NGA CONVENTION

LAS VEGAS - Two regional operators - Fresh Encounter in Ohio and Niemann Foods in Illinois - are re-casting their store images to achieve a greater competitive advantage, the heads of each company told a workshop here during last week's National Grocers Association convention.Mike Needler, president and chief executive officer of Fresh Encounter, Findlay, Ohio, said his company is adding the name

LAS VEGAS - Two regional operators - Fresh Encounter in Ohio and Niemann Foods in Illinois - are re-casting their store images to achieve a greater competitive advantage, the heads of each company told a workshop here during last week's National Grocers Association convention.

Mike Needler, president and chief executive officer of Fresh Encounter, Findlay, Ohio, said his company is adding the name "Community Market" to several of its banners "to reinforce what we are trying to be." The banners include Great Scot Supermarkets, Sack 'N Save Supermarkets, Fulmer, Bob & Carl's and Eve's.

He told SN after the meeting he expects to convert 10 of the 30 stores over the next five years.

The elements of the company's community approach are already in place, Needler told the workshop, including 100% carry-out service; easy in-and-out; a customer-service program built around the acronym G.R.E.A.T. (greet, react, escort, anticipate and thank); 10-for-$10 sales on a biweekly or weekly basis; a custom-cut meat program featuring in-house butchers that has boosted meat to 22% of total sales; and an extensive training program in produce that has boosted produce to 8% to 10% of sales - "but only because we're not big enough to move into the 13% range," he noted.

Niemann, based in Quincy, Ill., is converting its County Markets banner away from its historical no-frills, discount-priced format to a more diversified offering "built around mom and a warm atmosphere inside and outside the store, plus a sensible price message in a store that showcases produce in a large open area, plus natural foods, plus a bakery that features more products from scratch and more signature items," Richard Niemann Jr., president and CEO, told the workshop.

The company opened its first fully converted store last December in Urbana, Ill., and plans to complete conversions of stores in Champaign and Shelbyville, Ill., this summer and to open a ground-up location early next year in Pittsfield, Ill., Niemann told SN after the meeting.

The converted stores will feature a new round logo, he said, with the County Markets name in the middle.

The company began planning to implement the new strategy 10 years ago, he told the workshop - "when we knew the day would come when we couldn't dominate on price in our markets," he told SN after the session. Although the company has gradually made changes in products, pricing and service over the years, it cannot complete the process and put up the new logo until it adds a new interior and exterior design package, Niemann pointed out.

Two other workshop panelists suggested ways independent operators can work with consumers to improve their image.

Curt Cullison, director of wholesale marketing for Supervalu, Minneapolis, said retailers need to define the customer's expectations. "Get to know your customer and her values, and ask her how to create a great shopping experience, and then let her tell you. Your future is in her hands."

He also suggested owners put themselves in their customers' shoes "by taking three steps into your stores and then stopping and opening your senses to what you hear, see and smell. Then go to the produce and meat departments and do the same thing, and you'll look at your store differently."

Ron Rehkopf, president of Rehkopf Enterprises, Texarkana, Texas, said it's important for a retailer to understand why customers choose to shop at his store "and then focus your marketing strategy in that direction."

In his case, Rehkopf said, his ability to focus on his meat program has enabled him to expand from four stores to 10 over the last six years while the area in which he operates was saturated with supercenters.

He also urged independents to upgrade their stores annually - "the cases, front-end systems and the signage at every location," he said.

Separately, NGA has signed a new four-year agreement with Caesars Palace and its sister hotel, the Paris Las Vegas, Gary Phillips, chairman of NGA and chief executive officer of Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan., said. "The membership has voted with its feet that Las Vegas is a preferred venue for the annual convention," he said, noting that attendance was up about 8%.