FOR SOME INDEPENDENT RETAILERS, IT'S ALL ABOUT THE GAME

Being "in the zone" is a hot term these days. Not only is it the title of pop star Britney Spears' new album, but it is what many athletes aspire to and some retailers, too. "In the zone" means maximum performance level, total focus on the task at hand, being in control, and having no distractions. All of these qualities are needed to win the day.In this week's special report beginning on Page 23,

Being "in the zone" is a hot term these days. Not only is it the title of pop star Britney Spears' new album, but it is what many athletes aspire to and some retailers, too. "In the zone" means maximum performance level, total focus on the task at hand, being in control, and having no distractions. All of these qualities are needed to win the day.

In this week's special report beginning on Page 23, SN profiles independent retailers who are playing "in the zone" -- and winning. They are doing it as they face down mega-chains that wield power in terms of market share, multiple stores, buying clout and operational efficiency.

The 10 retailing companies and a natural and specialty food distributor featured here are advancing by building their businesses within five specific zones: branding, lifestyle, price/value, design/format and technology.

While it has taken them hard work and time to get there, once "in the zone," things become nearly effortless. Confidence rules. Reaction time is fast. Accomplishments come quick. Success is easy. Here is a glimpse of how some retailers are playing "in the zone."

Yoke's Foods, a 12-store operator, decided to brand itself by marketing signature meats that no one else carried: Yoke's Pride Certified Hereford Beef. To ensure product quality, Yoke's bought its own herd of cattle with the assistance of the American Hereford Association. The move, which demonstrates real focus and commitment, supports the local ranching community to boot.

McGonigle's Market, with a single store, also has earned a reputation for quality meats. It has built a national presence with steaks. This holiday, McGonigle's expects to sell over 34,000 steaks nationwide. Here the focus is on quality, not price.

Earth Fare has honed in on lifestyle and society's desire to eat healthy. It has positioned itself with its selection of national and organic foods not only for the most serious health nuts, but for mainstream shoppers as well.

While not abandoning their core business, retailers like G&R Felpausch have been astute enough to zone in on a very specific market area, and offer an alternative shopping trip that fulfills a need for price and value.

Kowalski's Markets and Fresh Encounter are two very different retailers, but both have achieved success through unique design or having a format that is right for the local community.

Retailers like these prove you don't have to be big in size or have multiple stores to succeed in food retailing today. What really counts is community focus and involvement, said Tom Zaucha, who heads the National Grocers Association. NGA retailers are naturally taking the home-turf advantage.

"We believe that a diversity of competition in the marketplace is a better option than market concentration," said Zaucha, "because with diversity comes better pricing, better variety, better quality, a higher level of service, and a true sense of entrepreneurship and creativity." These components are lost when the market becomes too concentrated, he noted.

For independents like these, it's not so much about winning or losing -- it's how they play the game. When the focus is on the game, retailing becomes fun. More retailers need to get in the winner's zone.