the little quadrant of the city we call home (N/NE, SE, SW, and NW). You can be a great eatery, but if you are mismatched with your neighborhood, you are going to have to work harder, much harder, to lure people in your doors. (Belly says Bon Voyage in April 2011).

UPDATE: Kin has closed its doors. The Portland Mercury said it better than I could:

In a perfect world, the culinary community would have been proud enough of chef Kevin Shikami’s assertive yet delicate flavors and superior technique to support his admittedly shitty location and relatively high price points. The restaurant is beautiful, cozy, and serves great food. It’s a damn shame when that’s not enough.

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A Tale of Two Hospitals: The Institutional Effect

by Michele Reeves on January 19, 2011

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If an event center, or hospital, or college plunks down in your neighborhood, does it inevitably create a crater of blight and low property values? Or, is it possible to weave large institutions into the fabric of an urban community? Right here in Portland, two major in-city hospitals provide a stark contrast in success at integrating into their surroundings, giving us a great window into what works and what doesn’t.

Legacy Good Samaritan was founded in 1875 in Northwest Portland. Its roots were firmly planted in a pre-automobile era of urban planning when streetcars were king and pedestrianism was recognized as a viable form of transportation. And, luckily for the neighborhood, that history still shines through to this day.

In the modern era, the hospital has continued to adapt to its environment in two important ways. First, they have mirrored the character of the neighborhood with the choice of brick as a facade for their buildings. Second, as they have expanded into other buildings and parts of the neighborhood, the street grid structure has been maintained, with employees and patients using sky-bridges and city sidewalks to travel from place to place rather than vacating streets to build super block sites that would create a walled-off medical campus. The preservation of the grid has allowed the neighborhood to flow through the hospital structures instead of around them, which has led to this vast medical complex successfully being absorbed into the community instead of becoming a single-use crater in the center of it.

It is no accident that the successful absorption of Good Samaritan is directly linked to the fact that it is located in one of Portland’s most dense districts, which has been able to support its presence and still maintain a diversity of interests in the immediate surrounding neighborhood, including multifamily residential, retail, office, public school, religious, and medical uses.

This variety of uses coupled with the open grid also encourages this large medical institution to open up to the neighborhood. When a walled-off campus is created, the people within the campus are less likely to leave it and mingle with, and become a part of, the social fabric immediately outside their door.

However, to say that Good Samaritan has no negative impact on its surroundings would be an overstatement. Although NW 23d Ave, along which the hospital is located, is one of Portland’s strongest neighborhood commercial retail districts, it has developed more completely in the areas to the north and south of the hospital’s only super block site, shown in the photo to the left. As you can plainly see, this particular medical building was designed in such a way that it a) does not interact with the streetscape in the least, and b) it creates a two-block blank, which can be a death blow to a retail district, disturbing shopping continuity and becoming a border, beyond which visitors prefer not to venture.

Ideally, along this NW 23rd Ave frontage, Good Samaritan would have integrated active retail storefronts that could have contributed to a more intense street level experience, in character with the surrounding commercial buildings. It is no surprise that the buildings near the super block (pictured left) have been slow to renovate.

As a counterpoint to fairly successful integration, I offer you the Legacy Emanuel campus, pictured to the right, which is a prime example of an institution that has walled itself off after razing the surrounding neighborhood so that no trace of its original character remains. Founded in 1912, this medical center underwent major expansion in the 70s that dovetailed with other disastrous postwar urban renewal projects—specifically Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5—that decimated the minority mixed-use commercial districts in the Albina neighborhood.

When driving south along N Vancouver Ave, as you near the hospital the entire feel on the one way couplet changes. You almost feel as if you could be in a suburban office park. Incredibly, the city’s largest trauma hospital is not even visible from the street. Only a sign informs you that you are in the vicinity of a medical facility. Instead of being lined with the streetcar-era mixed-use buildings and warehouses that are more typical of this area, near Legacy Emanuel, N Vancouver Ave is lined with parking structures that continue for blocks and blocks. True, they are nicely landscaped, but they act as a wall nonetheless. Pictured below are these barriers.

