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In Billie Letts' Oprah-approved novel "Where the Heart Is," when the characters are not at Wal-Mart, they're at the IGA.Most people probably think of the local IGA as simply that, the community store. But IGA is an affiliation of 3,600 stores in a global alliance, and it has more than 1,800 stores in the United States.As a top executive pointed out, IGA has never left the center of the store."As an

In Billie Letts' Oprah-approved novel "Where the Heart Is," when the characters are not at Wal-Mart, they're at the IGA.

Most people probably think of the local IGA as simply that, the community store. But IGA is an affiliation of 3,600 stores in a global alliance, and it has more than 1,800 stores in the United States.

As a top executive pointed out, IGA has never left the center of the store.

"As an independent store, you can't forget about [fresh items]. Our retailers look at the whole project, based on techniques that you can always improve upon. Center Store has always been strong," said Duane Martin, senior vice president of Chicago-based IGA. U.S. sales in 1998 were $10.8 billion, enough to make IGA the ninth-largest food retailer in the country.

Despite its large presence, many people have an abiding image of IGA as small and dirty, somewhat behind the times.

To combat that, IGA corporate has a system of inspections, now done by ASI of St. Louis, Mo. ASI checks the stores on 1,200 different features, Martin said. This process was begun in July 1997, he said, "to cleanse our stores. We knew it would take about three years to get our stores up to the quality of what we expect," Martin said in a recent interview. Already it is paying off in improved same-store sales and anticipated record sales for this year, he said.

IGA stores range in size, according to Martin, from about 10,000 square feet to 110,000. "It's not 'one size fits all.' Every community is different, and our stores have to be the right size for the community," Martin said.

"We're very optimistic about the future growth of IGA, and are tracking the better IGA operators, that they follow our 'Hometown Proud' policy of being good to the communities they serve," he added.

Hometown Proud, the slogan that IGAs use on employee nametags and on sales advertisements, began in 1988 as a formal tagline, based on the philosophy of IGA's founder.

On an unannounced visit from SN on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the 11,837-square-foot Southampton Village Market IGA looked spotlessly clean and orderly. A shopper in the canned goods aisle, Linda Korte, said she likes shopping in the IGA. "Other stores are overwhelming at times," she said. "Bigger is not always better. Most people are on a time schedule, and here you can get in and out fast," Korte said.

Tom Neilson, the store manager, said this is one of the larger stores among IGAs in the area. The store has done business as the Southampton Village Market for about 10 years, and it advertises with nine other IGAs in the region.

Most of the advertising comes out of Connecticut, where the wholesaler, Bozzuto Bros., is located in Cheshire.

Thanksgiving business was better than last year, Neilson said. Another IGA manager in the area, Kevin Grattan of the Southold IGA, said each week's sales beat those of the previous year.

Cross merchandising was apparent in each of the five IGA stores that SN visited on the East End of Long Island. In Southampton, near the deli counter, a small but well-stocked case about two feet wide by six feet tall held jarred dried tomatoes, various hot sauces, jarred olives, capers, cocktail onions, pimentos, more sauces and most of four lower shelves devoted to mustards. In Southold, the space above the meat case was used to display specialty beverages such as Lorina, Aqualibra and Esprit.

Black and yellow "New Item" shelf tags were used in all stores, as well as one that says "IGA Brands Make Cents," and other signs announcing temporary price reductions were also plentiful. Kraft salad dressing was on special for 75 cents an 8-ounce bottle. Regular price is $1.69.

Private label products were prominent in all stores, but in differing categories because of local preference or the size of the store. Specials in the 27-door frozen section of the Southampton store were noted by handwritten signs in orange-colored paper bursts taped to the freezer doors, advertising IGA whipped topping at 89 cents; Chicken Voila, $3.99 for a 20-ounce package; and IGA Shoestring Potatoes, two 20-ounce packages for $1.

At the East Hampton IGA on North Main Street, a huge red sign in the front window told of "Senior Citizens Day Every Wednesday -- 10% Off," which fits with the rural area's high number of elderly.

Among the canned vegetables, IGA brands sported attractive prices. For example, IGA sliced carrots were 55 cents vs. DelMonte on a TPR at $1.19, but the customer who chose DelMonte saved 25 cents off the regular price. IGA canned cream-style golden sweet corn were two for 99 cents, vs. same size Green Giant next to it for 79 cents.

The East Hampton store carried more private-label cereal than the Southampton store. There were six kinds: Enriched Bran Flakes, $2.29; Square-Shaped Corn Cereal, $2.69, stating "If you like Corn Chex, try me," on the box; Corn flakes were $1.69 and Apple Dapples, $2.99. Crispy Rice (like Rice Krispies, the box said) were $2.59 and Instant Oatmeal in regular flavor and a variety pack was $1.99.

