Source: iStock | J Golby
Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer magazine.
Rampant consolidation — including the proposed granddaddy of all mergers between Kroger and Albertsons — may lead some to believe that independent grocers are a dying breed. But in many ways, the proliferation of cookie-cutter chain stores only makes consumers appreciate small, locally-owned independents that much more.
A recent Fast Company article claimed that lockdowns and other pandemic changes “re-emphasized what makes [independent retailers] so resilient: the power of human connection, the thrill of discovery and the advantage of agility.”
Leon Merck, COO of Wisconsin’s Nilssen’s Foods, believes independents “mostly have advantages,” putting flexibility near the top of the list.
“We’re really in touch with the needs of the customers we serve in a way that big chains simply can’t be,” said Dave Ball, third-generation owner of Kansas City-based Ball’s Food Stores.
In tandem with their strong community ties, “Independents can also react very quickly to
changes because the decision-makers are all right here — there’s no bureaucracy — which is a huge advantage,” said Mr. Ball.
Larry Mihalko, president of Landis Supermarket, based in Telford, PA, admits keeping stores updated with the latest technology is a challenge for independents. Whether loyalty programs, e-commerce, self-checkout or digital coupons, “Adding and then maintaining any of those services requires a lot of dollars.”
Another challenge is their inability to buy at the same prices as their big chain counterparts. “No one likes to talk about it because it should be a level playing field,” said Mr. Mihalko. “But it’s not.”
Working with a wholesaler or being part of a cooperative can boost an independent’s purchasing power, as well as aid in staying competitive in areas such as customer insights and technology.
Mr. Ball still says one of his biggest hurdles is developing the next generation of leaders.
“Bigger chains have entire human resources departments for that, but as an independent, it falls on the store manager, who has a thousand other things to do,” he explained. It’s not
always easy to pull off, “But I want store managers out on the floor teaching, training and coaching — not behind a computer — because building relationships not just with customers but with teammates is what’s most important.”