Most supermarket retailers fall into the old school, traditional and boring category. The last decade has seen some amazing shifts in this retailing venue. There are a lot of exciting changes and retailers who are breaking the mold with their new interpretations on how customers want to shop for food. Who says you should sell a certain way just because that is how it is always done? There is always a better way! We would like to focus on grocers that we think have really created their own identities in a field of retailers that don’t often innovate or differentiate themselves. While Whole Foods has made organic and local produce mainstream, we want to talk about several others who have also changed the category.
Though they now offer other brands, the initial Trader Joe’s coop concept was all private label product. They really focus on local picks and revolve the inventory based on popularity. While you won’t get the same items day to day, you will always find something fresh and interesting. They have created a cult-like following and while you can’t necessarily shop here to get specific branded items on your list, you can fulfill most of your food needs if you can be flexible and are willing to try new things. They are well branded and a bit quirky and this plays out in everything they do from the friendly and helpful employees to the store decor, signage and newsletters. They are constantly ringing a bell which announces a customer who brought their own shopping bags and the employees checking out always have comments on your choices and suggestions for how to cook things. It is a fun and engaging place to shop as witnessed by the crowds of people. It always feels alive as they tend to choose smaller footprints for their locations and offer an edited assortment of products as opposed to everything you could ever possibly need.
This store has managed to combine the warehouse store with the fresh food aspects of a grocer. Lest you think this is just another Costco, think again. While these stores are huge, averaging 80,000-140,000 sq. ft. each, they manage to create a high energy environment where one is immersed in all the activity. From bins of grains and nuts where you can buy in bulk, to employees chopping vegetables for you in the produce aisle it is a fully interactive experience. While they offer prepared foods like other stores, their’s is to a depth not seen elsewhere with many options where you can choose ingredients and they will cook it up on site.
A major part of the success in both these cases is that people are just bored with the national brands like Stop & Shop, Safeway and Kroger. Therefore, people get so excited for something new like this that they become evangelists. There has been a major failure on the end of traditional supermarkets to evolve and adapt with customers. Many shy away from using technology even as their customers are on their iphones checking their lists and coupons. Where they have incorporated technology, it is clunky and frustrating (self-checkouts, hand-held scanners, etc.) These stores could become more interesting, accessible and interactive if they made creative changes to their formats. Over time many of these stores have become more about the brands they carry (P&G, Pepsico,Kelloggs, Kraft, etc.) than the brand of the store itself. The above examples are not the only ones to forge new territory, others such as Loblaws, Stew Leonard’s and many other small independents are doing so as well. Clearly there is a lot of opportunity for those that are willing to go down their own path.