A rising economic tide can lift all boats, no question about that. The reverse is also true, as we saw last year: A tough economy and lackluster consumer confidence can cut into sales momentum for retailers, including independent operators.
This year the economy is again a big question mark, but retailers know they can’t just wait around for a big wave. They need to be proactive and continue to find new growth avenues.
The annual NGA Show , under way in Las Vegas, is a time to spotlight the independent retail sector. With that in mind, here are some examples of how independents are breaking out with new growth strategies:
• New stores: This week SN profiles the Top 50 small chains and independents , and our annual rankings show that 40% experienced flat or lower sales. However, at least five companies on our roster achieved revenue growth because they added stores. These included Homeland Food Stores , Harps Food Stores , Reasor’s , All American Quality Foods  and Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage .
• Hispanic formats: Three of the 10 largest companies on our Top 50 list are Hispanic retailers, which reflects a growing opportunity for independents. Those three are Vallarta Supermarkets , Northgate Gonzalez Market  and Cardenas Markets . Meanwhile, another Hispanic retailer previously on the Top 50 list , Bodega Latina , has grown in size enough to appear on SN’s Top 75 list of the industry’s biggest companies.
• Fresh foods: Independents last year continued to make news with programs geared to fresh foods, from Dorothy Lane Market ’s prepared food program to artisanal cheese initiatives from numerous retailers. Along these lines, the NGA Show is partnering with Produce Marketing Association and North American Meat Association to enhance fresh foods’ presence at this year’s show exhibition.
• Local marketing: Local savvy is arguably the independents’ biggest strength, and this was taken to new levels in 2013. Among the initiatives by independents were having bakeries use local flour; embracing high tech farming for locally grown produce; and relaying more information to consumers about local suppliers, including farmers.
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• Technology: Rich Niemann, the incoming chairman of NGA, who is president and CEO of Niemann Foods , said in a new SN video that fostering technology-enhanced shopping is an important mission for independents. His company recently launched a mobile app for shoppers that will offer impressive personalization features. You can view this video and a number of related ones during the week of NGA Show at supermarketnews.com.
Speaking of NGA, the association last year laid the groundwork to lift all independents by introducing research that shows the full clout of this sector: $130 billion in annual sales, or nearly 1% of the total U.S. economy, as noted by Peter Larkin, NGA’s president and CEO .
This research will help boost the image of independents, and I expect it will further raise independents’ perception of themselves, giving new fuel to their growth efforts in 2014.
So let’s revisit that opening phrase about an economic tide lifting boats. Independents represent smaller boats but can generate some big waves to gain more control over their own destinies.
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