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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Taking the high ground

    Baesler's Market in Terre Haute, Ind. is a study in single-store success.

    It was in the conservative Midwest that Indiana retailer Bob Baesler struck it rich. While attending Indiana State University during the early '70's, Baesler, then a college senior, was looking forward to becoming a big-city stockbroker when a college professor required him to read "Acres of Diamonds" by Russell Conwell, a book that would eventually take him home.

    Home was Terre Haute, the community where his great-grandfather George Baesler operated Baesler's Meat Market more than a century ago, and where his grandfather and his father, the late Charles Baesler, grew that corner meat market into Baesler's IGA. Home was where Baesler would ultimately become, with his wife and business partner Julie by his side, a stellar member of his community and one of the most respected fourth-generation independents in the grocery business.

    "I never really intended to join the family supermarket business after graduation until I read the book Acres of Diamonds," says Baesler. "It shares the real life story of a farmer who sold all he owned to search the world for diamonds. He went broke in the process, only to find that one of the largest diamond mines in the world was located back on his farm. The book helped me to realize that maybe the best opportunities truly are right under our noses."

    The storeowner has always attributed his success not to selling groceries, but to his family and his 160-plus employees.

    "We're fortunate to have so many good people working for us," he notes, adding, "Can you believe that we've never had to put up a 'help wanted' sign in our store? That's because we recruit and cultivate from within."

    Outstanding service

    He was recently invited by his alma mater to speak with college students about the customer service and training program at Baesler's Market. The down-to-earth company president told them, "It's nothing formal. I'm responsible for interviewing and hiring all employees. I truly believe that it's impossible to train employees to be nice or customer service-friendly. They either have it in them, or they don't. And you can't possibly tell if an applicant is suited for the grocery business after just one interview. I talk with them two or three times to determine if they'll be a good fit."

    Interestingly, there are times when the outstanding service provided by his employees astonishes even Baesler himself.

    "Recently I was reading our local newspaper and came across a letter to the editor that was written about our store. A customer shared with the community how pleased she was to shop at Baesler's Market. Why? When the customer arrived home after grocery shopping, she realized that the macaroni and cheese that she'd purchased from the hot deli was left at the checkout. She immediately called the store, and the young employee with whom she spoke arranged to deliver the item to her home. When delivering the product, he also refunded her money and offered an apology for any inconvenience."

    For Baesler, that simple story shows that "the key to differentiating in the area of customer service is to make it easy for customers to get something corrected."

    Differentiation is a must for this single-store operator, who competes aggressively in southwest Indiana with three nearby Kroger stores, a Kmart, and a Wal-Mart supercenter. "There's no doubt that our employees are our greatest asset, but we also invest in our facilities. We just completed a $1.2 million expansion, and added 10,000 square feet to a five-year-old building. And our work to improve our gasoline business, which we've operated on site as a separate division for over 25 years, is ongoing."

    Despite the challenges involved, Baesler says: "The gasoline business has always helped us to drive top-line store sales. When we first expanded our supermarket, back in 2000, and moved from our original location, Supervalu, our wholesaler for over 30 years now, provided us with a sales projection that didn't take into account our fuel business. At the end of the first year, total store sales were 15 percent higher than projected, and at the end of year three, sales were 45 percent above projection -- most of which we attribute to selling the gasoline."

    He advises, "If an independent retailer has available space, they should figure out a way to sell fuel. We'd be at a competitive disadvantage if we didn't."

    Also giving the company a competitive edge is Baesler's focus on fresh. "Thanks to the hard work of past generations, we've long been recognized for our fresh meat, but produce has in recent years become much more important to our customers," he says. "With the recent remodel, we added a separate entrance that provides customers with direct access to our perishable departments. Plus we've aligned ourselves with an outstanding produce wholesaler, Indianapolis-based Caito Foods."

    Thus, as Bob Baesler realized during his senior year of college over 30 years ago, diamonds can be found all over the world, but those he treasures the most are the ones he discovered in his own hometown.

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

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