Behind the greened parking edifices sits the hospital. The physical impression that Legacy Emanuel is “other” is made loud and clear. It is a citadel of medicine that does not articulate or interact with the vestiges of the commercial and residential uses that still exist in the area. (Unfortunately, the stock of buildings that dotted this formerly vibrant district are long gone.)

Other problems in this area include a disconnected grid with one-way streets as well as the deep canyon that Interstate 5 creates to the west of the hospital, further reducing connectivity to other parts of the city. Additionally, Legacy Emanuel controls much of the undeveloped land surrounding the hospital, creating an even larger dead zone of surface parking and empty lots.

Essentially, they have successfully designed a single-use medical district that is, as a result, unsafe and unsightly. The hospital’s very presence impedes revitalization on its back doorstep, even though renewal is happening nearby on N Williams Ave, N Mississippi Ave and NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The impact of this lack of diversity of use and functioning grid is keenly felt in Dawson City Park located across from the hospital, shown here. It is a public gathering place whose biggest constituents, on a per square foot basis, are a two-story low-rise office building with mirrored windows and a series of parking garages. It’s no wonder that its success as a public amenity is now mixed, at best.

This tale of two hospitals is an oft-told story that emerged from many city centers during the early days of urban renewal. The dense district with political clout staved off construction projects that would have destroyed the tight knit network of blocks, and in so doing, ultimately saved the neighborhood. The vibrant minority district, without the political clout, absorbed the full impact of nearly every large new public works project post World War II — Memorial Coliseum, Interstate 5, and the expansion of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

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The Retail Genius of Trader Joe’s

by Michele Reeves on November 2, 2010

Trader Joes Edamame

During my brokerage days, most of the neighborhoods in which I worked gave me this very clear message (with wide stakeholder agreement):

“WE DON’T WANT ANY NATIONAL CHAINS.”

Okay, check. Then, I would ask them what they did want, and with a completely straight face, they would vehemently answer:

“TRADER JOE’S.”

That wasn’t confusing! But, Trader Joe’s is a great example of a retailer with incredible caché, even amongst chain-haters.

These savvy retailers keep operating costs low by moving into existing buildings, when possible. They don’t spend a fortune on fancy buildouts and expensive merchandising. They hew to their brand relentlessly. They don’t expand willy nilly. I have always marveled at their ability to turn what is essentially a high-end convenience store into something palatable to educated foodies!

Given that, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the founder of Trader Joe’s came from a convenience store background, which I discovered in this engaging article about the grocer in Fortune magazine.

There are many interesting tidbits in this must-read about the privately held German company, like the fact that it is a privately held German company! I was particularly impressed with examples of how Trader Joe’s focuses on the customer:

A ringing bell instead of an intercom signals that more help is needed at the registers. Registers don’t have conveyor belts or scales, and perishables are sold by unit instead of weight, speeding up checkout. Crew members aren’t told the margins on products, so placement decisions are made based not on profits but on what’s best for the shopper. Every employee works all aspects of the store, and if you ask where the roasted chestnuts are he’ll walk you over instead of just saying “aisle five.” Want to know what they taste like? He can probably tell you, and he might even open the bag on the spot for you to try.

Fortune also dishes some dirt on who Trader Joe’s suppliers are, including busting the myth that products are all sourced from small, local, organic enterprises.

Some of that may be because Trader Joe’s business tactics are often very much at odds with its image as the funky shop around the corner that sources its wares from local farms and food artisans. Sometimes it does, but big, well-known companies also make many of Trader Joe’s products. Those Trader Joe’s pita chips? Made by Stacy’s, a division of PepsiCo’s (PEP, Fortune 500) Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone’s Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don’t like to think about how Trader Joe’s scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.

In the vein of exploring supply chains, I would have liked to know more about their sourcing procedures, and the subsequent impact of those procedures on smaller vendors, because the store’s image is strongly tied to products that are purported to be artisanal. Do they sign contracts with firm commitments to orders, or do they ask small businesses to expand with only “intents to purchase?” Grocers such as Trader Joe’s carry a big stick, and I am curious to know if they wield that stick with local businesses, and if so, how often?

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