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6 Largest Organic Retailers in North America 2011

Mainstream grocers still rule the roost in the organic retail sector

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In 2010, the largest organic retailers in the United States were all mainstream organic grocery stores, and that hasn't changed in 2011. Traditional grocery stores are still pulling in the lion's share of organic profits, over smaller natural food stores and specialty grocers, such as Trader Joe's.

What has changed this year is that organic sales, consumer interest in organics and organic grocery retail offerings have all grown.

According to the Organic Trade Association, 2009 U.S. organic sales, including organic food and non-food products, totaled $26.6 billion. More recent reports, gathered from Organic Trade Association's 2011 Organic Industry Survey show that the organic industry grew nicely to over $28.6 billion in 2010, with organic food outpacing growth related to total food sales.

How this list came together:

There's very little research regarding organic sales at mainstream grocery stores. Past research does show that organic food is the largest selling sector of the industry, and that most organic food is sold at mainstream grocers. Based on this research, I've gathered grocers who sell a fair to large amount of organics and who are also experiencing decent profits and growth for their size. However, without more research, there are no absolute certainties about who the largest organic retailers are.

1. Walmart

Walmart Organics - largest organic retailers
Photo courtesy Walmart

Retail Units: More than 9759 retail units under 60 different banners in 28 countries.

2011 Sales: Walmart had revenues for the full year 2011 of $419.0 billion.

Amount of Organic Products: In 2006, some Walmart store offered as many as 400 organic products. As the years have gone by, Walmart has increased those offerings. Currently, organic food, clothing and other organic products are available at Walmart.

The bad:

In 2011, as always, people are fussing and fighting over Walmart organics. Some feel that Walmart's ability to sell organics for less undercuts local grocers and other natural food grocers. They've been accused of mislabeling conventional food products as organic and accused of sourcing low-integrity organics from factory farms, as have others on this list - Kroger, Target, Safeway and Costco.

The good:

Walmart has many sustainable practices in place, which of course doesn't mean they carry the best organics, but it is a perk, especially since consumers want organics and green practices. Walmart has also developed partnerships with many local organic farmers, and in fact have set goals to double the sale of locally sourced produce by 2015.

Walmart is also the largest grower of organic cotton in the world, although debates abound regarding just how sustainable their organic cotton is.

Obviously one of the biggest perks of Walmart organics is their ability to bring organics to more people in more places. With a Walmart on every corner, it's easy for consumers to find the organics they want and at lower prices. Having organics at Walmart does help increase consumer knowledge about organics and supports the organic industry in general.

Still, when it comes to organics, integrity is as important as availability, so the Walmart organic debate will rage on. As Michael Pollan once wrote in 2006, "You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the advantage of making organic food accessible to more Americans is outweighed by the damage Wal-Mart may do to the practice and meaning of organic food production." Good advice when considering any mainstream grocery store organics.

2. Costco

Costco Organics - largest organic retailers
Photo © Flickr user miamism

Retail Units: 592 locations in the U.S and other countries.

2011 Sales: Costco Wholesale Corporation had revenues for the full year 2011 of $88.9 billion.

Amount of Organic Products: Organic food offerings at Costco have grown in recent years, but like other mainstream grocers, it's hard at times for Costco to meet organic demand.

The bad:

Like other mainstream grocers, Costco has faced major heat for selling factory farmed organics. Also, organic selections at Costco can be hit or miss, especially where fresh organic produce is concerned.

The good:

Costco has an excellent sales record and a huge consumer base. Many Americans love club-style stores, so the fact that Costco carries organics opens up the organic industry to lots of new consumers.

3. Kroger

Kroger Organics - largest organic retailers
Photo © Flickr user NatalieMaynor

Retail Units: Kroger operates nearly 2,500 stores in 31 states under two dozen banners.

2011 Sales:The Kroger Co. had revenues for the full year 2011 of $82.2 billion.

Amount of Organic Products: Kroger offers two in-house organic brands; Kroger’s Naturally Preferred and Private Selection Organic. Plus Kroger carries mainstream organics as well, such as Organic Valley and local organics are available depending on location.

