It's easy to see that large-scale retailers seem to be more and more alike, and that even when differentiation strategies are articulated on their behalf, thinking a decade old gets more representation than do ideas proposing bold moves into the future.
Nonetheless, there are conventional retailers that have developed strategies that differentiate and that may offer some insulation from the price-impact giants of the industry. So let's spend a little time looking through this week's issue of SN to see what some of those strategies are.
The Specialist: Caputo's Fresh Markets in suburban Chicago was started many years ago as a purveyor of Italian specialities and produce. Those lines remain integral to what the three-store independent still does, although it now offers dry goods and has augmented its ethnic lines to reflect the changing demographics of its operational areas. Moreover, if a customer seeks a product that's not in a store, buyers will do what's necessary to find it: "If a customer asks us for a product, we feel it's our responsibility to go out and get it for them," said one store representative.
All that means the stores are highly differentiated against conventional and low-price food retailers, which prompted one trade observer to tell SN that the independent is "Wal-Mart proof." It's a big claim for a small operator, but there's little reason to think it isn't true. For more on this independent, and photos of the operation, see Page 33.
The Casual Cafe: There are few supermarket operators that have been able to operate full-service restaurants successfully. One white-tablecloth experiment was unfolded, then folded, many years ago by Kroger, under the "Barney's" banner. Several supermarket operators, though, have done well by offering sizable lines of fresh-prepared food and providing a restaurant-like sit-down area; the concept is really self-service, however. Chief among those operators is Wegmans.
Now, Marsh Supermarkets has inaugurated its Trios De Toscanos Cafe, a concept that seems to bridge the space between white tablecloth and self-service. Marsh's cafe is in a non-supermarket space, co-located with a flower shop, also operated by Marsh. Offered at the cafe are a few dishes inspired by the food of Tuscany. Product is available to take out or to eat in the 110-seat restaurant. Those who eat in must go to a counter to make their selections and make payment. At that point, patrons are given a beeper so they can take a seat and await preparation. See more about the concept, and photos, on Page 25.
CRM: Finally, let's turn from retail concepts to a technology-driven service concept that's available to retailers of any size, presuming they have the resources to do it. It's customer relationship management. CRM generally makes use of an incumbent loyalty card program, but leverages it in a way that retailers can institutionalize the personalization of transactions. That presents some of the same benefits obtained by the two operators cited previously who use the format to personalize sales.