Independent supermarket operators and their supporters — wholesalers, manufacturers and service suppliers — gather in Las Vegas this week for the annual National Grocers Association convention.
So there's no better time than the present to take a look at independents and how they're facing the challenges of the future.
Independents, of course, can survive and thrive even in highly competitive marketplaces because they know their shoppers and their communities. They know what shoppers expect of their supermarket, they know what their communities expect of their supermarket and they act to deliver on those expectations. To be sure, those service attributes will continue to serve independents well in the future. Yet, to some independents, the time has come to do even more.
What they are doing involves projecting the image — and the reality — of greater contribution to the commonweal by catering to consumers' concerns about health, food safety and environmental stewardship. These may appear to be global concerns that are beyond the ken of what independent supermarkets could influence. Indeed, many major operators are still grappling with how to deal with such challenges. Nonetheless, as you'll see in the feature profiles in this week's SN, referenced on the front page, some independents are deep in the trenches when it comes to these concerns. That's good in its own right, plus it's a competitive edge too since shoppers prefer to patronize stores that seem to be solution makers, not problem makers. Let's take a look at the operators profiled.
Buehler's, Wooster, Ohio, has inaugurated a number of energy-conservation initiatives, many of which have to do with lighting. At its newest store, skylights allow sunlight to enter. In a test, artificial lights automatically lower when natural light is sufficient. Should the test be successful, the system may be rolled out to other stores.
Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, offers expert advice to shoppers who find that because of medical conditions they must make changes to their diets. Many, for instance, have gluten sensitivities, so in-store experts are able to offer lists of gluten-free foods. This list is available online too. Membership in appropriate support groups is also offered, one called “Gluten-Free Food Lover's Club.”
Georgetown Market, Indianapolis, is a single-store operator that's moving in much the same direction, and is doing so as a response to two competitors soon to open in the market: Whole Foods Market and Wal-Mart. The store has no fewer than nine nutritional advisors who can talk to customers. The store has also installed an informational kiosk, is offering a slate of speakers who will conduct a five week seminar on wellness and has started a loyalty program that generates coupons in accordance with shopper spending.
Finally, wholesalers can help too. In New Hampshire, the state has mandated that all stores offering prepared foods — including restaurants and supermarkets — must have an on-premise “certified food protection manager.” That could pose a greater problem for stores than it does if it weren't for Associated Grocers of New England. That wholesaler is offering retailers training and certification courses so the mandate of the law can be fulfilled.