The current acquisitive frenzy tends to overshadow the progress of the single store, yet independent retailers are humbly taking advantage of their position as the community market. Combining local appeal with an abiding respect for the rudiments of grocery merchandising has proven a successful, albeit simple, strategy for the Center Store at Brunos Foods of Lakeport, Calif.
Brunos is a single-store operation serving rural Lakeport County, with a population of roughly 60,000, and a marketing population of about 25,000. According to Bill Brunetti, owner of the 56,000-square-foot unit, the center aisles remain a vital force behind his business despite the advent of alternative formats and increasing emphasis being placed on the perimeters. For Brunetti, the logic is quite plain.
"Center Store is a bit more challenging than it used to be, but it still represents a huge part of the business," he said. "The perimeter departments are there to augment the center aisles, and the new categories out there certainly do, but the bottom line is this: We still have to sell groceries to the public, and the center of the store is where you do it."
While Brunetti acknowledges the threat posed by the Wal-Marts and Costcos of the world, he believes that supermarkets will remain competitive.
"You cannot do all your shopping at a pantry format Wal-Mart," said Brunetti. "You can cherry pick, but quite often, you will have to come to a supermarket to round out the shopping experience."
The marketing plan at Brunos has changed very little since opening day 17 years ago, Brunetti told SN. To be competitive in the Center Store, the price image is set by large, well-signed endcaps, with recognizable values on display throughout the store.
Given the relatively large size of the unit, Brunetti banks on his ability to buy direct on certain items, such as pet food.
"The theory is that the customer scans the front end and with that recognizable value out there, they think the rest of the store is inexpensive, when in reality, it's just competitive," explained Brunetti. "So, we put a 40-pound bag of pet food out there and show a $3 or better savings, or salad dressing for $1.99."
The store also has a very spacious back aisle, enabling Brunetti to merchandise in a truckload fashion. Products such as paper goods, soap items and canned vegetables will be stacked six or seven pallets high, giving the display a mass merchandising feel.
To that end, a large, open space in the front of the store is similarly stocked, using the truckload image throughout the store.
A strong private label presence punctuates the aisles and is merchandised in a comparison nature at eye-level throughout the store rather than being relegated to the bottom shelves. Brunetti believes that the success of his private label promotion has played a significant role in bringing customers to the center aisles.
"Private label is a wonderful image building tool," he said. "And, of course, with the gross profit on private label being generally higher than on the national brands, you're also impacting profitability in the Center Store."
In addition to price image, Brunetti maintains that variety is fundamental to the success of any grocery operation. He makes an effort to carry everything his supplier, the Los Angeles based Unified Western Grocers, has to offer. An emphasis is placed on two areas he feels to be particularly relevant in today's marketplace: gourmet items and club size products.
Brunos' impressive array of gourmet products, like mustards and oils, speaks to the growing segment of the community that treats cooking as an art form, seeing beyond the utilitarian value of a hearty stew.
"People are becoming more conscious of cooking, especially with the birth of channels like the Food Network and all the gourmet magazines," said Brunetti. "We want to carry 60 kinds of mustards because people are looking for them. We have these gourmet items integrated throughout the entire store."
The increasing popularity of high-end food products is a familiar trend, but the steady demand for such products in a small, rural community is noteworthy, indicating the spread of gourmet products into the mainstream market.
Gourmet products will soon be entering the market at Brunos in a new role as the store will be adopting Western Family as its private label offering. Brunos currently carries Unified's Springfield label, but Western Family will be offering a more expensive gourmet line, in addition to the standard line; and Brunetti looks forward to the trial as a learning experience.
Still, while consumer tastes may be changing, Brunos sustains a bucolic core. For instance, the store sells tons of canning supplies, such as mason jars, according to Brunetti.
Indeed, as is the case with most independents, Brunetti relies on a local bent to set his store apart from the chains.
One point of difference that the store maintains with pride is the absence of a club card. "We market the fact that we don't use a club card here," said Brunetti. "Anybody can come in and get the everyday low price at any time. We don't need to use gimmicks to sell groceries in the interior of the store."
Traditional advertising media appears to suffice at Brunos, as the chain does offer a weekly circular and monthly coupon books.
Once the customer is in the aisles, the price and selection is generally allowed to speak for itself at Brunos. In-store signage is one area where Brunetti sees larger chains as having a slight advantage.
"Chains have a central signage operation. They can have their own point-of-sale materials throughout the stores and it will be cost effective," he said.
However, the lack of a sign shop is not terribly important, in Brunetti's opinion. At his store, the in-store sign-making machine gets the job done, providing 3 by 5 signs for the shelves and 8 by 11 signs for the endcaps. Whatever is lost with the absence of extensive POS displays and mobiles is made up with an abundance of in-store decoration for the holidays and other events.
Cross-merchandising is kept to a minimum as Brunetti steers clear of the more elaborate techniques he feels are better suited to stores with a distinct gourmet style.
"I think the upscale chains can spend a lot more on building their displays and merchandising their stores," he said. "It doesn't necessarily fit with my definition of a conventional supermarket."
Overall, Brunetti believes independents have the ability to compete with larger chains when it comes to key fundamentals like price and service, and that single-store operations and national players alike are contending with similar obstacles in the Center Store.
"Everybody carries essentially the same things," said Brunetti. "We have to do a good job with the basics. We've got to run a supermarket that people want to come to first. Everything else is secondary."