Natural retailer Wildberries Marketplace a lively and community place
When Phil Ricord founded Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata, California in 1994, he launched something that would transform lives for years to come.
For the Humboldt County community, Wildberries offers exceptional customer service and high-quality natural and organic products alongside conventional favorites. But perhaps most importantly, Wildberries Marketplace offers shoppers a bustling, community-based gathering place. For its dedicated team, Ricord provides opportunities to develop their passions, develop their skills and excel.
Aaron Gottschalk is one such team member. Now in his 27th year at Wildberries Marketplace, he has worked his way up to General Manager. Although Ricord is still president and CEO of the company, he retired 12 years ago, leaving Gottschalk to run the store. Gottschalk is dedicated heart and soul to his work, ensuring that Wildberries continues to serve the community, care for his staff and create growth paths for employees like the one who took him from entry-level clerk to general manager. .
Natural Foods Merchandisera division of New Hope Network and a sister brand of Supermarket Newscaught up with Gottschalk to discuss the resounding impact of this special independent.
What brought you to Wildberries 27 years ago?
Aaron Gottschalk: When I was 6, I took my cart to 7-Eleven, filled it with candy, trucked it back to my neighborhood, and sold it for 5 cents. So maybe it was fate that got me into retail!
In 1989 I moved to Quincy [California] and I found myself volunteering at Quincy Natural Foods, which opened my mind and heart to this industry and introduced me to the idea of a store as a community center. I was hired and worked there until I moved to Humboldt County in 1995. Wildberries had only opened four months prior and it was very difficult to find a job here. After five interviews with Phil, he gave me a chance to become a cashier and storekeeper.
As a general manager now, you have certainly progressed.
AG: Wildberries grew in terms of sales and infrastructure, and after a year I became a supervisor. A few years later, I became the first store manager. I did this work for 13 years, helping to develop the infrastructure and policies we have today. Now, I have been a general manager for almost 12 years.
What were Wildberries like in those early days?
AG: Phil’s goal was to provide excellent customer service, and I believe Wildberries Marketplace was one of the first crossover stores in the country. He wanted to offer natural and organic products alongside conventional products, giving shoppers choice and introducing natural and organic in an open, supportive and non-judgmental way. Phil was very dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives. He is a dynamic leader around whom people rally, believe and are inspired. They know it comes from his heart. The core team was on board with their vision and mission, and through that dedication, we created success for the store.
The store was also very eclectic and atypical. Phil is an accordionist, so there were accordions on the walls and an accordionist every Sunday. One of her daughters created huge papier-mâché works of art that hung from the ceiling. You could say it was a bit funky and cheesy, but that was part of the charm.
How has the store evolved over the years?
AG: After about 15 years, the store had aged, so we did a major renovation. It has a more refined look now, but the accordions are still hanging and we feature artwork from local high school students. Our product mix was originally 50/50, but we evolved it over time to be 80/20 natural to conventional. And about 10 years ago, I convinced Phil to switch to 100% organic products. But our mix has always been driven by customer demand, based on their buying habits. We will bring any product requested by a customer, and if it works, we will keep it.
Why is Wildberries best known today?
AG: Our food service has always been highly valued. We have recruited several local chefs to work for us and invested in our hot bars and salad bars. The pandemic has pushed us to turn more to take-out, but our home cooking remains a focal point and our customers are always delighted with it. Secondly, our meat and fish department, which is run by a former local chef who has acquired a clientele over the past 15 years.
Wildberries launched online ordering and delivery when the pandemic began. How has this impacted business?
AG: At first, our assistant store manager created a rudimentary system that allowed customers to fill in whatever they wanted on a shared document. We were already working with ShopHero to develop a website with an order portal, which was integrated in June 2020 and made a big difference.
From now on, we offer each product in the online store at the same price. We indulge; we do everything. We call our [staff] Berry Pickers buyers, and they love being Berry Pickers. It’s a very interactive process, and there are always phone calls. Fortunately, our online service has helped us build deep, meaningful and lasting relationships with the customers who use it.
We also recognized our vulnerabilities and immediately seized on them, particularly around the products we choose for shoppers and the way we package orders. We realized that the store needed to rise and meet the level of quality we provided for our online service.
Now that more and more people feel comfortable shopping in person, do you do a lot of e-commerce?
AG: Online ordering is still very popular. We will never end this service because we know it has value for some customers. We don’t care if it makes financial sense. It’s such a big part of our store now.
What has the madness of this period taught you about your store, your team, and yourself as a leader?
AG: A paradigm shift happened during the pandemic, and thanks to that, success came. It taught us that our health, safety and lives are not taken for granted, and we need to remember that as leaders. The final product and the financial performance are not important. It is paramount that we support staff and do everything we can to keep them healthy and safe. I love my staff with all my heart and respect them for working in this industry during the pandemic. We have solidified ourselves as a team more than ever because we are all in this together.
But it’s always been upside down for me, the triangle of importance. My job is not that important. I truly believe that our dishwashers, courtesy attendants, cashiers and storekeepers are the most important people in this business, and I don’t want them to forget that. They are so important to keeping this store together, and I have so much gratitude for them and want to provide every opportunity to ensure their success.
What is your favorite part of your job?
AG: I get emotional when I think of the opportunity I’ve had to be in this store all these years. This is a place I look forward to coming to every day. I usually arrive around 6am and every day is a new start, a new opportunity and a new journey. I feel like the luckiest person on the face of the Earth.
And that may sound crazy, but it’s totally true: the two jobs I was hired for were storage and the cash register, and my favorite parts, so far, are grocery storage and management. of a register. Phil set this in motion. He said we were all in this together and that he always wanted me to be part of the team regardless of my role at the time.
What role do you see independents like Wildberries playing in the grocery retail landscape in the future?
AG: We are so grateful for [Independent Natural Food Retailers Association]. As a purchasing cooperative and thanks to peer support, INFRA has given us a great opportunity to be profitable, stable and successful. The organization continues to grow because independents find alignment with what we know is important: supporting farmers, small makers, and sustainable agriculture. The products that help protect our planet are those that can pass through us and other independents.
Being independent helps us support, strengthen and engage with our community on a deeper level than a larger chain ever could. As part of our mission statement, we donate 1% of our sales to our community, or approximately $150,000 per year. But probably the most critical role we play is providing the community with a gathering space.
What motivates you in your work after so many years?
AG: I love this store so much. Why am I worried? I’ll give credit to Phil. He made me aware of how I could grow and develop in order to have opportunities in this industry. When he hired me, he told me I could run the store one day. I never forgot it, and it was true.
The grocery industry takes someone like me who doesn’t have a college degree and provides opportunities to truly excel in life. In many ways, this is an industry based on local education. At a freelancer, if you’re interested and invested, you can learn how the business works, master it, and eventually run the place – it happens all the time. Our store manager started out as a storekeeper; our HR manager started as a cashier; our accounting manager was a temporary worker from an accounting agency. I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I never take it for granted. I just show up every day and hope it continues.
This article originally appeared on New Hope Networka sister website to Supermarket News.