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Children's grocery carts. That's the difference between Fresh Fields in Naperville, Ill., and Whole Foods Market in Chicago.

Children's grocery carts imply kids, which imply parents, which imply suburbia, which is the market catered to by Fresh Fields.

But young, single people don't need tiny grocery carts, which is why Whole Foods doesn't have them ... anymore. They were removed after the few kids who used them injured too many adults.

Although the chains carry many of the same foods-free of synthetic preservatives and artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners-they cater to different crowds.

The Fresh Fields in the affluent, far western Chicago suburb of Naperville attracts moms and dads from surrounding communities. It feels much like a traditional grocery store with its low ceilings and chilling air conditioning.

There are differences in the decor, however, like the wooden shelves, floors and walls, plus the numerous signs proclaiming quality standards.

The produce section is unbeatable. No more guessing whether the cantaloupe needs to be sniffed, squeezed or thumped. Almost every piece of produce has an individual sign which lists the calories, nutrients, how to choose and where to store it.

Large orange signs highlight organically grown produce and white signs identify the conventionally grown items.

Free samples-like tortilla and vegetable chips-can be found throughout the store, and customers are encouraged to sample anything at the deli counter.

And what a deli counter it is. There's rotisserie chicken, hot soups, a variety of pot pies and foreign dishes like hummus, tabouli and couscous. They also make and sell fresh pasta with various cheeses and sauces.

Additional perks at the store include the Fresh Bite Cafe and the Fresh Fields card. The card offers discounts on foods, a chance to win $50 weekly, a monthly newsletter and check writing privileges.

For a health-conscious supermarket in the middle of suburbia, what more could moms and dads ask for?

For the twentysomething crowd on Chicago's North Side, however, Whole Foods Market is the place.

Walking into Whole Foods is like entering a whole new world of grocery shopping. Its high ceilings exposing pipes, air ducts and ceiling fans give it an open and airy feeling.

And the numerous employees couldn't be more helpful and friendly. Unlike Fresh Fields, which employs high school and college kids who look identical in their company T-shirts, Whole Foods' employees are allowed to be themselves.

They show up for work in their Birkenstocks, high-tops and platform sandals. Racially diverse twentysomethings, they can be differentiated from the customers by their Whole Foods buttons.

The produce section is smaller than Fresh Fields, but it has the added benefit of a salad bar.

The bulk foods section has everything from brown rice to Turkish figs to shampoo. While Fresh Fields' bulk foods are pre-packaged, customers here can dish out as much or as little as they want.

Whole Foods makes other efforts to please its customers. Colored sheets let shoppers voice their opinions on everything from parking spaces and bike racks to children's grocery carts.

They tack the sheet with the answered question to one of the bulletin boards scattered throughout the store.

Like Fresh Fields, Whole Foods is concerned about educating customers. Signs listing quality standards are posted on a number of walls, and along every few feet of shelf space a small sign can be found explaining a specific product.

Additional signs encourage customers to ask for a taste of anything in the store.

For those who want more than a sample, the Quixotic Cafe on the second level, offers a variety of healthy meals. Offerings like the veggie melt and hippie sandwiches cost about $6 apiece.

While the two stores differ on customers, they do share some qualities. Both alert their customers when they discontinue a product.

Fresh Fields stopped selling margarine because the partially hydrogenated oils increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol.

Whole Foods no longer sells Dean Foods Co.'s products because it's unclear whether they contain synthetic bovine growth hormone.

Like traditional supermarkets, these stores carry items other than food. Theirs are just more environmentally correct: paper products without dyes or perfumes, beauty products that haven't been tested on animals, and cleaning supplies without phosphates or chlorine.

Prices at these supermarkets are higher than most, but Fresh Fields and Whole Foods are fairly comparable. Fresh Fields sells deodorant for $4.99, a single roll of toilet paper for 49 cents and a six-pack of Evian water for $3.69. At Whole Foods, deodorant is $4.69, toilet paper is 45 cents and water is $5.29.

With healthier food and better service, these stores may be the wave of the future ... if customers are willing to pay the price.

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