Another IGA owner, Mike Schiavoni of Sag Harbor, said his store has 5,000 square feet of selling space, "barely enough to be called a grocery store."

This forces him to become creative in display and stocking, and has made him manage categories more rigorously. "We try to rearrange our shelves, give eye-level [position] to what turns over and makes the most money," he said.

Schiavoni says "I want to be better than a chain, special and unique. We can learn good things from a chain, like cleanliness and good prices. But why shouldn't they look up to us? I had a King Kullen guy visit us, and he said, 'You guys have a nice operation here."' Many of the IGA stores on Long Island are located in resort or upscale areas, which reflects the independent operator's choice of a site rather than a corporate philosophy.

"We don't cater to the summer crowd," stated Steve Huey, manager of the 8,800-square-foot East Hampton store. "These people are here all year round, and so are we. But you've got to face facts. There is a more diverse crowd in the summer so we put up racks and add more items." Regarding gourmet foods, he said there are some things that he tries to carry. "If a couple of people ask, you try to make the space. We try to accommodate as many people as we can."

Huey said his store gets about 20 items from Haddon House Food Products, Medford, N.J., including Estee sweetener. "They'll break up boxes, and give you half a case" if you want some, but not much of an item, he said.

George's IGA on Shelter Island is the only real grocery store for that town, which is accessible by ferry from Sag Harbor on the south side and Greenport on the north. Another IGA is located in Greenport, and another, with the same owner, is four miles west in Southold. George's was messier in some of its 30-foot aisles than the other stores, but it had a very nice tea and hot chocolate section in a nook. Its pet section was also in an odd little nook on the other side of the store.

George's carries Guiltless Gourmet snacks and Newman's Own cookies, and 17 feet of pasta sauce including Rao's Homemade, in marinara and Siciliana, at $9.05 a jar, plus some other premium brands like Patsy's. Shelter Island and Greenport stock Goya products, and Shelter Island was the only store with an Ethnic section noted in the aisle signage.

George's has white hangar-like ceilings with ancient ceiling fans spinning. The business was founded in 1946, and has been in this location 22 years, according to Eric Walsh, assistant manager and nephew of the owner, George Walsh. It became an IGA in 1972. Eric Walsh and another worker were replacing the 30-year-old shelves in one aisle when SN visited. He said Bozzuto's engineering crew would have replaced the shelves if the Walshes had asked. "But in winter, we have the time to do it ourselves," he said. "Last summer, we put new freezers in one day, with minimal problems," with Bozzuto's help, he said. George's has about 9,000 square feet of selling area, he said, "fairly small for an IGA."

Across the harbor in Greenport, the IGA on South Street managed by Bill Kunda has 15,000 square feet, and longer, wider aisles.

"We're more of a seasonal store. We're Number One on the North Fork for beer sales, in summer," Kunda said, in sales by the distributors of Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller. The Greenport IGA stocks a number of imports such as Caffrey's Irish Ale and Harp's Lager. Beer is sold warm in one aisle, and cold in another. "We are the only supermarket in Greenport, and there is no discount beverage store in town," he said. "In the summer, you do a higher business in upscale brands, and in the winter, when you're living off the area, you sell more Meisterbrau and Milwaukee's Best," he said. The latter was on special, at $2.99 for a six-pack, during SN's visit.

This was the first IGA on SN's tour that carried IGA brands in pretzel products. Kunda said "a lot of times the major companies run such good sales and such discounts it's sometimes hard to beat the national brand with a private label, but the cost-conscious people buy the IGA product."

Greenport had a nice selection of oils, including sesame, almond, sunflower, soybean, safflower, walnut and garlic, all from the Hain Food Group, Uniondale, N.Y. This larger store carries Gerber as well as Beech-Nut baby food, while the other, smaller stores stocked only Beech-Nut.

In Southold, the IGA on the main road has a selling area of approximately 11,000 square feet, according to the manager, Kevin Grattan. "We have just about everything," he said. He noted the big variety of specialty crackers and said the IGA private label sells best in paper towels and detergents. The competition is a King Kullen four miles away and a Waldbaum's six miles away.

The Southold and Greenport stores both just started carrying the Cracovia line of specialty Polish jarred products, such as red cabbage salad, cucumbers in brine, party mix, hot mustard, Polish dill pickles and horseradish sauce, which they buy direct from the vendor.

Grattan said Thanksgiving was good, better than last year, but then, every week beats the week of the previous year, he said. "Maybe because King Kullen's pricing is higher on grocery, maybe because the IGA has a pretty good reputation as a small store with good service." Grattan mentioned the inspection program, which he said is good for the company. "If you get a bad one, you won't want to go into another IGA," he said.