business news in context, analysis with attitude

Reporting in from somewhere over the American Midwest…

  • As we travel home after three weeks on the road, we find ourselves perusing the Wednesday edition of The New York Times, which featured a cover story in its weekly food section about the perils and pleasures of shopping for a New York-style dinner party at “big box” stores like Costco or Stew Leonard’s. Now, we love the NYT and find it difficult to survive without it, and its food section is a pleasure to read each week because it is a good barometer of trends that are occupying the outer edges of the food world.

    The writer’s conclusions, after two separate shopping trips at these two stores, are that neither store is ideal for this particular purpose. In some cases, the sizes are too big and unwieldy; in others, they don’t necessarily carry the specific items she was looking for. The quality generally is good, and the pricing fair though not always exceptional.

    So what else is new?

    As regular shoppers at both stores, we have to say that we weren’t surprised by her findings. In fact, we would have been surprised had they been otherwise. In reading the story, we think that our treasured NYT has fallen victim to the same malady that affected The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago when it reported about how eating out can be cheaper than cooking it yourself, and then listed entrees and ingredients that would challenge all but the most accomplished amateur cooks. (Actually, maybe that’s not fair. We’re not an accomplished cook, but we do most of the cooking at home and have for 20 years. What we are pretty good at is getting supper on the table – and suspect we share that ability with a lot of moms and dads around the country. All we know is that we’ve never made any of the items that the WSJ reported as being near staples of a New York kitchen, nor do we have any intention of doing so.)

    Going to either Stew Leonard’s or Costco and expecting to find everything you need for a New York dinner party is roughly akin to going to Brooks Brothers and expecting to find an Armani suit. It ain’t gonna happen.

    Stores like Stew Leonard’s and Costco aren’t built with this kind of shopping trip in mind. Especially not Stew Leonard’s, which has just 1,200 SKUs or so – and yet, we’ve been doing our weekly shopping there for almost 20 years. They aren’t really built for the shopping dilettante who wanders in for the first time.

    Costco requires a membership, which means that most people who go there have been before. They’re part of a community, a club, knowing where most things are, being willing to be surprised by what is in stock or not, and accepting the limitations of the format. It seems silly to criticize the format for just carrying large sizes or too few SKUs. That’s why those of us who go there keep our memberships up to date. It’s the whole point of the experience.

    Stew Leonard’s doesn’t require a membership, but those of us who go there regularly are part of an informal community of people who enjoy the atmosphere (and even depend on it to keep our kids entertained), and understand and even embrace the limited SKUs. We actually sort of like the fact that we don’t have to puzzle through hundreds of SKUs in each department. We know that the crack buying staff at Stew’s has made some of those choices for us, and we go from there.

    There also are Stew’s own-label products, ranging from the bakery to the milk to the ice cream, that become proprietary lures impossible for other competitors to replicate. Our kids don’t like milk from anyplace other than Stew Leonard’s. Is that product excellence, or just good marketing? Who knows? Who cares? It creates the kind of store loyalty that many stores would love to have and that too few achieve.

    In each case, the key word is “community.” Without being cloying or overt, these stores make their choice of products and their approach to merchandising proof positive that they are loyal to the community of people who shop there regularly. They create a differentiated shopping experience that keeps us going back again and again. (One can only imagine how Costco will achieve this when it opens its gourmet food-only store near Seattle…but we can’t wait to find out.)

    Okay, Stew’s doesn’t have crème fraiche, an item that the NYT writer describes as something “plenty of New York cooks cannot live without.” And Costco only sells heavy cream in two-gallon containers.

    We can live without either of those products. But Stew Leonard’s and Costco have, for different reasons, become part of the fabric of our food shopping lives. And that seems a lot more important.

  • Visiting stores and talking to retailers over the past few weeks has proven to be a fascinating, energizing experience. Far from being exhausted by the long airplane rides, the changing time zones and the odd-hours reporting for MNB, we’ve found ourselves really enjoying these weeks on the road.

    The reason, we think, has to do with the passion and joy that the people we visited had for their businesses. Feargal Quinn in Ireland, Jeff Gietzen in Michigan, and Ron Hodge in Maine -- all have a unique ability to translate their passion for retailing into operational strengths in their stores, Superquinn, D&W Food Centers and Hannaford.

    In our store tours at the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) convention, we found what we think is an ambitious and aggressive approach to an industry under siege from all sides, as some retailers there shift from being in the gas and convenience business to being in the food business. This is not a shift to be taken lightly by those who compete with c-stores.

    Passion. Joy. Ambition. Aggressive marketing instincts. These days, you have to have all of these just to be in the game.

    The stores and retailers I visited have all of them. And instead of being tired of traveling, we find ourselves looking forward to the next trip, the next store.

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