Two new groups assessed retailer interest at Natural Products Expo East in working collaboratively to help independent naturals retailers stay afloat as mainstream competition increases.

The Independent Natural Food Retailers Association held two information sessions to inform independents about the Minneapolis-based organization.

A second new company, Natural Synergies, collected contact information from retailers at East, hoping to launch a suite of products and services for independent retailers at Expo West in March.

The groups have different structures and revenue models, but share an interest in keeping independent naturals retailers in business by negotiating collectively with vendors.

?We?re going to give natural foods retailers the voice that they need in the industry,? said Scott Roseman, president of New Leaf Community Markets of Santa Cruz, Calif., and a founder of INFRA. ?This organization is in its infancy and I?m already experiencing the benefits.?

Jim Someck, founder of Jimbo?s ? Naturally! in San Diego, is chairman of INFRA, which incorporated as a cooperative in Minnesota in August. Other founding retailers include Earth Fare of Asheville, N.C., and New Frontiers Natural Foods of Solvang, Calif.

Twelve retailers have joined INFRA, ranging from The Free Market in Appleton, Wis., with less than $500,000 in annual sales, to the $40 million Earth Fare, said executive director Corinne Shindelar. As a cooperative, INFRA requires an equity investment based on a percentage of sales. Programs already running include shared purchasing of ancillary business services such as office supplies, plus member community and action groups, including a peer-to-peer ?Buddy System? that matches stores of similar size to share ideas and solve problems.

Building community is a critical goal. ?It does not matter what size your store is,? Shindelar said. ?Every time an independent closes its doors, it impacts everybody. ? It?s really about organizing around the similarities.?

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

? Independent Natural Food Retailers Association
612.724.1530
www.naturalfoodretailers.net

? Natural Synergies
310.229.5958
www.natural-synergies.com
Although its program is still under development, Los Angeles-based Natural Synergies intends to establish an organization modeled after the True Value and Ace Hardware cooperatives, offering member stores a range of services, from purchasing and distribution to new store development, merchandising and marketing services.

Under its business model, revenues for Natural Synergies will come from a percentage of the volume discounts and rebates the group hopes to glean from manufacturers, bringing the cost of goods for independents closer to prices that giant mass-market stores and big naturals chains are able to negotiate.

?We did sourcing for Wal-Mart in Latin America,? said Natural Synergies partner Michael Iaslovits. ?We swam with the big fish.?

Dean Yachison joined Natural Synergies from Health First Network, a Canadian cooperative, formerly United Health Merchants, that has grown to more than 100 independent retailers. Among its programs, Health First developed a private-label line, negotiated with key vendors and developed flier and newsletter services for its members.

?The program is running very nicely up here,? Yachison said. Natural Synergies originally intended to duplicate Health First Network?s Canadian success in Latin America until Natural Synergies? founders discovered that nothing like it existed in the United States.

?There?s a huge opportunity to assist and support those stores,? Yachison said. ?In Canada, 80 percent [of Health First members] were in the business because it was a way of life. It?s a lifestyle that they?ve enjoyed, that they would like to hand down to their children. The big corporations don?t understand the passion behind it.?

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 11/p. 1, 10