t is the weekend, and I have nowhere to be but exactly where I am. On this particular Saturday, it is the bustling farmers market. I wander from stall to stall, plucking yellow pears, handfuls of radishes, and leafy kales and lettuces, so rich and green, for my basket. As I pass by the pumpkins—palming a gourd so colossal I imagine baking the largest (and only!) pumpkin pie I’ve ever made—the intercom alerts shoppers—wait, the intercom? I look around, shaken out of my reverie to remember I am shopping in a Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, a Midwestern grocery chain with an ambiance and dedication to fresh produce similar to that of your local farmers market.
It’s an easy mistake to make given that it’s not a mistake at all, but a carefully constructed concept that pulls from Fresh Thyme’s mission to provide consumers real food at real values, all within the excitement of a farmers market-type atmosphere.
“Fresh Thyme Farmers Market continues to be the trusted neighborhood store that helps Midwestern consumers eat well and be well,” Scott Schuette, Vice President of Produce, explains to me. “Focusing more on our core channel of customers is the niche marketing that originally created this format. Ensuring that we are also cutting edge when it comes to leading trends and product innovation in the natural, organic world is where we excel.”
And excel it has, with Scott noting that the grocer has opened almost 100 stores since first embarking on its retail journey only five years ago.
“Our latest evolution shows an expanded effort at being the best at all the core areas of our mission by staying hyper-focused to our core channel and customer” - Scott Schuette, Vice President of Produce, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market
“Opening almost 100 stores within a five-year period of time is no easy accomplishment. Now that the strong store-count foundation has been laid, it is time for us to strengthen the walls,” Scott tells me. “The next year for Fresh Thyme will consist of slower new store growth, which will allow us to focus on a very aggressive training and development program designed to strengthen the core store teams.”
Part of this development program includes optimizing its operations on all fronts. While farmers markets around the world might have started off as a face-to-face exchange in the middle of towns, the concept is undergoing a remodel that Fresh Thyme is leading. Specifically, the grocer is technologizing the farmers market idea and adapting it to be available at both brick and mortar and online.
“In produce, we resorted back to our original roots of what makes up a true farmers market: customer excitement of treasure-hunt type items. To provide these items to our customers every week, the produce department is currently implementing a revolutionary ordering forecast tool that utilizes artificial intelligence and our short five-year history,” Scott details. “This system is proving to be a gamechanger for better controlling potential out-of-stock issues while greatly reducing shrink caused by over-ordering.”
Fresh Thyme has also converted its format to be available to online shoppers, a fact that both keeps it competitive in the vast retail market and fits well with its niche shoppers. I’m mostly referencing the brutal Midwest winters, which Scott notes have only reinforced the need for online grocery options—maybe unsurprising for those of you who live in states that experience all four seasons, unlike us in sunny California.
“Providing our customers with a viable option to online shopping has been one area of improvement that continues to grow for Fresh Thyme,” Scott says.
And, as it grows, Fresh Thyme continues to balance elements of nostalgia with new wave innovation. It is this balance that puts Fresh Thyme in its own category—one defined by the “wow” factor the retailer has refined by simply and consistently providing consumers with fresh, high-quality, natural, organic, and locally-sourced items at affordable pricing.
“Our produce department is one that exemplifies how we are best implementing our strategy. For example, we continue to increase our organic sales by improving our product assortment, promotional activity, and in-store merchandising,” Scott explains, cluing me into how Fresh Thyme chases after that “wow” factor. “Another one of our biggest success stories has been converting key conventional categories over to high-performing organic categories. This has included categories like carrots, mushrooms, and, soon, packaged salads.”
In terms of promotions and in-store merchandising, Fresh Thyme drives consumer traffic to the produce department with commonly-used and effective front-page ad flyers and an easy-to-shop store layout staffed by engaging and passionate team members. But since it is Fresh Thyme we are talking about, there is, of course, a twist.
“Our customers can always count on being entertained by all of those above-and-beyond items not featured at other retailers,” Scott reveals.
In the past, these items have included unique finds like Michigan blueberries, pickling cucumbers, and bunched dill, along with other Midwest-grown, leading-edge, and trendy items.
“Promotions like these are made possible by our fast turnaround time from farms to distribution centers to stores,” Scott insists. “Our front-of-the-store key merchandising strategy, quickly expedited retail price changes, and in-store promotional signage software allows us to be quick and nimble at putting those unique, great value offerings in place, mostly within 24 hours.
All of Fresh Thyme’s stores also carry out aggressive promotional retail strategies, like front entrance merchandising. When coupled with its ever-changing assortment of items, it is no surprise that the grocer’s stores are always humming with new and returning shoppers insistent upon perusing its wares.
“These are the pillars moving the needle at Fresh Thyme,” Scott declares. “Another rewarding initiative we’ve implemented is partnering our produce teams with our front-end cashiers. Not only has the partnership strengthened cashier item identification, but it has also created additional customer service advocates for supporting our produce assortment.”
Scott discloses that many retailers struggle with how to ensure item identification at the front registers—a struggle that can result in a loss of sales and profits.
“Our recent success story has gained a lot of traction and, as a result, we have found some valuable solutions for our wholesale suppliers,” Scott describes. “The knowledge and development from this partnership continue to improve our culture while following the core mission of Fresh Thyme.”
This core mission Scott references also includes staying at the forefront of growth opportunities. In this vein, the grocer is updating its produce department to feature self-service, fresh-squeezed (or pressed) juice bars.
“We are capitalizing on the ongoing and rapidly evolving fresh-squeezed juice category. A limited number of test stores are operating full-service juice bars that provide both fresh bottled juices and freshly made glasses of your favorite fruit or veggie smoothie combination,” says Scott.
Perks like the juice bars only fortify Fresh Thyme’s farmers market concept. The juice bars, in particular, add value to the communities they reside in, similar to that of a farmers market and different from the produce aisles found in traditional retailers.
Additional programs, event sponsorships, support for local nonprofits, and a commitment to the environment also bring something special to Fresh Thyme’s community of shoppers, building on its “wow” factor from the inside out and illustrating the lengths Fresh Thyme’s unique concept can take it. And even with its expansion to include the online marketplace, the community remains one of its core focuses.
“Our latest evolution shows an expanded effort at being the best at all the core areas of our mission by staying hyperfocused to our core channel and customers,” Scott concludes. “Being the best at everything to everyone is nearly impossible to do, especially with a smaller footprint like Fresh Thyme. But we continue to try to be the best in our field by providing the healthiest foods at the healthiest values—our top priority.”
With a solid foundation in place for both online and brick and mortar, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market is treading a path I only foresee more consumers flocking to. In an age where everything is changing in the span of a single grocery trip, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market is offering a slice of grocery life that is both innovative and familiar—a combination that will surely only spell success for years to come.