Competing in a Consolidated World


Mid-size regional grocers find successful niches.

Independent food retailers are facing unprecedented challenges from consolidation within the industry, shrinking margins and the proliferation of supercenters, such as Wal-Mart and Target, which have achieved almost ubiquitous penetration into the grocery sector.

Attendees at the Main & Wall conference heard successful strategies from two mid-size grocery retailers that serve opposite ends of the economic scale and operate on opposite coasts.

Kings Supermarkets, headquartered in Parsippany, N.J., has 26 stores serving high-end markets in New Jersey and New York with gourmet foods and the freshest possible selection. On any given day, shoppers may find delicacies such as yak, rattlesnake and buffalo fresh from the range, as well as a vast assortment of produce from around the world.

On the West Coast, Berkeley, Calif.-based Grocery Outlet, with annual sales topping $600 million, has 130 stores located in six Western states and Hawaii. The Grocery Outlet stores occupy an average of 20,000 sq. ft. or less and are stocked with products that are sourced “opportunistically” to provide shoppers a variety of products at closeout prices.

Speaking on a Main & Wall panel, co-CEO MacGregor Read, grandson of Jim Read who founded Grocery Outlet in 1946, described his stores as a treasure hunt for groceries. His family-owned business has established long-term relationships with a number of consumer-product-goods manufacturers, which provide the infrastructure for sourcing products at deep discounts. As much as 70% of the inventory in Grocery Outlet stores is purchased from close-out deals.

For the more affluent shoppers in Kings’ upscale markets, fellow panelist James Demme, chairman of the board at Kings Supermarkets, described a more pragmatic than opportunistic approach to merchandising. “You have to buy what you sell,” he advised, “because you don’t always sell what you buy.”

That said, he suggested independent grocers are typically stronger with their perishable areas than the large consolidated chains or the mass merchandisers. For instance, Kings’ shoppers will find delectable fruits such as mangosteens imported from Thailand that traditional grocers would not carry.

Key to the success is giving customers what they want, such as a gourmet selection of prepared foods as well as a wide assortment of imported spices and exotic condiments. From this respect, supplier relationships are as integral to Kings’ operations as to the Grocery Outlet strategy.

In one respect, Grocery Outlet is more similar to King’s high-end neighborhood markets than a typical deep discounter because it also relies on sales of made-to-order foods, which represent 30% of total sales, and perishable products.

“Fifty percent of what we sell is in a climate-controlled environment and 72 of our stores carry fresh meat,” said Read. “The typical transaction size almost doubles when meat is in the basket.”

“We’ll probably stock 200,000 unique SKUs over the course of a year,” continued Read, “and it’s a little like the movie industry—out of those we’ll have three or four blockbusters a year, but we aren’t sure which those will be when we’re buying [inventory].”

The increasing popularity of organic or “natural” foods has proved to be a blockbuster hit for all food retailers and Grocery Outlet has jumped on the organic bandwagon, finding that value-oriented shoppers are just as eager as affluent shoppers to purchase products that promote a healthier lifestyle.

“Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have created opportunities for us in terms of expanding our product mix,” noted Read. “Organic products just flow off our shelves.”

Although Grocery Outlet shoppers appreciate an organic product mix, retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s aren’t direct competitors. The toughest competitor Grocery Outlet has encountered, according to Read, is another regional discount chain: WinCo Foods based in Boise, Idaho. With 60 stores in five states and roots dating to the 1940s, there is considerable overlap in the markets, products, pricing and shoppers of both brands.

Additionally, Read noted, “Super Wal-Mart has taken market share away from us, but in many cases it becomes a real-estate game [for positioning].”

Asked if his stores had felt an impact from the arrival of Tesco’s Fresh & Easy markets in California, Read replied, “It’s premature to comment, but there has certainly been a lot of noise and I would not underestimate Tesco’s abilities. I have been surprised, however, that Tesco does not appear to have a more unique product mix.

“What we are hearing about,” he continued, “is Tesco’s unique approach to real estate deals. They’re taking larger spaces than needed, to get the location, then sub-leasing the part of the space they don’t need, and they are paying higher rates than Walgreens to get prime positions in the marketplace.”

Regardless of the competitive landscape, regional grocers, like mid-size retailers across all sectors, are focused on continuous improvements in operations and comp-store sales. A general rule of thumb for the grocery sector, according to Demme, is that “whatever amount comp-store sales go down, EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] is down double—when comp sales are down 4%, EBITDA goes down 8% to 9%.”

The five key components to a successful strategy in food retailing that Demme outlined were fundamentally simple: clean stores, fresh selection, friendly service, well-stocked shelves and good prices. However, he predicted that the biggest change in the food-retailing model for the future will be that CEOs will increasingly take on the role of corporate visionary, while their management teams run the day-to-day business operations.

Noting there had been surprisingly little consolidation among food-outlet retailers, Read predicted the outlet niche will avail itself of mergers-and-acquisitions opportunities.

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