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How niche supermarkets in the metro area stack up

The grocery shopping industry is changing and not necessarily because it wants to. Consumers are forcing much of the current transition as they expect more from the food they eat and from the companies who sell those foods.

It all points to some pretty solid opportunities for supermarkets that are willing to meet those needs. If the rate of grocery store construction in metro Atlanta is any indication, quite a few grocery chains are.

Everything from social media to the changing structure of American households has had an impact on how we shop for food, according to a 2014 study from the Food Marketing Institute.

Consumers are demanding better choices for organic foods, we are less loyal and because we are busier than ever, we want our grocery stores to offer better selections of prepared foods than consumers in the past have desired.

Almost 50 new grocery stores have opened in the last five years across the metro area including some newcomers like Sprouts Farmers Market and Earth Fare .

As new stores continue popping up, consumers will be even more selective, picking items from different stores based on stores' unique strengths. Here is how six of the popular niche stores in the metro area stack up:

Aldi (Germany)

Claim to fame: No frills grocery shopping for those interested in saving money but not looking for national brands.

Pricing: At Aldi, it is all about price and as expected the store earned the highest ratings on price satisfaction in the most recent Consumer Reports supermarket survey. However, when it comes to price paid for natural and organic items, the store was firmly middle of the road, perhaps in part because the offerings in this area are limited.

Atmosphere: Aldi isn't known for having an inviting atmosphere. In the past, stores have been criticized for being dirty or just industrial looking and austere. Aldi owns the beloved Trader Joe's but TJ's is not managed by the same division that runs Aldi markets in the U.S.

What shoppers love: Aldi shoppers love the prices. They don't mind bagging their own groceries. They are not looking for prepared foods or bakery goods or even a huge product assortment (the selection is estimated to be less than 10 percent of what you would find in traditional grocery stores.) Aldi has made an effort to upgrade their offerings by introducing more organic and gluten-free foods, for example, but their greatest strength will always be low price. Some stores have seen the addition of Trader Joe's type merchandise (thanks to Aldi's ownership of the company) but this is apparently more common at stores in Europe than in the U.S.

Earth Fare (Asheville, North Carolina)

Claim to fame: Food that is free of high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors and sweeteners, and synthetic growth hormones in fresh meat and dairy.

Pricing: Earth Fare was not included in the Consumer Reports roundup last year, but a selection of independent price comparisons nationwide reveals that Earth Fare generally comes in lower on organic produce when comparing the same items at Whole Foods or Fresh Market.

Atmosphere: Earth Fare stores offer an inviting, bright atmosphere. Store layouts are well-organized and friendly associates are available to assist you.

What shoppers love: Earth Fare has a fantastic line of store branded products featuring everything from juices to pasta. They also stock local brands. Across the entire store, 75 to 80 percent of everything offered is organic. The chain stands firmly behind their pledge for no nasty stuff in food. When they an ingredient is banned, any item in the store that contains it gets the boot. If a customer finds a food item with a banned ingredient in the store, they are rewarded with a $50 gift card.

Fresh Market (Greensboro, North Carolina)

Claim to fame: Small, European style market with focus on fresh seafood, meats and organic produce

Pricing: Fresh Market got slammed for price satisfaction with the lowest rating along with Whole Foods. The chain only managed to get slightly better rankings than Whole Foods on price paid for natural and organic foods.

Atmosphere: In some ways, Fresh Market is more about atmosphere than anything else. The store was designed to emulate the layout of a European, open-air market so naturally the stores are bright, open and well planned.

What shoppers love: Fresh Market gets high ratings for perishable foods and its selection of healthy options. Shoppers particularly love the meat department at Fresh Market as they can get the fresh cuts on a range of meats in whatever quantities they desire. Meats and seafood are kept in refrigerated glass cases here, you won't find any plastic wrapped trays. The prepared foods also get high ratings from fans.

Sprouts Farmers Market (Phoenix, Arizona)

Claim to fame: Fresh, organic and homemade foods at reasonable prices

Pricing: Sprouts is winning converts with its pricing which consumers rated well, though just below Trader Joe's, on pricing satisfaction and price paid for organic foods.

Atmosphere: Sprouts stores are clean, open and bright. Like most of the niche stores, each Sprouts location is designed to be smaller than the average grocery store and to offer a neighborhood feel.

What shoppers love: Shoppers who go to Sprouts are looking for reasonably priced produce and local products. The bulk foods section and selection of meats -- grass-fed ground beef, bacon, seasoned sausages --  has also earned a number of fans. The Sprouts store brand offers a range of items including the much-loved Sprouts salsas and you simply can't leave the store without being drawn to the prepared foods section.

Trader Joe's (Monrovia, California)

Claim to fame: Stellar store brands and unusual items in a curated (read, limited) selection

Pricing: In the most recent grocery store survey from Consumer Reports, consumers gave Trader Joe's the highest ratings for price satisfaction and price paid for natural and organic items.

Atmosphere: Think neighborhood market with international flair. Trader Joe's gets high ratings across the board and is the only niche supermarket to earn top ratings from consumers on service. Trader Joe's is owned by Aldi, but is not managed by the same division that runs Aldi markets in the U.S.

What shoppers love: Everyone who shops at Trader Joe's has a favorite item: Two Buck Chuck wines, Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle shampoo, Trader Joe's Spinach and Kale Greek Yogurt Dip, and the list goes on. Trader Joe's store brand is known for being top-quality whether food items or personal care. While the prepared foods get high marks, they lag somewhat behind Fresh Market and Whole Foods.

Whole Foods Market (Austin, Texas)

Claim to fame: "America's Healthiest Grocery Store" features organic produce and a spread of store-made foods at not so reasonable prices.

Pricing: This is where Whole Foods just can't win. The chain earned the lowest rating for price satisfaction and price paid for natural and organic foods from consumers.

Atmosphere: Friendly, helpful store environments and employees are the rule at most Whole Foods stores. You'll also find strong neighborhood connections at Whole Foods which has really set the precedent for grocery stores engaging in the local food market.

Why shoppers love it: Whole Foods is known for its wide variety of produce but it is the prepared foods section and salad bar that are the big draw -- even for people who won't buy anything else at Whole Foods. The 365 store brand is also a big win for the company, so much so, that in an effort to combat its high-priced reputation, Whole Foods is launching an offshoot in its honor. 365 by Whole Foods Market stores, will open this year across the country, offering lower prices on natural and organic products.

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.