retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There is a sweet story in the New Bedford Standard Times about Lees Market in Westport, Massachusetts, a one-store independent that has served the community for more than seven decades, surviving one change in ownership - from the Lees family to the Clements family, in 2014 - and competition from the likes of Stop & Shop.

The market, the story says, “has deep ties within the community, and with its long history and emphasis on customer service, is the epitome of the neighborhood store.”

Some context from the story:

“The history of Lees Market began when father-and-son duo Al Lees Sr. and Al Lees Jr. opened their general store in March of 1949, which sold mainly hardware goods and fertilizer. In 1951, they opened what is now the current Lees location, and throughout the 1950s, saw plenty of change as new merchandise and goods were added to the store’s selection.

“The first food items were introduced to the store in 1960, and by 1965 the transition from general store to grocery store was complete. In the time since then, the store has continued to see change and growth, and has remained a household name in Westport.”

Owner-operator Tracy Anthony tells the paper that one ingredient of the store’s secret sauce has been the ability to “sell products that support local farms and artisans.” And the story says that “with the growing trend to eat local, all-natural, and organic foods, the store is way ahead in the game since they’ve been selling mindful products for years. Some local vendors of Lees include DD’s Farm Eggs of Attleboro, Black Tie Cookies of Acushnet, Paradise Hill Farms of Westport, and Silverbrook Farms of Dartmouth, just to name a few.”

I was so glad that an MNB reader sent this story to me, since I knew Al Lees pretty well; he and another independent retailer, Marv Imus, were inseparable fixtures at industry conferences and shows, and were always looking for ways to differentiate themselves. (They recognized that they were a vanishing breed, and even embraced it. I once wrote a magazine column about how the three of us went out to dinner once - at the Culinary Institute in California’s Napa Valley - and talked about the challenges and delights of being a single-store independent. I titled it “Dining With Dinosaurs.” They loved it.)

The impact that Lees Market had on Westport and local residents - not to mention store employees - cannot be minimized. I remember going to Al Lees’ funeral a number of years ago, and how, as the funeral procession passed the store, all of the employees lined the curb in tribute. The funeral itself was packed … and I can remember thinking about how deeply entrenched in the life of a community a great retailer can be.

It is a good and Eye-Opening story, and I am glad to hear that the Clements family is keeping the torch burning.
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