AT SPROUTS: Meet Our Tireless Grocery Buyer
The Grocery shelves at Sprouts are lined with more than 10,000 unique items, from blackstrap molasses to blue agave to green curry sauce. You'll find all that you need to make a down-home, home-cooked Sunday dinner or the fixings for fare with international flair. As a shopper, you might think that getting these items into the store is easy. But in reality, it is a carefully choreographed pas de deux of buying and selling that takes months of planning for every product. This long, drawn-out process has become a passion for one longtime employee who takes pride in every step to ensure Sprouts customers are getting the very best in natural food products at the very best price.
The Grocery Department at Sprouts — encompassing things like coffee, tea, non-alcoholic beverages, pastas, rice, sauces, dressings, condiments, cookies, chips, crackers, and thousands of other pantry basics – is run with aplomb and passion by Stuart Couturier and his small team in Phoenix, AZ. In Sprouts parlance, "Grocery" excludes any items from bulk, vitamins, dairy, produce, bakery, deli, meat and wine. Sounds confusing, and it is, but Couturier makes it his mission to keep it all straight and moving.
Couturier, a native of Southern California, has been in the retail grocery industry for more than 20 years, starting as a meat cutter for Stater Brothers in the early 1990s. He later went on to become a store manager for several natural food retail stores, including Henry's Farmers Market. He moved to Arizona to be closer to his family and began his tenure with Sprouts as an assistant store manager in Phoenix. After a year in the stores, he transitioned to the Sprouts corporate headquarters as an associate grocery buyer.
Working under the tutelage of then-grocery buyer Susan Welsh (now Director of Grocery and several other departments), Couturier learned the ins-and-outs of the buying world. He made contacts, met with product vendors, and learned more about the industry, further fueling his love of food. As Sprouts grew from a handful of stores to dozens, Couturier grew in his buying role and was eventually promoted to lead Grocery Buyer.
"I love the natural foods world," he said. "I've worked in both natural and conventional (grocery) stores, and they are so different. There's so much more to offer in natural, and this side of the industry is always changing."
A typical day for Couturier starts early with an inundated email inbox and dozens of voice messages, and it ends much the same way, late in the day. As the single person most responsible for making the buying decisions for the biggest department in one of the largest natural foods companies in the country, he is in hot demand. His "thumbs-up" on a new product can make a huge difference for a small company trying to hit the big time. Everyone in the industry wants to be his best friend. And frankly, it's hard not to be, because Stuart is a pleasant, easy-going, affable person, despite the pressures of his job.
While food buying involves lots of meetings with vendors, distributors and staff, and loads of data to analyze, it also includes one part of the anatomy that your job probably does not: the taste buds.
Companies are constantly sending Couturier boxes packed with their latest offerings. Those packages are followed by phone calls from company representatives jockeying for Couturier's time, clamoring for much coveted shelf space. As a result, his office resembles a small gourmet grocery store, with bookshelves packed full of food boxes and bags and jars; not surprisingly, it's become a hotspot for co-workers looking for late afternoon snacks (a/k/a the "seagull crowd").
Luckily there is no shortage of folks to sample the goods. "There's always people around the office that are willing to taste-test," said Couturier. "I've got one group dedicated to gluten-free goods." A good thing too, since Sprouts boasts thousands of gluten-free items.
While Stuart reviews thousands of products a year, only a small percentage of those items actually make it to the shelf. "I am very selective about the items I bring to Sprouts," Couturier said. "They need to be superior, made from quality 'clean' ingredients, and most importantly they need to taste good."
All of the products within the Grocery Department are reviewed annually within similar categories, meaning all snacks are reviewed together; beverages reviewed together, etc. During those reviews, Stuart and his associates process data not only on new products but also on items already carried in stores.
"We have to take a look to see how well products are moving," he said. "There can be a really good item out there but if it isn't selling we have to make room for something else that will."
In addition to tastings and number crunching, Couturier often visits manufacturing plants to make sure the processing is up to the Sprouts standards for quality and value. He also visits food trade shows across the country to find the latest trends and explore what's up-and-coming in the natural foods industry.
At one such event, Couturier got the chance to meet celebrity chefs Cat Cora, Guy Fieri, and Tyler Florence. "Meeting those icons was a blast," said Couturier. "I've been awarded many exciting opportunities."
The grocery buying profession couldn't be better suited for Couturier, a self-proclaimed foodie. He and his wife, Annette, like to spend time together in the kitchen, cooking and enjoying home-cooked meals with their son, Brody. Annette also enjoys experimenting with new products and is never shy to give her feedback.
So next time you're in a Sprouts, ogling in awe at the great price you found on organic canned tomatoes or rejoicing at some sensational new product, think of Stuart Couturier. He's always thinking of you.from the September, 2011 edition of Frseh Off the Press