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At the Ohio Grocers Association Annual Trade Relations Gala earlier this year, my colleague Tom Murphy introduced me to Ron Kronenberger, a grocer, who, in Murphy's own words, "does everything right."
Only 48, but a 33-year veteran of the supermarket business, Kronenberger owns and operates three small food stores along with his family: Jamestown Hometown Marketplace, Ellis Hometown Marketplace, Lebanon Save-A-Lot, and a dollar store.
Kronenberger's territory is southwest Ohio, a market congested with fierce competitors including Kroger, Meijer, bigg's, Aldi, the world-famous Dorothy Lane Markets, and, of course, Wal-Mart Supercenter. But Kronenberger says he's found success as an independent not by focusing on the big grocery names surrounding him, but on people, and what's happening within his own stores.
"We're always 'right' on service," says Kronenberger. "Every associate working with us must put customers first. 'No waiting' is our motto."
His key to being "right" on service is the training he provides for each of his 140-plus associates -- training that includes indoctrination in the art of "no waiting."
"We're committed to cross-training," he explains. "For example, when the deli is [packed] at lunch, a meat wrapper will be called to help. If more help is needed, it's time for the store manager or the assistant manager to be called. This is done in every department in the store. No one is exempt from helping when a customer is waiting."
This chain of help includes the storeowner. "When I'm in the store and there's a need to help in the deli or at the cash registers, our team knows without a doubt that they'd better call on me."
Kronenberger also affirms the importance that store conditions hold within his company. "Clean stores, providing unique specialty items and the best perishables in the marketplace, planning exciting indoor and outdoor promotions, fair prices, offering a family-oriented environment for our employees -- all of these things help us to build relationships with our customers," he says. "And by the way, it's not unusual to see customers and associates hugging one another around here."
In a nutshell, Kronenberger's philosophy on store conditions is to "look at the entire store, and do it often. Be right now, be right everywhere, and your customers will be right back."
It's a philosophy that's paid big dividends for this independent. Sales were on the decline when Kronenberger purchased the Jamestown store one year ago. Now the sales trend is up 5 percent to 7 percent. It's a remarkable accomplishment, considering that a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in nearby Xenia, Ohio just a week after he took over the location.
Sales at the family's limited-assortment Save-A-Lot, which he purchased earlier this year, have increased 4 percent to 6 percent over last year's numbers. And in Waynesville, the flagship store, which is surrounded by five Krogers, a Meijer, and other formats, continues to be profitable.
Like most successful independents, Kronenberger gives the credit to others: his customers, his family, his associates, and especially his wholesaler, Supervalu.
"I have a great relationship with Supervalu," he notes. "We're truly partners in my operation. I like to think outside the box, and they're always there to help plan our next promotion or event. They've never said 'no' to me. And at the same time, I don't ask for the moon."
If you ask Kronenberger what he thinks are the greatest challenges facing players in the food business today, his answer likely won't surprise you.
"The challenges facing some wholesalers aren't much different than those facing many of today's retailers. It's the failure to be different -- and the failure to be better."
The results of not being different are easy enough to spot, he adds. "When I walk into stores today that are suffering from declining sales, I see nothing happening. No one's talking to customers, no specialty items are being offered, and some of the most important items in the store are the highest-priced. And I hear the owners say, 'The competition is putting me out of business'. I believe they're doing it to themselves."