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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Hometown headliners

    These small operators prove physical size is less important than how big a retailer's connection to the community is.

    Operating in the heart of Ohio's Amish country for 72 years, Rodhe's IGA SuperCenter continues to thrive in the competitive Midwest by always seeking ways to change and innovate. Two years ago, for example, the Rohde family invited their town's "favorite pharmacist" to set up shop within their supermarket, and most recently introduced a beer and wine department to boost top-line sales.

    Zagara's Marketplace in nearby Cleveland Heights has taken customer service to a new level as perhaps the only supermarket in the country that will transport customers from their cars in the parking lot to the front doors via golf cart.

    Green Hills Market, Gary Hawkins' small yet world-famous single-store operation in upstate New York, is demonstrating how cutting-edge technology can help any size operator compete and win.

    This month, as Progressive Grocer honors its 2006 choices for Outstanding Independent Retailers -- St. Louis-based Schnuck's Supermarkets and Spokane, Wash.-based Yoke's Fresh Market (plus Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge as Outstanding Wholesaler) -- at the NGA convention, we'd also like to recognize a handful of other creative independents, many of whom are one-store operators whose commitment to customer service and persistent pursuit of innovation are making headlines in their hometowns.

    Wright's Foods

    Meet Jimmy Wright. Operating in Opelika, Ala., Wright and his team have enjoyed record sales increases during the past year.

    Recognized as the place to buy fresh meat, the stores generate on average a 50 percent weekly meat department distribution. A passionate retailer and one of NGA's most respected members, Wright caters to the needs of all economic groups.

    "A high percent of Jimmy's customers are ethnic, and they appreciate the clean, well-merchandised, friendly stores that he provides for them," says supermarket industry expert Paul Adams of Olathe, Kan. "He knows his market and his customers, and is dedicated to meeting their needs. The reward has been continuing double-digit sales increases in a part of the country where Wal-Mart and Kroger have significant strength."

    Adds Adams, "Jimmy Wright's values reflect the reasons why many of us are entrepreneurs." For example, in tune with the religious nature of his tight-knit communities, Wright opens his stores on Sundays only during the afternoon, allowing associates to participate in church services.

    Reisbeck's Markets

    Headquartered in St. Clairsville, Ohio and operating in two states, Riesbeck's Markets is thriving under fifth-generation leadership. Founded in 1921 by Margaret Riesbeck, a young widow and mother of five children, the company is busy building new stores in territory with plenty of competition from Wal-Mart.

    Active in FMI, NGA, and the Ohio Grocers Association, Riesbeck's also continues to invest in its people. Through the company's two-year management training program available to both family and nonfamily associates, candidates receive first-hand exposure to the entire operation, including detailed training in every department. The training includes fully-paid-for attendance at industry events such as the FMI and NGA shows.

    Zagara's Marketplace

    Founded in 1936 by Charles Zagara, an immigrant from Sicily, Zagara's continues to prosper as one of the Cleveland market area's last independently owned supermarkets. But its real distinction is that it stands first among peers as a food showplace.

    "Zagara's Marketplace understands and demonstrates the concept of service as well as any store I have known," says Adams of the 42,000-square-foot store in northeast Ohio.

    Operating a unique format that features a catering department and state liquor agency among its amenities, store director John Zagara understands that survival for any independent requires market differentiation -- and, yes, that means doing everything it takes, including transporting customers from the store's ancillary parking lot to the front door by golf cart.

    The result of this level of dedication to personal service: Store sales continue to climb.

    "The sales increase isn't due to expanded store hours or a 24/7 operation," says Adams. "Store hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. During that time, the Zagara team caters 100 percent to the wants and needs of every single customer."

    PAQ, Inc.

    Stockton, Calif.-based PAQ, Inc. is one of the industry's most diverse independents. Founded in 1995 and owned by the Quinn family, the company operates three distinct formats in two states: Food 4 Less and Rancho San Miguel in California, and the Honolulu, Hawaii-based Times Markets, which was acquired by the Quinns in 2002.

    Generating high volume for PAQ, Inc. are the company's eight Food 4 Less price-impact stores located in California's Central Valley. Appealing to the needs of Hispanic customers living in the same geographic region are the company's two Rancho San Miguel stores, and operating literally an ocean away on the island of Oahu are the Quinns' 12 Times Markets.

