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Chicago’s unique retail landscape

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From ongoing consolidation, store closures, and the rising popularity of online ordering, Chicago’s intensely competitive retail scene continues to undergo major shifts.

“The big change for us was that we had a couple of smaller independent guys close down this year,” said T.J. Fleming, director of sales with Strube Celery & Vegetable Company BB #:102030. “One of them was a long-standing retail chain, Treasure Island.”

A family-run local chain of European-style supermarkets founded in 1963, Treasure Island had six locations. The stores, which sold domestic and imported foods and were renowned for exceptional service, permanently closed in October 2018.

Some industry experts predict other independents will soon follow suit. After Dominick’s closed in 2014, new retailers flooded the Chicago market to the point of saturation. This surplus, combined with the explosion in online grocery sales and delivery, will likely force others to shut down.

Fleming says that while some independents may be going out of business, others are on the rise.

“Tony’s Fresh Market is growing for us, and so is Pete’s Produce,” he said. “Chicago has always been really strong with independent retailers.” He believes the trend will continue, though a few may “fall by the wayside” due to competition.

One chain thriving in the Chicagoland area is Fresh Thyme Farmers Market BB #:290751, headquartered in Downers Grove, about 20 miles southwest of the Chicago International Produce Market (CIPM).

Scott Schuette, vice president of produce for the grocer, explains the chain’s concept: “Fresh Thyme combines the spirit of a weekend farmers market and the convenience of a neighborhood store.”

The product lineup includes an extensive private label program. “We’re very proud of our private label offering, with more than 1,500 on-trend products available.”

Then, of course, there’s plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

“We believe fresh produce is the cornerstone of good health and prominently feature it in the heart of the store,” said Schuette. Fresh items, including locally sourced product whenever possible, account for 60 percent of each store’s footprint.

Though Fresh Thyme sources directly from some growers, stores in northern Illinois also work with CIPM merchants on a regular basis. “We source products directly and indirectly from the Chicago terminal market as needed every week.”

With 75 stores in 11 states, and more on the way, the Fresh Thyme theme seems to be working. New locations will open in Geneva, IL, as well as Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania this year.

Schuette says square footage is purposely small, at around 28,000 square feet, “to make the shopping experience as convenient and enjoyable as possible.” This includes an in-store kids’ attraction where children can sample food, including fresh produce.

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full version.