By Ken Roseboro
Published: April 4, 2012
Category: Non-GMO company profiles
California natural food retailer’s non-GMO commitment increases customer loyalty while educating consumers and industry about GMO threats
With sales now topping $1 billion per year, non-GMO is the fastest growing natural food category. That growth is most visible in retail stores where more and more products display the Non-GMO Project verified seal to assure consumers that the products contain no genetically modified ingredients.
Some pioneering retailers are taking their non-GMO commitment to the next level by promoting Non-GMO Project verified products and refusing to stock foods with ingredients that have GMO risks.
A good example is Jimbo’s… Naturally, a natural and organic food retail chain with four stores in the San Diego, California area.
Owner Jimbo Someck has long been passionate about organic foods. Since opening his first store in 1984, he has built relationships with many local organic farmers who supply produce to his stores.
But in the past few years, as he learned about the threats posed by GMOs, Jimbo said he became “extremely passionate” about not carrying products that had GMO risk. “I felt GMOs were wrong and that they were damaging to organics.”
In March 2010 Jimbo established a non-GMO policy: new products that contained ingredients at-risk to GMO contamination—those derived from corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, and Hawaiian papaya—would not be approved for sale in his stores unless they were verified by the Non-GMO Project. In addition, manufacturers of products making non-GMO claims that were not verified by the Non-GMO Project were “strongly encouraged” to have their products verified. Jimbo’s would not accept products with unverified non-GMO claims or verification from any source other than the Non-GMO Project.
In 2011, Jimbo established a non-GMO promotional policy stating that products already on shelves that were at-risk for GMOs could remain but they would not receive any store promotions. Meanwhile, products that were Non-GMO Project verified or certified organic would receive preferential shelf placement.
Jimbo’s grocery buyer, Andy Huth, initially expressed concerns that the non-GMO policies would drive their customers to other stores. “I thought our competitors would have the products we wouldn’t have.”
But Jimbo was committed. “I had an internal debate and thought we have to take a stand irrespective of whether we would lose customers,” he said.
“We were telling food manufacturers that ‘we want you to change what you’re doing and we won’t promote your products,’” Andy said.
The policy took effect in the first quarter of 2010. Since then Andy estimates he has refused one in three new products and sometimes as many as 50% because they contained GMO-risk ingredients.
For at-risk products “grandfathered” in before the policy was established, Jimbo and Andy encourage manufacturers to have their products Non-GMO Project verified.
“In an ideal world we would like to remove all products with GM ingredients, but a lot of companies are doing the best they can and it will take them time to adjust,” Jimbo said.
But he also said that if companies don’t eventually get verified, then their products will probably be removed from the shelves and be replaced by verified products.
Both Jimbo and Andy say that the policy has benefitted their business with increased customer loyalty.
“Our customers have appreciated our stand and rallied around the issue,” Jimbo said. “Increased awareness of the GMO issue will give stores like ours more customers.”
The policy is also increasing awareness of the GMO issue among the brokers and food manufacturers they do business with.
“It has made the brokers’ work easier because they know we won’t accept GMO-risk products,” Jimbo said. “Some manufacturers are saying that if we can’t get into Jimbo’s then we might as well get Non-GMO Project verified or certified organic.”
However, GMO challenges remain particularly with meat products and vitamins. “There’s more work to be done in other categories,” Andy said.
Jimbo estimates that his stores carry more than 1000 Non-GMO Project verified products from brands such as Nature’s Path Foods, Lundberg Family Farms, Eden Foods, and others.
Jimbo’s stores have participated in the annual October Non-GMO month events, offering sales on non-GMO Project verified products, presenting GMO educational events to their customers, and donating a small portion of their profits to the Non-GMO Project.
Jimbo’s also supports the California ballot initiative for GM food labeling. Volunteers are collecting signatures outside of the stores to get the initiative on the ballot for this year’s election.
Jimbo has also been a leader in raising awareness of the GMO issue among other natural food retailers in the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA).
“Jimbo was instrumental in leading the membership of INFRA to fully engage in the work of the Non-GMO Project,” said Corinne Shindelar, INFRA chief executive officer. “He took his concepts of launching a non-GMO promotional month in retail locations to the membership of INFRA and rallied their participation.”
Since establishing their non-GMO policy, Jimbo’s has been contacted by other natural food retailers also making strong non-GMO commitments such as New Frontiers Natural Marketplace in California and Arizona, Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, New York, and Dean’s Natural Market in Ocean, New Jersey.
In his 30-year career in the natural food business—starting when he was making $1 of food credit for every three hours of work at the People’s Food Co-op in Ocean Beach, Ca.—Jimbo says he has always tried to do the right thing. “I’d rather not be successful and know I did the right thing than make a ton of money and not be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day, knowing I didn’t do the right thing,” he said.
With his non-GMO policy, Jimbo is again doing the right thing—and enhancing his business, building customer loyalty, and increasing consumer and industry awareness of GMOs in the process.
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, April 2012