    Owners Patricia and John Quinn understand the relationship between happy employees and the growth of their diverse company, and continue to make employee development their No. 1 priority.

    Green Hills Market

    According to Green Hills Market owner Gary Hawkins, competition in the Syracuse and central New York markets continues to be brutal. Battling a weak economy and stagnant population growth, most sizeable independent supermarket operators have been driven out. Wal-Mart's plan, meanwhile, is to open at least two additional supercenters in the greater Syracuse market later this year.

    In the face of all this competition -- Wal-Mart as well as Wegmans, Sam's Club, and Price Chopper -- Hawkins and his team continue to rely on technology to best manage sales and profits.

    "Our largest initiative is the launch and rollout of our SmartShop system," says the forward-thinking storeowner, alluding to a partnership with solutions provider Pay By Touch, which also helps his store offer biometric linked payment options. "Think of SmartShop as a next-generation loyalty program. With SmartShop we're providing each shopper with a personalized ad flyer made up of products and prices that are highly relevant to [him or her] individually. This digital flyer is communicated via e-mail, through a personal Web page, or via kiosks in the store. This personal ad flyer is combined with the ability to maintain Web-based shopping lists that can be accessible at the kiosk in the store, along with the ability to run various reward programs."

    Green Hills' SmartShop program is unique in that the entire system is powered biometrically; customers use their fingers to identify themselves at the kiosk and at the checkout, triggering the electronic delivery of their special offers during the transaction.

    Newport Avenue IGA Plus

    When Progressive Grocer visited with Oregon grocer Rudy Dory two years ago, the main road in front of his Newport Avenue IGA Plus had been closed for 44 days, reducing the number of vehicles that passed his store from the average 18,000 per day to a mere 2,000. Even worse, a brand-new 65,000-square-foot Safeway was celebrating its grand opening just 10 blocks away.

    Was Dory worried? Perhaps, but he didn't show it at the time. In fact, Dory; his wife, Debbie; and their associates rose to the occasion, viewing the downtime caused by the roadwork as an opportunity to focus on merchandising and getting their store in its best shape ever.

    The result? Business grew. As 2005 came to a close, Newport Avenue IGA Plus booked a 12 percent overall sales increase, and January sales rose by 10 percent over the same month last year.

    But now Dory and his team are once again under tremendous pressure. "Our biggest challenge this year will occur when a major bridge providing access to our marketing area will be shut down and rebuilt for at least nine months," notes Dory. "The bridge is located just 12 blocks from the store."

    Once again the independent grocer won't let an obstacle derail his operation. "We've retained a local advertising agency to help us to overcome this issue. They've developed successful promotions for us in the past, so I challenged them to develop a program that's going to allow us to retain our title as Bend, Ore.'s best grocery store for the eighth straight year."

    Rodhe's IGA SuperCenter

    Lauded as one of IGA's best, the award-winning Rodhe's IGA SuperCenter was founded in 1934 by Glen and Majora Rodhe. Its history is one of extending the closeness of family to the community it serves.

    "When people ask me how our company got started, I tell them that I was literally born into the business," says Arlie Rodhe, the current c.e.o. "When I was just six months old, my biological father passed away, leaving my mother, Majora, on her own to operate their small IGA store in Blissfield, Ohio. She took me to work with her every day. I remember playing in the store when I was a little boy, and crawling onto the grocery shelves to take my naps."

    As fate would have it, Majora wouldn't operate alone for long. While attending an IGA operators' meeting at her wholesaler's office, she was introduced to a fellow storeowner, Glen Rodhe, who owned another small IGA store on Main Street in nearby Millersburg. They developed a friendship, began dating, and later married, combining both their lives and their stores.

    "Not only was Glen Rodhe a great father to me, but he was a progressive businessman," says Rodhe. "He and my mother lived consistently by the Golden Rule when relating to customers and employees. Serving their community was always a priority."

    Today a third generation of Rodhes leads the family business. Kurt Rodhe, the eldest son of Arlie and Evie Rodhe, serves as president, and his younger brother, Scott, is v.p.

    Anyone who knows the Rodhes knows that the respect that Arlie and Evie have for one another serves as the foundation of their successful family business. "Without Evie by my side, I would never have been able to contribute so much to our community," notes Rodhe. "She's always been there for me, and she's been the greatest mother to our children."

    Adds Evie, "I've always respected Arlie's vision and his willingness to make decisions based on faith and helping people."

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