Led by high profile retailers such as The Fresh Market and Mariano’s, Specialty Gourmet supermarkets are making headway, now representing over $18 billion in sales, according to new data from information provider for the Natural, Organic and Specialty Products Industry, SPINS.

With over a thousand stores and nearly 10% growth, the channel is quickly evolving and expanding as more stores transition to a Specialty Gourmet format.

With a dual focus on both healthy and gourmet foods, these upscale, experiential stores attract variety-seeking shoppers that value unique taste profiles, in addition to the health, environmental and social benefits associated with natural foods, SPINS said.

Natural and Specialty products account for just over half of dollar sales in Specialty Gourmet stores, but are driving nearly 70% of the channel’s absolute dollar growth.

Since the launch of its Specialty Gourmet service in 2010, SPINS has defined the channel, strengthened its relationships with industry partners, and helped hundreds of retailers leverage information to support their business. A substantial increase in retailer participation is reflected in SPINS’ latest restatement of this channel.

Through a deeper understanding of the trends and product profiles that satisfy their shoppers’ desire for the unique and interesting, Specialty Gourmet retailers are helping to drive a new wave of innovation.

Many have expanded their size and product offerings to better cater to their shoppers’ preferences and even traditional grocers are opening new upscale formats. This expansion is helping reshape the retail landscape, through both the number of new store openings and the much larger size of these newer stores.

“SPINS invested in and launched the Specialty Gourmet Channel in 2010. Similar to what we have done for the Natural Channel, SPINS has built a coalition of cooperating retailers and helped these unique stores distinguish themselves within the broader marketplace,” SPINS CEO Tony Olson said.

“By promoting a vibrant mix of innovative, better-for-you products with a superior taste profile, specialty gourmet retailers have gained a loyal following among consumers and have delivered 10% growth in a channel that had been stagnant for many years,” SPINS CEO Tony Olson said.

The Specialty Gourmet Channel represents a significant opportunity for natural, organic and specialty brands and retailers that we represent to appeal to a growing consumer base, he added.