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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Sweet home Alabama

    Jimmy Wright, president of Wright's Markets, Inc., knows a thing or two about Southern hospitality.

    While food industry experts, trade association execs, and peers see him as one of the most passionate independents in the country, Jimmy Wright operates just a single store, the 19,500-square-foot Wright's Market in Opelika, Ala. He might not ever get his picture on the cover of Newsweek or Fortune -- though he's certainly deserving of such recognition. But to the soft-spoken Wright, accolades, notoriety, and photo shoots aren't that important, anyway.

    What matters to this retailer is improving the quality of life in his community. In his own quiet way, he's making headlines in the homes and hearts of his hometown.

    I was first introduced to Wright through a colleague, supermarket consultant Paul Adams of Olathe, Kan., who has in recent years been an adviser to this storeowner and his 35 associates. "I can't say enough good things about Jimmy Wright," says Adams. "His values reflect the reasons why many of us are entrepreneurs."

    Those values, which Wright says were instilled in him early in life by his parents, are matched by a genuine love and understanding of the supermarket business. Selling milk and bread, providing customers with only the finest-quality meats, and keeping tabs on the competition are critical to his success. But talk to Wright and you'll quickly learn that, even as a business owner in a highly competitive world, what matters most to him are people.

    "I understand our marketplace today, and we're doing our best to build a business model that won't kill anybody," says Wright. "Our goal every day is to do what we can to be unique and different -- something that allows us, through our people or products, to stand out -- without sacrificing my family or anyone else's."

    That would explain his Sunday operating hours, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. "I enjoy going to church with my wife and daughter on Sunday mornings, and our associates should be given that same opportunity, if that's what they choose."

    Wright began his food industry career at age 17 in the store that he now owns. As such, his unique business model wasn't built overnight, and continues to evolve, especially in the area of product mix.

    "The former storeowner was focused on selling the cheapest meat in town, and that's exactly what he did," explains Wright. "He wasn't loyal to any particular brand, and it worked for him. When I purchased the store eight years ago, I recognized an opportunity to develop a niche in the meat department by selling the best meat at the best price. Today we carry only Black Canyon Angus beef and Angus pork, and we work with just one poultry supplier.

    "It took a couple of years to develop our niche and I give all the credit in the world to our meat manager. She understood and carried out what we wanted to accomplish," he adds.

    Wright's strategy goes beyond meat, however. "In developing our niche in meat, we also took a good look at variety in grocery and saw that we didn't need to carry five or six varieties of green beans, for example. We eliminated several slow movers storewide, and our total SKU count today ranges from 7,600 to 8,000 items. We carry what turns and, more importantly, what brings value to our customers."

    Happy medium

    In essence, Wright has found a happy medium between limited-assortment stores and fresh specialty stores, a formula that he thinks can provide the greatest profit potential for today's independents. "We've found that sweet spot in the middle that offers more variety than a limited-assortment store, and we've grown our meat distribution to nearly 50 percent of total sales," he says. "However, we must continue to tweak our operation every single week."

    It also takes another kind of dedication, in his view. Like his passion for the grocery business, Wright's concern for his community is unrelenting. He and his wife Susan, a local physician, contribute time, talent, and financial resources to a number of charities dedicated to building stronger families.

    "We commit 10 percent of our pretax profit to charity, which is divided into four areas," notes Wright. "The first area is health care. We give to our medical center foundation as well as the Mercy Medical ministry that provides health care for those without health insurance. Another area that we support by making donations to our local food bank is hunger awareness."

    Education is another priority for the couple. "We're an Adopt-a-School sponsor at a local primary school. This year we provided the money to fund the preschool program for one of our local recreation centers. And last but not least, we support faith-based organizations."

    In running his business, Wright is particularly thankful for the relationship forged with his wholesaler of three years, Albertville, Ala.-based Mitchell Grocery.

    He says: "If I need any extra services, I can hire them myself, if all the other pieces of my business are working. Today a wholesaler must deliver product at a cost that will enable the independent to be competitive and profitable. What good do all the bells and whistles and programs do if we can't compete and make money?"

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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