NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nearly five years into its experiment with downtown food retailing, S&C Foods is getting it right.
The company's H.G. Hill Urban Market, which opened on Church Street in the heart of Music City in February 2007, has overcome some early struggles, Mark Maxwell, the store's manager, told SN in a recent interview. And success in this venue, he admitted, didn't come exactly as drawn up.
“It hasn't been an overnight process,” Maxwell said. “When you're trying to fit between two 35-story buildings, it's easy to disappear. Sometimes people don't notice you at first.”
The 5,000-square-foot store, located on the ground floor of a condo tower, has undergone numerous changes already, Maxwell said. A key modification was a conscious effort to rein in the upscale positioning often associated with small downtown markets, Maxwell explained.
“That [upscale] was how we had positioned it, and I'm telling you, it was the wrong way,” Maxwell said. “The store was kind of floundering. We learned we can't be a snob about our quality.”
As things turned out, he said, city dwellers like a good deal every bit as much as shoppers in the suburbs — they just have a little less time to shop for them. And for H.G. Hill, changing to a less service-intense setup — scrapping both its service meat and seafood counters — facilitated such an offering.
So Maxwell petitioned the company to replace the meat counter with an upright case to display packaged meat, and the seafood went into the freezer. Sales subsequently improved and expenses went down.
“In retrospect, full service in the meat department was really a hindrance,” Maxwell said. “People are in a hurry downtown. Everyone is on the clock. People who are working have only so many minutes for lunch, so many minutes on break. They want to pick up what they need and get out the door.
“We were working ourselves to death keeping that service meat counter going,” he added. “We were wrapping whole trays to keep the air from getting to the meat and we started packaging it but had no place to display it.”
Elsewhere, the store found its stride behind sharp pricing in produce and a close eye on the unusual mix of shoppers the store draws, Maxwell said. Sales have improved in double-digits in each of the last three years.
Maxwell said he employs a personal touch for keeping the buzz up about the store, including a handwritten chalkboard sign in front of the store, a recently launched Twitter account and web page, and a weekly email blast that details unadvertised specials. Maxwell said the latter goes out to about 700 addresses, but hundreds more see the ad as it circulates among office buildings and co-workers.
Shoppers at the store generally fit into one of three categories, Maxwell said: The downtown workers who use the store to buy lunch or small trips on breaks; local residents who tend to shop the store in the evening hours; and tourists who come by on weekends.
In general, Maxwell said, promotions around fresh produce have been very successful. Produce's contribution to the store's total volume in the Urban Market runs about 10% higher than suburban H.G. Hill stores, he said, though he hesitated to share too many secrets about why that is.
He said doing the little things to appeal to the average office worker — not their bosses — has been a key. For example, the store does good business selling freezer gels for shoppers who might not be home for some time. Shoppers can also store them in the store's freezer.
“We try to eliminate everybody's reasons not to buy a particular product,” he said.