(May 28, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) SEATTLE — The Northwest’s smaller retailers are known for attracting large crowds.

The independent, natural food stores seem to be thriving in Seattle and Portland, holding their own against the major chains, as they continue to provide a little more service, value and quality than chains can afford, Northwest wholesalers agree.

PCC Natural Markets — an organic-certified, independent co-op with eight locations in greater Seattle — is one example of a smaller retail operation that is highly regarded among consumers for the breadth and quality of products it offers, its various consumer-outreach programs, attentive service and the overall ambiance inside its stores.

“PCC’s pretty unique among co-ops — they play to an upscale market,” said David Lively, marketing director for Eugene, Ore.-based Organically Grown Co., which supplies PCC. “It’s one of the first chains that I went to that really blew my socks off.”

New Seasons Market, a natural store with nine locations in Portland, Ore., also provides an enjoyable shopping experience to consumers, particularly through its sampling and educational efforts, said Maureen Royal, sales and marketing director for CF Fresh, Sedro-Woolley.

“They have great stores and very knowledgeable people,” Royal said of New Seasons. “It’s a very nice experience. They do a good job of making the consumer knowledgeable.”

It’s not an easy task staying competitive in a Northwest market that is saturated with retailers, including Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.’s Fred Meyer and QFC (Quality Food Centers) banners, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc. and Boise, Idaho-based Albertson’s LLC, said Diana Crane, communications manager for PCC, which has more than 40,000 members.

Fortunately, retailers are assisted by a customer base that enjoys cooking, Crane said.

“I’ve never seen anything like Seattle’s market — the number of grocery stores across from each other,” Crane said. “Restaurants are big here, but people really like to cook. They’re really into healthy eating.”

Indeed, retail revenues in the Northwest have risen since 2006, as Seattle market sales grew by nearly 12%, similar to Portland’s market sales, which jumped nearly 11% over a recent 52-week period, according to numbers compiled by Chatsworth, Calif.-based Fusion Marketing, which sourced data from FreshLook Marketing.

Expansion also is in the works for PCC, as it plans to open its ninth store in Edmonds, Wash., in August, which will total around 24,000 square feet and become the retailer’s flagship store, Crane said.

New Seasons also is growing, having opened its ninth store, which spans 50,000 square feet, last fall, said New Seasons’ produce buyer Jeff Fairchild.

SETTING THEMSELVES APART

One way PCC separates itself from the masses is through its PCC Cooks cooking classes, which are available in five PCC locations, and offer more than 800 cooking classes a year, Crane said.

PCC has a variety of classes, with an array of chefs, who focus on different cuisines and cooking styles and strive to incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients, Crane said.

PCC also offers complimentary taste and informational tours at all eight locations, in which PCC’s nutritionist, Goldie Caughlan, guides consumers throughout the stores.

During the tours, Caughlan provides food facts, recipes and samples, while identifying new products and answering questions, Crane said.

“It’s all about education,” Crane said.

New Seasons also has a strong sampling and educational program, with a person on location five days a week offering samples, Fairchild said.

One of PCC’s new initiatives, designed to encourage consumption among children, is the Kid Picks program, wherein children get to choose a complimentary fruit or vegetable each time they visit, Crane said.

To receive Kid Picks approval, an item must be voted upon by at least 30 kid judges, and at least two-thirds must consent. Once a product is Kid Picks approved, it is identified in the produce department and on PCC’s Web site, Crane said.

“It’s been wildly popular,” Crane said of Kid Picks.

Another promotional tool PCC uses to endorse fresh produce is its retrofitted bus that’s driven to schools, community activities and other stores to tout fruits and vegetables, she said.

PCC has plenty of produce to promote, considering its Fremont, Wash., store has more than 350 types of produce available throughout the year, with a large emphasis on locally grown and organic, as all stores are certified organic, Crane said.

New Seasons’ produce department typically stocks between 75% and 80% organic, and during the Northwest’s peak growing season, offers around 65% locally grown product.

The deli sections in PCC stores, which focus on to-go items, also are incorporating more fresh products — including fresh-cut fruits and vegetables and pre-made salads that are chopped in house — and are growing in popularity among consumers, Crane said.

To enhance convenience at its stores, PCC also plans to install self-checkout stations in the near future, Crane said.

DISPOSABLE BAG FEE

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has proposed implementing a 20 cent “green fee” for each disposable shopping bag used at grocery, convenience and drugstores in an effort to reduce the city’s waste.

The proposal must be approved by the City Council, and if approved, the fee will go into effect Jan. 1, Crane said.

Nickels also has proposed a ban on plastic foam containers for foodservice items, such as trays, plates and beverage cups, that would take effect the same time, Crane said.

By July 2010, plastic foodservice products, such as coffee cups and utensils, must be replaced by 100% recyclable and compostable items, Crane said.

“All of this is quite a challenge but very exciting,” said Crane, whose company eliminated the use of plastic shopping bags at all stores in October and now offers polypropylene totes and canvas totes at cost, she said.

The idea behind the 20 cent fee is that retailers with annual sales of more than $1 million keep a nickel from the fee and give the remaining 15 cents to the city, whereas retailers who bring in less than $1 million keep the entire 20 cents, Crane said.

Seattle Public Utilities expects to collect around $10 million annually from the fee, a portion of which will help residents switch to reusable bags, while the remainder will advocate waste prevention and environmental education in Seattle, according to an article published on www.msnbc.com.

Roughly 360 million paper and plastic shopping bags are annually used in Seattle, which equates to about 8,500 tons of greenhouse gases.

Seattle would be the first U.S. city to initiate a charge on disposable bag use, and Ireland is the only country that has tested this system, Crane said.