business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

In addition to writing MorningNewsBeat each day, Content Guy Kevin Coupe also contributes regular columns to a wide number of publications, including Chain Store Age. As a regular MorningNewsBeat feature, the folks at Chain Store Age have graciously agreed to let us reprint some of these columns…

Independent retailers, to be frank, sometimes spend a lot more time whining than they do being truly independent.

Not that you can blame them. It is a jungle out there, with a lot of big - really, really big - animals on the prowl. To many independents, I'm sure, it probably seems like they just can't get a break.

But as someone once said, you have to make your own breaks.

This is what happened a few years ago when a store designer in Northern California named John Sutti realized that many of the independent grocers he was dealing with shared the same problem - while they often had good ideas, they lacked the mass and infrastructure to implement them. And they often were just scared of making any move, for fear that it could be the wrong move.

So Sutti invited about 60 grocers and vendors to a hotel ballroom with the notion that somehow they could pool their efforts and enthusiasm and create something that would assuage the fear and enable action. That first meeting seemed to go pretty well, so the attendees scheduled a second one for a few weeks later.

And just 20 showed up. So much for assuaging fear and enabling action…

But the foundation for a new kind of independent grocer was beginning to be formed…and which now has found shape as an organization called Raise The Bar - a group of retailers consisting of 40 stores and 29 owners doing a total of more than $400 million in annual sales.

Raise The Bar serves as a vehicle through which these retailers can 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.

One of the canniest steps taken by the retailers was to create a Vendor Resource Group. These retailers knew that they weren't getting any attention from major CPG companies, and that there had to be a number of smaller food manufacturers that were having an equally difficult time breaking through to major retailing companies. So they approached these smaller manufacturers and created an advisory group, a kind of think tank that would help them develop, merchandise and market interesting products that would differentiate them from their larger competition.

It's worked - so well, in fact, that the nonprofit Raise The Bar has created a separate for-profit company called Our Kitchen, which develops and sources private label, proprietary fresh products that only are carried by Raise The Bar retailers.

There are two major priorities that Raise The Bar retailers keep on their plates on a day-to-day basis - one external, the other internal:

"Creating Customers For Life," is a major marketing effort employed by the Raise The Bar members, using a variety of methods to take the pulse of consumer needs and desires. Bennett Robinson, Raise The Bar's executive director, says that it is a very simple approach requiring enormous dedication - the stores commit themselves to answer every customer question and fulfill every customer request.

Ken Silveira, who owns a two-store chain based in Sebastopol, Ca., and is one of the original members of Raise The Bar, says that this has been one of the biggest advantages of the group - it creates a kind of support group that keeps everyone on task. "Probably the biggest thing I've learned directly from this group is about knowing who your customer is. This isn't brain surgery, it is just giving your customer more than they expect when they walk in the store. If you can create that excitement again and again through their shopping experience, you know they are going to come back."

Silveira takes this so seriously that he hired someone to coordinate the Creating Customers for Life initiative, and who serves as a conduit between shoppers and any and every store function - creating dialogue, providing answers and explanations, and working to differentiate the in-store experience.

In addition, Raise The Bar works very hard to help owners transition from managing their companies to leading their people…which are very different talents.

"All of the owners are good grocers, very hard workers and skilled in the various aspects of running a retail store," says Robinson. "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 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."

Not only is the Raise The Bar concept admirable, it is paying dividends. Robinson says that the retailers involved are all seeing high single digit or double-digit annual sales increases - which is noteworthy in the highly competitive Northern California market.

The goal now is to license the concept elsewhere, establishing Raise The Bar chapters all over the country that can expand the knowledge base and grow the organization's economies of scale. But that's the future…for now, I think, the Raise The Bar folks should be happy (but not content) with what they've achieved so far. Their "virtual chain" is the kind of innovation that really is independent-minded, free from fear and enabling action.

Silveira says it all is simple. "We aren't trying to focus on stealing customers from Safeway or Costco or any of the Wal-Marts of the world," he says. "We just focus on doing a better job with the customers that we have."

Reprinted with permission Chain Store Age (1/2004). Copyright Lebhar-Friedman Inc., 425 Park Ave., NY, NY 10022

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