Making “Local” Matter

By Neil Kudrinko

If there’s one thing that independent grocers excel at, it’s relationships. Because we spend so much time in our stores, talking to customers, learning about their wants and needs, we are in a great position to influence customers’ perceptions of their grocery shopping experiences.

From my perspective, there’s two ways to build your business in the grocery industry. One is to develop a highly robust and efficient supply chain that allows you to leverage that efficiency in such a way that you can deliver low prices. The other is to tap into the locavore counter-culture by offering your customers choices that the large stores simply cannot deliver.

The last decade has brought food retailing to a new level in both areas. Here in Canada, the grocery industry is primarily dominated by two companies, Loblaw and Sobeys, with Walmart increasingly building market share through its mass-market channel. Competition is fierce, with all three companies investing heavily in their supply chains. On the other hand, farmers markets, local-food initiatives, and an examination and appreciation of how our food is grown and produced, have all contributed to the growing demand for locally produced food.

As a single store independent, building relationships not only with my customers, but with local producers has been a key factor in my company’s success. One of the ways that we’ve chosen to highlight these grower and producer relationships is through our annual Fall Harvest Sale.

This year marks the third year where we’ve set up an outdoor display to handle the large volume of fresh produce coming off of Ontario farmers’ fields. With Canadian Thanksgiving celebrated in early October our local harvest is well timed with customer demand for fruits and vegetables. The flexibility afforded by the outdoor setup allows us to bring in many products by the field bin. Often these products are larger in size, and fresher in appearance than case packed product.

One of the biggest advantages of this sale is that it allows us to break our customers’ usual routine of shopping our store. Because our outdoor display effectively becomes “Aisle #1” it give us a chance to slow down the shopping trip and talk to our customers about our efforts in supporting local growers. Often, I will personally spend a better part of the day bagging apples from field bins supplied by a local orchard. While I’m there, I will also talk to customers about the growers who supply us, the benefits of supporting local agriculture, and how our products differ from those procured through faceless supply-chains.

If you need any further convincing that going-local might be right for you, you only need to look at our experience with locally produced turkeys. For the last couple of years the market has been flooded with turkeys in the one dollar a pound range. Given that turkey wholesale prices in Ontario are controlled through government regulation via our poultry marketing board this is well below cost. As an independent how do you compete with chain stores who are losing $10 a bird? The answer, simply find a local grower, producing better quality, antibiotic and hormone free turkeys. They may cost more, but you won’t find a better tasting turkey, and you can’t get them at a chain store.

When local retailing is done right it emphasizes top-quality products grown and produced close to the communities where they are being sold. An emotional link is drawn between the consumer and the producer via the local independent grocer. I’ve become accustomed to occasionally telling the odd customer, “I can find cheaper, I just can’t find better quality.” I think my business is stronger for our commitment to promoting quality local products.

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