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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

 

Will Kokua Market survive the arrival of Whole Foods?


Kokua Market held a grand opening for its new expansion this past Saturday. I was anxious to see whether they had grown and strengthened sufficiently to withstand the expected onslaught of Whole Foods, a powerful Mainland chain, originally scheduled to open in the Ward area in 2008.

As it happens, according to an article in the Star Bulletin, Whole Foods eyes Kahala Mall, construction has been delayed at the original site, and so Whole Foods is in negotiation for a possible opening at Kahala Mall in the space formerly occupied by Star Market.

On my mind was the closing many years ago of Software Plus just ahead of the arrival in Hawaii of big box CompUSA. The handwriting was on the wall then, and I am wondering what the appearance of two Whole Food markets will mean for comparatively tiny Kokua Market. There was no way that a local computer retailer would survive the competition from the large Mainland chain. Will a similar situation impact the health food market in Honolulu? Can Kokua Market find a niche to keep currently dedicated customers coming?

The Ward location will give Whole Foods a tremendous advantage. It will be surrounded by condos and so will have a huge nearby customer base. For many, it will be the closest food store of any kind, since there are no supermarkets located in that neighborhood. With an income most likely assured, Whole Foods may well engage in predatory pricing. Why not, it's the big-box modus operandi. It's second nature to many big-box chains.

A Kahala location will be attractive to East Honolulu customers and those wanting to grab some organic veggies on the way home from work.

No doubt Whole Foods will indulge in extensive newspaper advertising as well.

So as I cruised around Kokua Market looking for something I might buy to take advantage of the 15% member discount, I also checked out their newly expanded space to see if it would bring new advantage to shopping there. I brought my latest toy, my beloved cell-phone camera, with me to document anything special.

The new deli counter should have been a prime target, but it fully fit in my narrow viewfinder. Posting a picture would be an embarrasement, so I didn't even press the button. The cheese counter was about the same as pre-expansion, with less of a variety than at some times in the past. A demo of rice pudding was underway, but the product was nothing special, I wouldn't buy it. They'll have to do better.

With so few choices, unless the deli counter is re-thought, I wonder if it will attract very many new customers. Anyway, that was my first impression on Saturday. It would be fair to visit again and see what they're cooking up.

So what advantage might Kokua have? Standing near the deli counter, I looked around. I was surrounded with displays of packaged foods. Packaged noodles to the right of me, packaged Indian dishes to the left, packaged soups on the lower shelf.
I picked up a package of the Annie Chun's soup from the sale display next to the deli counter. These are soups of various kinds pre-packaged in a plastic bowl. The price was certainly attractive.

Turning the package over to look at the nutrition label, I first noted that a serving size is defined as 1/2 bowl. C'mon, now. That's an old ploy. Who is going to eat half a bowl and then push it across the table for the spouse to finish?? No, one bowl is a serving in real life. The 730 mg of sodium would have been outrageous for one serving, but now we're dealing with 1460 mg of sodium, or 60% of the day's allotment in this little bowl of soup! And of course, the meal will likely have some other packaged food as well, you can't live on soup alone.

Rotating 180 degrees I found myself facing a display of Indian packaged food. Picking up a Kitchens of India Palak Paneer package, I found that one serving was defined as 1/2 cup, and that a package is said to contain 2.5 servings. Right. Most people will probably divide the package in half. But for the 1/2 cup there is 800 mg of sodium, or 33% of the daily amount. And this is just one meal, not even complete yet. Also, of course, what looked like a bargain is really a high price to pay for ordinary salt.

Figure that between these two dishes one would get 100% of a day's worth of salt. And there's usually more to a meal than this.

Why did I go through this? Well, if this is what Kokua is offering... if this is what they expect me to buy on sale... I don't think so.

Sure, Whole Foods, Safeway, and other stores have products that are similarly questionable, or worse. But for a small market to survive these days, I feel it has to offer wholesome produce fresh from the market and a variety of other decent things to eat. Most of what I was surrounded by, I wouldn't take home.

On the other hand... if it's sugary cereals and quasi-health food that most people are looking for, maybe the formula is correct (sigh).

I know nothing of how to achieve success in the highly competitive retail world. Since I like shopping in Kokua, I wish for their success, and I hope they will indeed find a way to compete against relatively giant Whole Foods, which will have the junk of course, but a larger assortment of healthier choices and perhaps more competitive prices as well.

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