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Reporting In from Vancouver, British Columbia…

We’re at Grocery Showcase West, sponsored annually by the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG), and had the opportunity yesterday to deliver the keynote address at the opening session. During this visit, we’ve been impressed by the independent nature of the food retailers we’ve met and the stores we’ve visited. Some random notes from this visit to one of North America’s most beautiful cities:

  • One of the interesting conclusions reached during the panel discussion that concluded the morning session was that independent grocers need to re-examine staffing approaches in favor of finding people -- either full-time or permanent part-timers -- who can bring a greater level of expertise to the food shopping experience. Both Anthony Longo, of Longo Bros. Fruit Markets (which belies its name by being very much a state-of-the-art full-service supermarket), and Alex Campbell, Jr., of Thrifty Foods, said that staffing was one of the great challenges and opportunities in their businesses.

  • Thrifty Foods, in Tsawwassen, just south of Vancouver, struck us as a tremendously busy store that seems to be doing an excellent job of differentiating itself through the use of two private labels -- a mainstream Thrifty brand, and an upscale, premium Alex Campbell label. While in terms of size and presentation Thrifty Foods would appear to be a conventional store, it certainly stretches that definition -- it has a terrific fresh foods offering, an engaging staff, and an energy that the consumer can’t help but feel.

  • Allan Belich, who is a Supervalu franchisee in North Vancouver, described the dilemma of the independent grocer in terms of his own store. “We used to be a supermarket,” he said. “Now we’re a convenience store.” The store is the same, but its positioning has had to change because of the competition and consumer expectations.

  • One of the most interesting food retailers in Vancouver remains Urban Fare, a downtown store that is heavy on the prepared foods, ethnic offerings and gourmet cuisine. Most impressive about Urban Fare is that it seems to achieved the goal of being a ‘third place’ for consumers – that place other than home and office where they feel comfortable congregating. We noticed that folks there were crowded around the espresso bar the night we visited, creating a real sense of neighborhood in the store. And it did the one thing that we think is critical for food stores -- it makes you hungry the moment you walk in.

KC's View:
Thanks to CFIG for inviting us to participate in this annual event.

One of the things that we discussed during the morning session, and that Longo, Campbell and Belich seemed to subscribe to, was the notion that the definition of customer service has to change in 2003, especially for independent grocers looking to survive in a competitive, often hostile environment. It means expanding the customer base by appealing to new demographics, finding every possible way to differentiate the brand , and becoming more of an information resource for consumers as opposed to just being a source of product.

By the way, if you want a great brewpub in Vancouver, ry the Yaletown Brewery, where they serve a wonderful Indian Arm Pale Ale and a spicy pan fried linguini with chicken, Chinese black beans, garlic, oyster sauce and slice jalapenos. Zowie!