KNOWING CONSUMER CALLED INDEPENDENT'S EDGE

CHICAGO -- Being closer to the store level, independent supermarket retailers are better positioned than chains to cater to individual shoppers, speakers said in the independent program at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention here."As an independent operator, you have an advantage because you know your customers and you know your stores," said Marvin Imus, vice president at Paw Paw Shopping

CHICAGO -- Being closer to the store level, independent supermarket retailers are better positioned than chains to cater to individual shoppers, speakers said in the independent program at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention here.

"As an independent operator, you have an advantage because you know your customers and you know your stores," said Marvin Imus, vice president at Paw Paw Shopping Center, a Paw Paw, Mich., independent.

"We've always known our consumers the best. The big chains can't worry about an individual consumer."

Scanning and frequent shopper programs -- not out-of-reach tools for independents -- are critical to collecting the consumer data needed to identify a store's best customers, what they buy and how the store can accommodate them and build loyalty, Imus stressed. "Once you have scanning, you have the ability to capture all the transaction data and to know your customer," he said.

A handout listed Paw Paw's top shoppers -- a number of whom Imus said he knew by name -- with their total monthly visits and transactions, lifetime purchases and number of visits to the store, and average market basket. Such data illustrates shopper profiles and the diversity of a store's customer base, creating opportunities for direct marketing, Imus explained.

"Our customers are telling us through their purchases who they think we are," he said. Similarly, independents can be more efficient at category management than chains since their category plans can apply store-by-store instead of over a broad trade area, said Robert Blattberg, a retail and data base marketing expert.

"It's an advantage that independent operators with two or three stores have that the big chains don't: You can oversee implementation of your category plan. The chains have all kinds of trouble," he explained. As the number of formats selling groceries mushrooms, reaching out to customers is becoming a retail necessity, said Michael Sansolo, FMI group vice president of industry relations and education.

Last year, total independent supermarket sales rose 4% and same-store sales climbed 2.9%, Sansolo said. However, he noted, inflation-adjusted same-store sales dipped 0.4%. "That means the pie for our industry is not getting bigger," he said.