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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Out of Wal-Mart's shadow

    Bill's Fresh Markets is a plucky family-owned company that's managed to find success on the Bentonville behemoth's home turf.

    By Jane Olszeksi Tortola

    One might imagine that an independent grocer operating in the state of Arkansas would have some valuable advice to offer fellow storeowners about competing with Wal-Mart. Bill Orr, president of Jonesboro, Ark.-based Bill's Fresh Markets has just that -- and more.

    I recently asked Orr to share with PG readers his strategies for maintaining a successful family-owned supermarket operation during our industry's most challenging times. As expected, his approach to the business is extremely down-to-earth and inspiring.

    "First of all," says Orr, "we as independents need to admit that Wal-Mart is a great retailer, and we need to stop making excuses when they come to town. We must focus on all the things we do well, market ourselves, and work day in and day out to develop a niche market."

    Among the many things that Orr; his son, Wally; and their team of 200 associates do well is maintaining outstanding facilities and providing the best-quality perishables and service in town.

    "We do perishables best, especially meat," notes Orr. "And service is definitely our other strong point. Our customers respect and appreciate our quality meats, which are cut in-store and offered at competitive prices. Our meat departments, which generate a 26 percent sales distribution each week, are consistently clean, well-stocked, and merchandised by our meat director, John Smith, and all of his associates."

    Indeed, from when he opened his first store in Tuckerman, Ark. in 1997 to his portfolio of four conventional stores and two convenience stores today, Orr owes a lot to his company's skill with fresh merchandising. "We've been fortunate to experience substantial growth since we opened our first store," he says. "We tell everyone that we're just lucky and truly blessed, which isn't a bad combination. But our perishables have been the key."

    Respect works

    Even more important, he respects all of his associates. "Without the best employees, we couldn't compete," he says. "I so much admire the person who goes to work each day and cuts meat, works produce, stocks shelves, unloads trucks, runs a cash register, or mops the floors. These jobs are all hard work -- and you can't get a computer to stock the canned goods aisle, build displays, or unload a truck of watermelons."

    Orr sees these assets as the most powerful of all, decrying what he believes is a lack of understanding of this in the industry at large. "I think the grocery industry in general seems to lose focus on these important jobs, and that fact that people who get up early each morning and journey to and from stores every day are what provide a point of difference and make a store profitable. Our team understands that what motivates one associate is different from what motivates another. Overall we believe that the best motivators are the intangibles: respect, recognition, and appreciation."

    Orr learned the importance of these motivators firsthand, as a 14-year-old clerk at Buck's Grocery in Marked Tree, Ark. "Mr. Buck Brewer was a one-store operator who had an ability to make people feel special. I still remember him telling me to treat the farmers and farmhands well, as they were hard workers and had lots of children to feed. I also remember him escorting customers to the back room to let them pick out even fresher tomatoes than those on the shelves. That left such an impression with me."

    Like other store owners who've survived the onslaught of chains, Orr has witnessed many changes in the supermarket business since his career began more than three decades ago, especially in the area of technology.

    "Technology is a great tool in helping the independent to level the playing field. We recently installed new Casio point-of-sale systems in our stores, which give us access to information not previously available. We particularly appreciate the movement reports we're able to generate for the perishable departments, which take away a lot of the guesswork when ordering for ads and seasonal items."

    Technology also plays a major role in the relationship Orr shares with his wholesaler, Little Rock, Ark.-based Affiliated Foods Southwest (AFS). "We communicate daily via the Internet with AFS, which has been our supplier since we opened our first store. The late Jerry Davis, former president and c.e.o., was instrumental in our getting started in the business and in helping us to develop a realistic growth plan.

    "AFS is definitely an important part of our business," explains Orr. "The co-op generates nearly $1 billion per year in total sales and offers great benefits to members not only in technology, but also in purchasing power, ad programs, bid shows, and more."

    Also crucial to the success of Bill's Fresh Markets is the close-knit relationship between father and son.

    "Wally's been my partner since day one," says Orr, "and he understands that this is a business about people -- and pennies. I'm proud of him and the way we've worked together to build a profitable and respectable company."

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

    By Jane Olszeksi Tortola
    • About Jane Olszeksi Tortola

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