The bad: Kroger's organic selections at many of their stores is sketchy at best. While they do carry a decent amount of organics, they don't carry typical organics at all times. Such as, you may or may not find organic bread or yogurt in stock. Also their organics tend to be strung out all over the store, vs. gathered together in their “Nature’s Market” departments, making it hard for consumers to find what they need.

Beyond a few bars of soap, I've personally never seen any actual certified organic body care items sold at any Kroger store I've been to, which yes, is very annoying. Additionally, Kroger has been accused of carrying factory farmed milk.

The good:

Although, as stated above, they're hard to locate, Kroger does offer a wide selection of organic products, including fairly decent produce selections (depending on the store). They also only sell rBST-free milk. Plus, Kroger Manufacturing operates a variety of certified organic processing facilities, which further helps support the organic industry.

4. SuperTarget

Target Organics - largest organic retailers
Photo © Flickr user kevin dooley

Retail Units: Today, Target operates nearly 1,750 stores in 49 states, including more than 240 SuperTarget stores

2011 Sales: Target Corp. had revenues for the full year 2011 of $67.4 billion.

Amount of Organic Products:

SuperTarget offers approximately 700 organic products from several brands.

The bad:

Target, like many others on this list, have been accused of selling factory farmed, low-integrity organics.

The good:

SuperTarget stores have seriously increased their organic offerings over the last year, and even carry a few organic body care and organic baby products. Their organic prices are reasonable and the fact that they offer organics makes organics more visible to consumers in general.

5. Safeway

Safeway Organics - largest organic retailers
Photo courtesy Safeway

Retail Units: There are currently 1,702 Safeway stores across the US and Canada.

2011 Sales: Safeway Inc. had revenues for the full year 2010 of $41.1 billion.

Amount of Organic Products: Safeway's O Organics includes over 300 certified organic products available in almost every aisle of their grocery store, and they sell other brands of organics as well.

The bad:

Safeway is likely the quietest grocer on this list. They're not very controversial or all that wonderful when it comes to organics. Safeway's organic produce selection leaves much to be desired and this retailer is accused of carrying factory farmed organic dairy products.

Also, some think that Safeway is pushing out the competition by getting rid of smaller organic brands in order to sell more of their own O Organics brand. Lastly, Safeway has introduced some questionable, "Natural" offerings that may confuse consumers into buying these natural products over organics.

The good:

Safeway's growth in organics is growing and O Organics is considered a cost-effective alternative to other organic brands.

6. Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods Market Organics - largest organic retailers
Photo courtesy Whole Foods Market

Retail Units: More than 310 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

2011 Sales: Revenue is projected at $10.12 billion for 2011.

Amount of Organic Products: No clear figures, but it's arguable that for their size, Whole Foods Market offers more organic products than anywhere else. Some estimate that Whole Foods carries thousands of organic items, including private-label organic products.

The bad: Of course Whole Foods is smaller than other grocers on this list, but to not include them seems downright wrong. However, one con of this retailer is that they're not as available to everyone, simply because they don't have as any stores in as many areas, as say Walmart does.

Overall though, there's very little badness going on at Whole Foods this year. While in the past they've been teased for their, "Whole pay-check prices" that's not the case today. In response to current economic times, Whole Foods has lowered prices, placed emphasis on store brand organics and recently rolled out "extreme value" items.

Another controversy this year includes some who say Whole Foods has caved to Monsanto, but Whole Foods has responded to this debate, noting that they're not on board with GMOs. Whole Foods also participates in the Non-GMO Project.

The good:

Whole Foods offers many organic perks such as you can walk into their store at any time and know you'll find the organic food item you need. The sheer amount of organic food items carried at Whole Foods is awesome. They also offer plenty of prepared certified organic foods in their bakeries and deli areas, while other grocers do not.

Additionally, of all the stores on this list, Whole Foods is the only one to demand that organic body care and cosmetic companies come clean about organic labeling - meaning, as of June 11, 2011, Whole Foods requires that all organic personal care products sold in their U.S. stores must be certified organic.

Furthermore, even in a down economy, Whole Foods is experiencing growth. Walter Robb, Whole Foods' co-chief executive, said in a recent statement, "We are continuing to gain market share at a faster rate than most public food retailers."

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