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Content Guy’s Note: Starting today, each Monday for the next two-and-a-half months will feature an article previewing some aspect of the annual Food Marketing Institute show, scheduled for May 4-6 in Chicago.

The point of these articles is to focus on some aspect of the industry that will be addressed at the show, to put into sharp relief the critical changes taking place in the industry and the “change agents” who are making them happen and creating a context through which they can be understood.

This week, we offer a look at one aspect of a three-hour Learning Lab that will be offered on the morning of Monday, May 5: “Size Matters: The Smaller, The Faster,” which will use an interactive format to examine and recommend specific approaches smaller operators can use to compete successfully by balancing strategies to grow sales with cost controls. The discussion will examine ways to build a reputation for quality and freshness in perishables, describe how to brand the store by building a niche in the community, ways to use the web to build business, and taking customer loyalty beyond card programs. This session -- which, coincidentally, we will be privileged to moderate -- is designed to be a real-world, feet-on-the-ground idea session from which retailers can walk away with action-plans for their stores.

One aspect of this session will be to examine a unique approach to creating strategic alliances:

Recently, a group of independent retailers in California recognized their common need to differentiate themselves; it was, they believed, an absolute necessity if they are to survive in the highly competitive 21st century marketplace,

To that end, this group of retailers created an entity called Raise The Bar, which serves as a vehicle through which it could share best practices in the areas of merchandising, customer service, and sourcing unique products; it even has created a series of videos that are used as educational tools within the member stores, all of which pay a fee to belong to the group.

Raise The Bar currently consists of 37 stores with five applications pending, and with roughly $400 million in annual sales among them. To get a better sense of how the group works and what its goals are, we conducted an exclusive e-interview with Bennett A. Robinson, who has been hired by Raise The Bar’s retailers as its administrator.

MNB: What specifically led to the creation of Raise The Bar? Was it a slow dawning that this sort of mechanism was needed by independents, or a sudden event that just woke everybody up?

Bennett A. Robinson: It was at the invitation of John Sutti, an architect and builder who works almost exclusively with independent grocery stores. John saw that the independent grocers were falling away if they didn’t grow with the times and create an identity that was clearly different from the chains who were playing the size and price game. As the grocers began to meet regularly, they discovered that were indeed allies and could join together to solve some common challenges among them.

How do you define your mission?

Bennett A. Robinson: Raise the Bar’s mission is to help the independent grocers, throughout the United States, grow their business by continuing to raise the level of service within their stores to create retail customers for life. By improving the level of service within their stores, the overall result will be increased sales and profits for the stores. The Raise the Bar organization is an essential component for independent grocers to grow their business.

Are there criteria for membership...for example, size of company in sales or stores, location, etc...?

Bennett A. Robinson: The following excerpts from our bylaws describe the most basic of criteria: “owning a retail grocery business… which is not publicly traded… which serves the public market.” The original idea was to limit the possible members to those independently owned stores that did not exceed four stores in any one company. The concern was that the bigger players might unduly sway (or control) this group of smaller independents. The Raise the Bar history has shown that every time we have voted and debated our way through a policy change or some other organizational concern, that it has always been “one owner, one vote.” So, long story made shorter, the number of store criteria is being reconsidered while the independently owned requirement remains solidly in place.

How does Raise The Bar interfere with or complement a retailer’s relationship with his or her wholesaler?

Bennett A. Robinson: This is an interesting question. The nature of RTB is to ask the grocer to make buying decisions for their customer. We ask the customer what they want us to sell and then we bring it in for them. Our goal is to put one more item in our existing customers’ basket. These items are often specialty, natural foods based, or come from the value-added food service departments of the store. Therefore, the vendors we need to interact with are the like-minded specialty vendors who are as responsive to us as we are to our customers. While the big wholesalers are still big players, they are too slow and too bereft of original ideas to satisfy the real-time needs of our growing clientele. The wholesalers seem to be offering only truckloads and pallets of things they and the big manufacturers want to sell. We are not encouraging our grocers to put up end displays of laundry soap, mayonnaise, and soda to enter into a price war on a commodity, non-destination grocery item with the big chains.

Can you give a couple of examples of how Raise The Bar has had an impact on how a retailer manages or operates his store?

Bennett A. Robinson: One of our grocers is a very busy man. He is very likeable and is a student of the grocery business. He was amazed when survey results from his own employees revealed that they thought he was “aloof, arrogant, and didn’t carte at all about us (his employees).” He was unaware of the effect his rushing in the door, hurrying in to the office and getting his work done was having on employees. Even though he made time to work with his various department heads, the message they heard was that his employees did not have time for him. He made the decision to change his way of being on the floor. He slowed down, chatted with employees he usually didn’t and started morning “Huddles” where he helped to energize and direct the staff. At the last year end review in his store, the biggest positive change the employees saw was their owner “cares more about us.” By the way, his turnover has slowed down now, too.

Another retailer liked to check every day because he liked to get the pulse of the day. He made himself the lead checker on Mondays. This practice is not bad in its own right. Every grocer has their own flair and you know that his customers are going to tell him what they really feel if he is on the registers. However, it is hard to lead when you are “chained” to a fixed position, like conducting a band if you play tuba. This grocer began to see that he could modify his checking time, still stay in touch and be able to lead his store team from a flexible management position. Frankly, I think no one ever mentored this man in how to be a leader and now he had the example of the other grocers (who didn’t check groceries) and the guidance of a consultant who could help him see the forest for the trees because his external perspective.

Actually, it seems that in some ways, you’re trying to get retailers not so much to be operators or managers, but leaders. True?

Bennett A. Robinson: Absolutely. All of the owners are good grocers, very hard workers and skilled in the various aspects of running a retail store. They have inherited the job from a family member or have grown their way up in the business. They have probably not had a lot of true management and leadership development education along the way, they were too busy. We have helped them to be students of each others’ successes. We have introduced management concepts that are universal. RTB has put together training and education materials so that the grocer can get back to leading their business. If you spend your day putting out fires, you will never get to (what I feel is) the most important job of the executive of a large company: leading your store and staff forward to a continuing and lasting success while exemplifying the highest of standards.
KC's View:
Knowing how fragile much of the independent grocery sector is these days, we think that Raise The Bar is exactly the kind of mechanism that independents need to develop in order to address the big picture of retailing, as opposed to becoming mired in the day-to-day operational details that, while they must be addressed, prevent them from being strategic thinkers. Taken in concert with the other issues that will be addressed during this Learning Lab, we think that this session will be highly productive for those who attend.

Note that all the Learning Lab sessions are limited seating. You can get more information about this Learning Lab and all the sessions taking place at FMI 2003 by going to the organization’s website,