Scan the aisles of any big-box store or conventional supermarket, and it quickly becomes clear that the pages of the natural independent playbook have been co-opted by the competition. Gluten-free, organic and specialty foods line the shelves. Marketing touts local and sustainable. Dedicated sections target condition-specific offerings. What’s an independent store to do?
As it turns out, there’s a lot you can do. “Independent stores don’t need to lose mindshare in this space,” says James Johnson-Piett, principal of Urbane Development in Detroit and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies board member. “New partnerships, new products, new operating modalities—even a small face-lift can make a big difference.”
Here, he joins American Independent Business Alliance board member Lilian Brislen to explore the competition’s tactics, re-address independents’ value and offer practical advice on how you can stay competitive in the areas you pioneered.
Condition-specific and health care
Check the competition: ShopRite recently teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to create a diabetes center in its Flemington, New Jersey, location. It offers 100 condition-specific items as well as dietitian support. But ShopRite isn’t alone. Lots of other chains offer walk-in clinics and other health care resources.
The independent edge: You understand that health is holistic and requires highly customized solutions, Brislen says. “Having a trusted professional to talk customers through multiple options that speak to their holistic experience and lifestyle is where I think passionate and committed independent retailers can set themselves apart,” she says. “Stress that you are helping shoppers realize their holistic vision of health, as opposed to offering medicalized, pharmaceutical solutions.”
Take action: Local know-how and freedom to be flexible are advantages often unavailable to larger stores. “Look at health conditions affecting the local community,” Johnson-Piett suggests. “Do promotions around how to avoid them, or sales relating to products that fit these needs. Then create a partnership with a clinic or pharmacist in the area to cross-promote.”
Handmade and artisan
Check the competition: Southern chains BI-LO and Winn-Dixie are giving small local startups opportunities to pitch their products to sell in-store.
The independent edge: If shoppers are buying artisan products because they want to support local vendors—and an independent store itself is a local vendor—there’s an opportunity for value alignment, Brislen says. All stores need to do is connect the dots. “Plus,” she adds, “a local store can take a chance on smaller entrepreneurs.”
Take action: Instead of enlisting a top-down approach that tells the community what they should consider to be artisan, put the community in the driver’s seat by involving shoppers in the selection process. Use social media or host an in-store contest to determine which handmade products make the cut.
Check the competition: Walmart’s Sustainability Leaders section highlights brands that boast positive social and environmental impact throughout the full life cycle of their products.
The independent edge: Dubious of Walmart’s true dedication to social responsibility? You’re probably not alone. “Independent stores can market this as a core value of everything they do, rather than a fly-by-night trend opportunity,” Brislen says. In other words, you walk the walk. Local independent retailers are more likely to support local charities and projects, make in-kind contributions to key functions that keep a community running, coach Little League teams, sit on boards and host church missions, she adds. This is social involvement that big corporations just can’t touch.
Take action: Now’s the time for you to toot your own horn a bit. “Highlight those things you take for granted,” Brislen says, because it’s highly unlikely the big-box outfit down the road has the same deeply personal connection to the community’s social wellness. And, she adds, stores that are proud to offer a living wage should promote it. “Tell the stories of your employees,” she says. “Show how you give your employees purpose. That’s what social responsibility really looks like.”
Check the competition: Grocery outlet Bargain Market launched the NOSH (natural, organic, specialty, healthy foods) section as one of its top three priorities for 2015. It’s billed as a “Whole Foods for less.” This is just one example in a sea of countless stores offering natural independents’ bread and butter—at a lower price.
The independent edge: Having a product in stock doesn’t cut it anymore. What really matters is how you sell it. “Some of these big-box sections are no-frills experiences,” Brislen says. “There’s no character there.” Not so at most indies.
Take action: “What does natural really mean,” Johnson-Piett asks. “Local stores can define the term and set the bar the community actually wants to hit.” First, take the temperature of the community. Who are they? What matters to them? “Independent retailers can often get people in a room—senior centers, churches and other local players—to find out what they need,” says Johnson-Piett. “Get them to define for you what natural means to them, specifically, and then leverage that in your store.”
