When the going gets tough, the tough keep growing. So far this year, that seems to be the operational philosophy of Wakefern Food Corp. , the nation’s largest retail cooperative.
Led by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Colalillo, Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern has helped member companies take advantage of the strong value image cultivated by its ShopRite and PriceRite retail banners during a difficult recession.
“During fiscal 2009 and the first three quarters of fiscal 2010, the supermarket industry was impacted by changing consumer behavior due to the weaker economy and increased unemployment,” Village Super Markets, Wakefern’s second-largest member, stated in its most recent quarterly report. “Consumers are increasingly cooking meals at home, trading down to lower-priced items, including private label, and concentrating their buying on sale items.”
Growth is typically modest in these conditions, but supermarkets have proven to be one of the most resilient retail sectors in this economy, and Wakefern and its members have snapped up opportunities that the recession has presented in the always-challenging Northeastern market.
Earlier this month, Thompson Food Corp. in Uniondale, N.Y., became Wakefern’s 47th member. In March, the co-op announced an expansion of its two-year-old wholesale supply arrangement with New York City-based Gristedes. And, in February, Wakefern acquired 11 Connecticut Shaw’s locations from Supervalu. Individual owners quickly converted the stores to their cooperative’s ShopRite brand.
“The Connecticut market has been very supportive of ShopRite and PriceRite over the years, and the addition of these stores allows us to expand our presence in the market,” Colalillo said in a prepared statement.
Cooperatives offer individual owners the promotional flexibility and economies of scale enjoyed by much larger chains. Colalillo and Wakefern have also made it a priority to keep pace with technologies that help the company and its members work more efficiently with their suppliers. Last summer, for example, the company completed the development of a new-item portal that will eliminate paper forms and manual keypunching when suppliers introduce new products at ShopRite and PriceRite. The portal is the latest development from the company’s centralized data integrity department, which has been working on a comprehensive data synchronization project with Wakefern’s suppliers since 2006.
And, Wakefern and its member stores have continued their tradition of giving back to the community. In October, the ShopRite Partners in Caring Fund, which supports hospitals, food banks, educational institutions and other community organizations, donated $10,000 to the Food Bank of Westchester County, New York. That month the Hope Chest Scholarship Foundation — which provides scholarships to help New Jersey minorities attend college or trade school — named Wakefern its Corporate Sponsor of the Year.
This year, Wakefern was recognized for taking good care of its employees as well. The Employers Association of New Jersey awarded the company with its Harold R. Hawkey Exceptional Employer Award, thanks to health and wellness initiatives including fitness center membership and reimbursement programs, classes to encourage exercise and a companywide weight loss contest.