Monday, July 4, 2011

A Few Thoughts and Words About America's Independent Grocers on Independence Day

Retail excitement: Jim Bonaminio's Jungle Jim's International Market (above) in Fairfield, Ohio offers 150,000 SKUs from over 75 countries in its 300,000 square-feet - plus a whole lot more, which you can see here.

The Insider - Heard on the Street

[Read the full text of the Declaration of Independence here.]

Were it not for a group of independent-minded American colonists, who on July 4, 1776 decided they'd had enough of the monarch's dictates from an ocean away and published the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, we wouldn't be watching parades, grilling hot dogs and burgers, and enjoying firework displays today, on Independence Day in the USA.

In fact, were it not for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, led by Thomas Jefferson, and the bloody war against the British King's army fought by a rather independent and ragtag band of men from America's 13 colonies, there wouldn't be an America as we've come to know it to celebrate on the 4th of July.

It's impossible to know what the country called America, comprised of 50 states and about 310 million people, would have been without that bold and radical decision to gain independence.

But it's without a doubt to me it wouldn't be the United States of America, which has been shaped and is driven by independent thought and entrepreneurial spirit, even with all the setbacks over the last decade, we've come to know today. And setbacks they are. The independent spirit in America will rise again. It's in the nation's DNA, after all.

And it's worth noting today on Independence Day that there's a direct connection between the America shaped by the Declaration of Independence and the nation's history and tradition of independent grocers.

For example, if you scratch deep enough, most of today's leading food and grocery retailing chains in the United States got there start as independents, founded by individuals or families.

For example, there's Walmart, founded by Sam Walton. Sam didn't start out focusing on selling food and groceries. But it was during his watch were the stage was set for Walmart to become the leading grocer in the U.S., which it is today.

Additionally, most of what comprises Kroger Co. and Supervalu, Inc. - including Ralphs' Supermarkets in Southern California and Fred Meyer in the Pacific Northwest, to name two independent chains Kroger acquired - and Albertsons, which was founded in Idaho by Joe Albertson and today makes-up a major part of Supervalu, Inc., were started by entrepreneurs.

What today is Safeway Stores, can also be traced back to an independent chain. And over the years Safeway's growth has come from buying privately-held regional independent chains rather than via organic growth - Vons in Southern California, Genardi's, Carrs in Alaska, Dominick's and others.

In fact, the three leading supermarket chains in the U.S., Kroger Co, Supervalu, Inc. and Safeway Stores, have all basically become what they are today by cobbling together through acquisitions over the years a bunch of  independently-owned regional grocery chains. The whole today is Kroger, Safeway and Supervalu respectively. But the parts are acquired independent supermarket chains (and in Supervalu's case a wholesaler).

The declaration of independent grocers

The present and future are far more interesting than the past when it comes to independent grocers in America though.

Independent grocers are best defined not by number of stores or annual sales but rather by ownership status, meaning independents are either solely or majority owned by individuals, partnerships, employees or, as most often is the case in the U.S., by families. Chains owned by investment firms generally aren't considered independents, although there can be exceptions to that rule, such as when investors owned a minority interest.

America's most innovative grocers also tend to be independents. Southern, California-based iconic grocer Trader Joe's is an independent, for example, owned by a German trust established for the children of owner Theo Albrecht of Aldi fame.

These innovators and leaders cover the independent grocer universe in the U.S.

For example, there are the big guys, like H-E-B in Texas (about $15 billion in annual sales),Wegmans on the east coast (about $12 billion annually), Save Mart in Northern California (about $5 million) and numerous others.

There are the medium-sized independent chains in the supermarket and natural-organic foods retailing sector. Two fast-growing independents in the latter category that are pushing the one billion-dollar-a-year range, for example, are North Carolina-based Earth Fare and Colorado-based Natural Grocers.

And there are smaller multi and single-store independents of all types of format, from discount to specialty. Stew Leonard's on the east coast (four stores and estimated annual sales of nearly $500 million), Mollie Stones (nine stores) in the San Francisco Bay Area and Fairfield, Ohio's Jungle Jim's Internatonal Market (single store) are three good examples in this class. There are so many in fact, there's no way to even skim the surface f what's out there in this column.

Regardless of their respective annual sales, type of retail format or store-count, America's successful independent grocers all share a few commonalities: they remain anchored in the communities they serve, they continue to learn (continuous improvement, never stop innovating, fear not the mega-publicly-held chains and love what they do.

There are tens of thousands of independent grocery stores in the U.S. The IGA banner alone has nearly 2,000 independent members, for example. And over 1,200 independent grocery retailers are members of the National Grocer's Association (NGA), the trade group representing America's independents of all shapes, sizes and formats.

Along with independent hypermarkets, super stores, supermarkets and smaller-format neighborhood grocery stores, mom and pop grocers continue to flourish in places like New York City and San Francisco, as do independently-owned ethnic grocery stores large and small stores in cities like the two mentioned above, along with Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and others, along with in small town America..

The big, publicly-owned mass merchandisers and supermarket chains have made it difficult for America's independent grocers. But despite what appears to be an overwhelming force - just like declaring independence from Britain appeared to many, but not the drafters, at the time to be overwhelming - the independent grocer sector continues to thrive in the U.S.

Long may they run

And like the drafters of the declaration did when they sought independence from the King and his forces and sources of power, successful independent grocers like those mentioned earlier, along with too many others to name, succeed not by taking on the big public chains head on, but rather by using flanking strategies that differentiate their stores.

Some of these strategies and move include developing and implementing superior customer service - Stew Leonard's famed customer service credo, which the grocer walks as well as talks - and coming up with merchandising innovations - independents were offering ready-to-heat and eat fresh, prepared foods long before the first chain even though about it, for example, and were the first "green" grocers, both in the fresh produce innovations and environmental sustainability definitions of the word.

The United States of America, create by the Declaration of Independence and spilled blood on the battlefield, also led to what has been America's greatest strength - opening the country to the world's immigrants.

This unique aspect of America is also directly responsible for much of what is today's independent grocer segment.

The first wave of post-World War II immigration led to European immigrants from Italy, Greece and elsewhere starting grocery stores in America. Many took that single store and built it into a big chain. For example, Modesto California-based Save Mart Supermarkets was founded as a single store in the 1950's by two Italian Americans, Mike Piccinini and Nick Tocco. Today Save Mart, which is majority owned and run by Mike Piccinini's son Bob, has 240 stores and about $5 billion in annual sales.

Others turned the single store into 50, 30, 20 units, while still others created two, three or five-store operations, while many remained with a single store and did extremely well. Size and dollars generated annually is only one measure of success in the grocery business, as it is in life in general.

Asian immigrants to the U.S. also went (and continue to do so into the grocery business (both post word War II immigration waves and post Vietnam wave) in droves, as have immigrants from the Middle East, and most recently, Latin and Central America.

For example, America's growing Latino and Hispanic population has led to a boom in independent grocery stores and chains being operated by first, second and third generation entrepreneurs of Hispanic decent, in states ranging from California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado in the west; Iowa and Illinois in the Midwest; to the ubiquitous independently-owned Bodegas in New York City and Miami.

America's independent grocers will continue to survive and even thrive as long as they continue to declare their independence from the big, publicly-held chains, instead doing what they do best, feet planted firmly in the communities they serve, always learning and continuing to innovate, be it in format, product offerings or services, or in all the above.

Happy Independence Day.

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