Check the competition: Many mainstream grocery stores have always stocked local products (after all, they’re often cheaper to ship). But with the trend hitting mainstream, they’re doubling down on marketing their local offerings to attract shoppers.
The independent edge: Leverage the difference between supporting a local product and supporting a truly local ecosystem, Johnson-Piett says. “Independent stores offer local products, but also local services and local staff—it’s not just one thing,” he adds. And although larger stores have borrowed a buzzword, independents now have the opportunity to expand the conversation to include bigger questions of radius and rural economies, or even offer products unique to a local community to preserve a robust and secure food system.
Take action: Get to know the writer of the local newspaper’s metro section, and make sure he or she reports on your store’s local impact, Johnson-Piett suggests. This will drive home the truly cohesive local impact of shopping at an independent. Join a local business association, or if there isn’t one, start one. “You’re at a disadvantage against a big-box that has a lot of money,” he admits. “But you can play the numbers game.”
Check the competition: Stop & Shop hosted a Here We Grow event at all of its 213 New England stores in July 2014 to celebrate locally grown produce. The retailer gave out seed packets and “buy local” canvas bags. Shoppers even met the farmers. Sound familiar?
The independent edge: “What we’re seeing with a more informed and engaged consumer base across the board is that they want to be part of a conversation,” Brislen says. “But it’s more than a one-time event.” Independent retailers, unlike most conventional stores, have a history of trust and credibility that a few events held by your competition can’t undo.
Take action: When it comes to farmers markets, “don’t give up your bread and butter,” says Johnson-Piett. At the same time, don’t resist expanding into innovative areas that the big-box stores haven’t yet explored. For example, partner with local schools to do a smoothie market. “The kids can buy the groceries from your store and make up smoothies to sell,” he says. “People have incredible civic pride, and you want to be the store that’s known as a community partner.”
Check the competition: Fred Meyer and QFC have bulk sections; Giant Eagle created a “healthy aisle” in its frozen section, featuring six to 12 doors of natural and organic offerings; and gluten free is everywhere.
The independent edge: Forget competing on cost. “Independents can offer value beyond cheapness,” Brislen says. “You can make new products and new trends approachable.” Independents often have the knowledge—and staff—to go beyond simply offering products to walking shoppers through the products, whether it’s helping them navigate an intimidating bulk section or craft a new lifestyle entirely.
Take action: Create opportunities to discuss these trends, Brislen advises. For example, host store tours or cooking demos based on gluten-free, vegetarian and other lifestyles. Consider posting a sign that says you have staff on hand to help navigate new products. “Even though these sections are popping up in supermarkets, their shoppers generally don’t know how to cook with the ➪ ingredients or are intimidated by them,” Brislen says. “Facilitating a positive lifestyle change, beyond offering the products, is something that is powerful and often inexpensive for an independent store to do.”
Check the competition: Publix launched Get Into a Green Routine, a sustainability and conservation effort that reduced corporate consumption and encourages employees to limit eco-damage at home.
The independent edge: “I would guess that many larger stores are taking on these initiatives purely so they can market them,” Brislen says. “I think it’s key that independents can effectively stress that the sustainability of their business is a core area of focus.”
Take action: Obviously, touting a store’s eco-efforts is paramount, no matter how small you are. But getting started on some large-scale initiatives needn’t be intimidating. “Local and state governments will happily subsidize new equipment or new mechanical infrastructure surrounding sustainability at every scale,” says Johnson-Piett. So don’t be afraid to call up the local utility company to inquire about state programs. “Every state has them,” he says. “Even as a small fry, you can really save money on sustainability efforts and then leverage it in marketing.”
Market research on the cheap
Think customized market research, sustainability analysis or new technology has to cost a fortune? Or that it’s the exclusive territory of the big players? Think again, says Johnson-Piett. “This is where local universities can be super handy,” he explains. “They have a lot of resources and they’re looking for places to test new technology or apply their research.”
Food science departments want to know more about health and nutrition or even food access, and partnering with them to do studies surrounding your offerings or local area can “provide a hyper-credibility bump” in the community, Johnson-Piett says. On the sustainability side, many local universities are happy to put together a life cycle analysis, he says, or even partner to test out new wind or solar technology. His final word on the subject? “Embrace the opportunity to be a guinea pig.”