Sisters Jodie Stewart and Tammie Phillips have come a long way since they opened their first ‘feel good’ supermarket in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle in 1996. The space was just 100 square metres and stocked a small selection of grocery items along with a café.
Twenty years on, About Life operates seven Sydney stores and this year ventured interstate with a site in Port Melbourne. The sisters have worked hard to create a retail brand that is more than just a supermarket, creating an exciting in-store experience with cooking demonstrations, guest speakers, Q&A sessions and product and book launches. Along with a large selection of wholefoods and grocery items, the stores also feature cafés dishing up healthy meals and self-serve food bars for those ‘grab and go’ moments.
Retailbiz spoke to Jodie Stewart about setting up the business, expanding and competing with the big guys.
Why did you and Tammie start About Life?
In the early stages we were extremely excited about sharing what we had learned about food as medicine…Our earliest personal learnings in this area were from the time we had both spent living in Japan, where we noticed how the Japanese diet afforded longevity and quality of life…
We felt that there was a gap in the Australian market for clean, nutrition dense groceries and that it was a travesty that Australians were not eating as well as they should. We simply wanted to offer ethical groceries in a place where people who cared about their own health, that of the environment and a whole range of social issues—from producers being paid a fair price, to animal cruelty to food miles and a huge and always growing list of criteria—could shop.
What is your business philosophy?
[Our] base promise is to eliminate the nasties—artificial preservatives, flavours, sweeteners, colours and more—so that’s our starting point. This applies to every product in our stores. In addition, each product has been carefully selected considering a range of other criteria including organic, fair-trade, artisan produced, free from/allergy, animal welfare, food miles and this list goes on and on and is honestly exhaustive.
Each of our products carries our base food promise and then one or (generally) many more ‘over and above’ qualities that we consider make the product very special. We make sure we communicate these to our customers throughout our stores so they are on this journey with us and understand where their food is coming from.
How has your approach to business changed over the years?
Initially most customers didn’t really ‘get’ us. They might have even thought that the idea (and us) was a bit hippy! But irrespective, we were very lucky that people supported us and the business was able to survive long enough for people to really start to get excited about how nutrition dense natural goods and products can improve their lives.
You’ve gone from a single location to seven stores in Sydney and one in Melbourne, where did the desire to expand come from?
Customers have come from all over Sydney to shop in our stores and many ask on a regular basis if we would consider opening stores elsewhere in Sydney… In addition, we know that local employment opportunities are a huge boost to the areas where we open an About Life store.
What have been the main challenges of your expansion?
Just what you would expect for any business that has had this growth. There is more good (we’re able to service more customers and love what we offer) and more bad (all the behind-the-scenes operations that have to come together to pull it off each day). We deal in highly perishable items so we have to move to receive, stock shelves and manage this process very quickly.
How do you create a cohesive experience across all your stores?
It’s cohesive because we are clear on what we stand for. Understanding the connections between the foods we eat and the benefits or consequences they have on our health is at the forefront of our being.
However, we don’t want to be all serious—we want shopping with us to be fun and there is a lot of that happening in our stores. We are constantly delighted when our customers tell us that they look forward to grocery food shopping with us. There is so much going on with chefs buzzing about, tastings and even reading the stories on the products…is incredibly interesting.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced over the past 20 years?
I think that price perception continues to be one of the biggest challenges for us. There are a couple of facets to that. First, natural or organic products really don’t cost that much more at About Life. Demand has increased and we have great relationships with producers to get the ‘pick of the crop’ at fair prices.
[You could] purchase an item at a traditional supermarket for $2 [which may have] absolutely no goodness in it for your health, the environment, the people who produced it, animals haven’t been treated well in the process or you can pay $2.50 for a similar item at About Life where all of this is ‘good’. We like to call it ‘values based pricing’. It’s simply pay now (not that much more) or pay later—and that’s with our health, the state of the planet and a whole range of social issues.
Do you feel pressure to compete with the major supermarkets?
Certainly we want people to know that they can get all of their grocery needs with us, just like they can the major supermarkets. This includes toxic-free house cleaning equipment, personal care and skincare etc.
We don’t feel pressure to compete and we absolutely believe in people’s rights to make choices but we do think that choices should be informed.
It’s often very hard with traditional supermarkets to interpret the many mixed messages that they are sending. Sure, something could be added fibre but it may also contain no other goodness at all. Similarly, at the moment supermarkets are selling more organic products and if they are certified certainly they will be organic, but at About Life we care about so much more.
[We care about] how far the item has travelled, how quickly has it gotten on to our shelves, how nutrition dense it is, if the producer was paid a fair price etc. We know that we bring much more credibility to the area of nutrition, sustainability, and social responsibility and our customers who shop with us know that as well.
How do you use social media?
Our marketing strategy is very much a grassroots approach, and social media is a significant and important part of this. Our primary target audience is women aged 35-49 (many with young families), and secondary is millennials aged 20-34. Both of these groups are heavy users of social media, so it’s a natural fit for our business. Our customers are also social leaders, and social media is a channel where they can and do influence others.
Among other factors, growth in our industry is being driven in part because of social media: the ever emerging food culture on Instagram, an increased understanding and interest in health and wellbeing, and increased transparency in the supply chain and product purity.
What advice would you give to other retailers on running a successful business?
If you are looking to start a retail business try to be something different, energetic and fresh—not another ‘me too’. Make sure you do your homework/feasibility to satisfy yourself that the demand exists and get experience in that industry ahead of starting. After all of that then be bold, back your decisions and work hard.
What’s next for About Life?
It has always been our intention to be available to as many people as possible, and we see new opportunities on a daily basis. We are incredibly excited to see what the future holds for our business!
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