Chuck Robinson, assistant copy chief
Chuck Robinson, assistant copy chief

A bigger than life-sized picture of a clamshell of strawberries in a full-page newspaper ad is the way to catch my attention.

It was a full-page ad announcing the opening of a Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market store in North Kansas City, Mo. The strawberries were priced four 1-pound clamshells for $5.

Sprouts began showing up in the K.C. area last year. One is under construction near my home, and the K.C. area has five open or under construction.

I have wondered how the Sprouts stores stack up against the Price Chopper store I usually shop and also Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, since Sprouts sells a similar selection of natural and organic foods at lower prices.

Smaller format, prices make Sprouts convenient choiceOf the 13 items in the Sprouts ad, six of them were fresh produce items. Clearly produce is a big percentage of what the chain uses to draw consumers. Blackberries were aggresively priced at a buck for a 5.6-ounce container, and avocados were priced at 48 cents each.

These are the deals they chose to define themselves, to distinguish themselves from the competition.

The same week, one of our market’s big players in retail groceries, Price Chopper, also led its newspaper ad with a giant picture of strawberries.

The Price Chopper circular has only one produce item on front page of its 10-page weekly flier, but there are 21 fresh produce items featured. Blackberries, at least, were more expensive than those in the Sprouts ad.

Whole Foods doesn’t dirty its hands with newspaper ads.

The Sprouts Farmers Market chain is just a dozen years old, but it seems to be on a tear with expansion.

In 2014, Sprouts opened 24 stores.

The retailer says it plans to open 10 stores in the first quarter of 2015 and another 10 in the second quarter.

That pushes Sprouts past the 200-store mark in 12 states.

They have some mojo. The areas where Sprouts beats Whole Foods, as far as I am concerned, are lower prices, more locations and smaller, more convenient stores to navigate.

Lower prices at Sprouts compared to Whole Foods isn’t just smoke. According to an article posted in August on Bloomberg.com, a Bloomberg study showed goods at Sprouts averaged about 13% less expensive than at Whole Foods.

I know some avid Whole Food consumers. They also love Trader Joe's, another newcomer to the area. They have been to one of the early area Sprouts, but they don’t see themselves making Sprouts a habit.

My friends have a valid point. It is a different shopping experience.

Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc., in mid-January told the Phoenix Business Journal he wasn’t too alarmed by Sprouts’ surge.

“They are not Whole Foods,” Robb said. “They don’t have the same standards, though sometimes they would represent that they do.”

Sprouts is brighter and the decor has painted red barns instead of the earth-tone posh of Whole Foods and my local supermarket.

Sprouts also is much smaller. When I go into the door of a K.C.-area Sprouts, I can see the the entire store and make a beeline for what I want.

The selection at Sprouts is dinky compared to Whole Foods or area Price Choppers, too.

While at Whole Foods or Price Chopper there seem to be acres of produce, not so at Sprouts. That may be part of the plan for Sprouts. The piles of produce may create a feeling of abundance.

However, that must lead to ordering too much and creating too much spoilage. I remember this being part of the business plan for Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General Markets, which also offers a limited amount of produce.

At Sprouts, produce is placed at the back of the store. It seems to be the draw instead of one of the departments you have to go through to get into the store.

Some friends have noticed lackluster quality. Consistency problems may be alleviated when all the area stores are open and the local distribution hits its groove.

Especially when one opens near home, I imagine Sprouts being the convenient quick stop that I frequent most often, and it may eclipse how often I go to the Price Chopper.

I imagine Whole Foods remaining what it is now, the place I go to a few times a year for something special or different, maybe around the holidays and another time or two.

crobinson@thepacker.com

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