Why Local Grocers Matter

Grocery Store

By Brian Brown, President, Ingredient

When I was a kid, I’d go grocery shopping with my mom at the Stater Bros. down the street from our house in Covina, California. We’d always go to the same checker, even if she had a line and others didn’t. She’d absolutely fly over those register keys and hardly looked at the price tags on everything as she rung us up and chatted about our lives since the last time she saw us. She knew all the prices in the store (or thought she did) and she knew us and what we liked and what we usually bought. It was a few moments of friendly banter with someone we thought of as a real friend, punctuated with a slightly more generous dispensation of Blue Chip trading stamps at the end of the transaction than we had earned.

Man, does that make me sound old.

Blue Chips stamps and manual registers are both gone, overtaken by newer ideas, but that Stater Bros. is still there. So are thousands of similar local groceries all across the country—and that’s an undeniably good thing, because I think locally operated grocers are part of the nucleus of healthy communities.

Like schools and civic buildings and churches, grocery stores are where communities mix and meet. It’s where you see your neighbors and the parents of your kids’ friends and their teachers. It’s where your kids (or even you) get their first job bagging or stocking shelves. These are companies where you can start as a teenager and work your way up to leading the entire organization. They’re companies whose success depends on knowing the needs and preferences of their communities. They’re knitted into the fabric of their neighborhoods in ways more intimate than most other businesses.

Because of this, I wasn’t at all surprised to see two of our grocery clients recently named by Consumer Reports as leaders in their fieldGelson’s Markets in Southern California was the top local grocer in the entire western United States and Lunds & Byerlys was tied for the highest score in the northern midwestern states.

These stores thrive in the face of brutal competitive pressure by big box and discount retailers because of their obsessive focus on service, quality, and freshness. Their aisles are filled with new and local brands that haven’t yet made the radar of the big guys. They know the farmers and ranchers in the nearby counties and have decades-old relationships that allow them to get the first and best pick of each year’s harvest. Their employees know their customers personally. They’ve watched their kids grow up and know which one has a peanut allergy and remember to ask how the backyard barbeque they bought those steaks for went. And they have this insight into their customers because these companies are places people can work at for years. Decades. That alone is nearly a superpower the big box guys can’t compete against.

As the competition has evolved, local grocers have, too. More ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook options made with the same fresh ingredients are available throughout the store. New technologies like online ordering, in-store pick-up, and delivery give customers options. Yet, by doubling down on investments in store experience, service, and selection, they are tapping into what research has already proven: Many people like to grocery shop. When grocers create a pleasant experience, share inspiration, offer new products, and participate in their communities, they develop the kind of relationships with their customers that most retailers can only dream of.

Local grocers need to continue to connect with their communities both in person and online. They can leverage their local insights into service and product offerings that prove their value to consumers. Companies like Lunds & Byerlys and Gelson’s are doing that right now. At Ingredient, we couldn’t be more excited to work to elevate these efforts and help them achieve greater success.