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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Midwest initiative

    Buehler's Mary McMillen helps keep the retailer's competitive edge sharp with creative consumer marketing and education programs.

    When city met country, Mary McMillen landed what she says is the best job in the world. McMillen, who launched her food industry career in New York City as the research assistant to world-famous chef and entrepreneur Burt Wolfe, gave up taxis and high rises in 1989 and headed for the modest Midwest. She's never looked back.

    Not long after returning to her hometown of Canton, Ohio, she was hired by one of the supermarket industry's most lauded independents, Wooster-based Buehler's Food Markets. Now director of consumer affairs for the 75-year-old company, McMillen has for the past 11 years used her talents to develop extraordinary consumer marketing and education programs that enhance Buehler's competitive edge in a crowded northeast Ohio market.

    "Besides working with great people, what makes my job rewarding is easy execution," she says. "There's not a lot of red tape to deal with in our 11-store chain, and that encourages everyone to think outside the box and to be more creative."

    Along with managing on-site cooking schools and charitable activities, McMillen developed from the ground up Buehler's Kidzpark learning and activity centers, located in six stores, which are staffed by certified teachers and serve more than 2,000 "guests" collectively each week. She also coordinates countless companywide promotions with manufacturers and suppliers.

    "In my eyes, our vendors are the key to the universe," McMillen stresses. "Without their ongoing support, many of our projects, which we design to be turnkey for our managers, would not be possible."

    Among the items on Buehler's project list:

    -Kids' Week. This celebration of children takes place each June and is supported by several vendors. Last year youngsters participated in numerous contests such as the Keebler Word Scramble, Nabisco's Favorite Oreo, Frito-Lay's Chester Cheetah Coloring Contest, Kraft's Count the SpongeBob Macaroni event, and more.

    -Feed a Family Food Month. This food drive was developed and sponsored exclusively by Buehler's to support local hunger centers. For all cash donations received from consumers, the company contributes an additional 10 percent.

    -Celebration Saturday. On the Saturday before Halloween, children are invited to trick-or-treat in each department of Buehler's stores.

    -Buehler's Annual Potato Decorating Contest. This is held each February in celebration of National Potato Lover's Month. Project partners include the Idaho Potato Commission and produce supplier Caito Foods, along with local potato chip manufacturers.

    -Low-Carb Locators. Brochures developed by McMillen and her staff provide information about low-carbohydrate products and where they're displayed in each store.

    -Nutrition News. This newly launched Web site program allows consumers to converse with the company's registered dietitian, Bobbie Randall.

    -Women's Health Retreat. Planned in conjunction with Samaritan Regional Hospital, this event provides health information and activities for women of all ages.

    -Group events. Buehler's consumer affairs department coordinates activities such as birthday luncheons for adults, garden club meetings, education programs for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and more.

    -Buehler's Kids Club. Children age 10 and under are presented with a miniature loyalty card and Kids Club membership tag that allow them to receive a healthy snack free of charge each time they visit a Buehler's store with an adult who also presents a loyalty card.

    According to McMillen, who was recently appointed to the Food Marketing Institute Consumer Affairs Council and the Ohio Grocers Association Obesity Task Force, Buehler's commitment to its local communities extends far beyond the walls of its conventional supermarkets. For an example of that dedication, consider the company's most recent education initiative.

    "Like many schools across the country, those in our communities have faced substantial budget cuts and have been forced to eliminate field trips and other extracurricular activities," McMillen says. "During one of our staff meetings a couple of years ago, two of our home economists suggested that if the kids can't come to our stores to learn about proper nutrition, we should go to them."

    Thus evolved Pyramid Power and Pyramid Power Plus. These popular education programs, which were developed for grades 1-2 and grades 4-5, respectively, include nutrition information, a nutritious snack, a teacher's outline, and follow-up activities -- all compliments of Buehler's.

    Says McMillen: "We worked closely with local elementary teachers and administrators to develop the Pyramid programs. Our goal was to complement the schools' curriculum, so the input and support we received from the staff were crucial."

    She adds, "The community response to our nutrition education programs has been overwhelming, and that makes us very proud."

    Operating "big stores in little towns," Buehler's continues to earn respect in an ever-changing industry. More impressive, however, is how it has creatively captured the hearts and loyalty of consumers both young and old.

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

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