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Want to increase customer retention? Get out in the community

Relationship-building goes a long way, according to the Bay area’s United Markets

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It’s pretty simple actually — there are two things that San Francisco Bay area-based United Markets is all about. One: Amazing, organic produce. And two: Local. 

According to President Kelly Smith, United was one of the first in the area to feature and market organic, some 20 years ago. About half of the produce section at both locations is organic.

Local is also a big focus. Each of the two stores has about 35,000 SKUs. Last year alone, Smith said she added 1,800 new SKUs, and half were from local merchants. 

“It sets us apart from a Safeway or even a Trader Joe’s, because you can’t get these items anywhere else,” said Smith. “[Local] is definitely something my customers are looking for.”

United Markets first opened in 1955 in San Rafael, Calif. And a sister store in San Anselmo, Calif., followed in 1958.

Smith’s father, Bill Daniels, and his business partner bought it in 1982 from the original owners, and Smith started working full time in 1988.

Smith had gone off to do her own thing for three years, but returned to run the store full time after her dad passed away in 2018. 

Right off the bat, Smith had to deal with large area fires in northern California, a 78-hour power outage as a result of the fires, and in 2020 — the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But so far, Smith has weathered it all. 

“I’m kind of built for resiliency,” she said. “On my [computer] monitor here I have a little thing that says ‘patience,’ because you don’t know what’s going to come at you on any day and you’re not going to be able to fix everything in a week.”

In terms of tech, United Markets has kept things at a minimum. The stores have pickup and delivery, but they manage it themselves. No self-service checkouts because “I want my checkers to have a conversation, I want the shoppers to have a connection point,” Smith said. 
One piece of recent tech Smith implemented at both stores is an online sandwich ordering tool. The online option offers convenience for customers, but it additionally offers efficiency for workers. 

Smith’s biggest strategy for customer retention and growth? Lean into the community — in a serious way.

That looks like making relationships and friendships with the local police, having a first responder’s barbecue. They have a “community card,” which they’ve had in place for the last 20 years. About 75 schools and nonprofits in the area benefit from the card — United donates 3% back to all purchases they make.

Smith said she’s really close with a lot of the northern California independent grocers. 
“We all know each other and we talk all the time,” Smith said. “We call them our sister stores. We call each other and say, ‘How do you handle this, where’d you go for this, who did you talk to in order to make that happen?’ We all help each other, which is unusual in most industries.”

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