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    Independents Report: The value of shared experience

    A one-time Fleming ad exec says having his own business has increased his already high regard for the family-owned retailers he advises.

    Since Progressive Grocer's Oct. 1 cover story, "Life After Fleming," numerous phone calls and e-mails from retailers and former Fleming diehards have come my way. Not surprisingly most of the conversations have centered on people: Whatever happened to Mark Batenic? Is it true that Tom Zatina is now working with IGA in Chicago? Tell me what you've heard from store development exec Bruce Kamph. Is it true that he and other Fleming associates started their own company, Bridgepoint Solutions? With what wholesaler is Rodhe's IGA now associated?

    Another person not forgotten is Fleming's former director of advertising, Mark Harsha. For nearly two decades, Harsha, 46, worked with hundreds of independent grocers, including myself, who relied on his wit, creativity, and extensive knowledge of the food business to help them compete. But in the late '90s, when Fleming higher-ups made the decision to farm out the company's advertising services, Harsha saw the writing on the wall, perhaps sooner than most. He parted ways with Fleming and eventually established his own agency, Harsha & ssociates.

    Strategic planning

    Recently I caught up with the Oklahoma City-based ad exec, who remains devoted to the food industry, and found him to be more inspired by family-owned businesses than ever.

    "As I reflect on my career at Fleming," Harsha says, "what I remember most is the many independent grocers with whom I worked. Their unsolicited passion and commitment to the industry were truly amazing. Today, as an independent business owner myself, I have even more appreciation and respect for them. I now know what it's like to lie awake at night and worry about my employees, clients, and the business."

    Harsha and his 13 associates, 10 of whom are former Fleming staffers, represent more than 60 clients, most of them food retailers or wholesalers who continue to be challenged by a changing industry.

    "Granted, the larger chains and Wal-Mart are making it tough for family-owned supermarkets to compete, so it's important to find a niche," Harsha says. "We're big proponents of strategic planning. Essentially we work with clients to determine what they do best and worst in their operations. Once these items are identified, we then deploy marketing solutions and further develop points of difference that will allow them to be successful."

    Harsha, whose industry expertise includes grocery wholesaling, warehousing, and retailing, suggests that storeowners follow a "declaration of independence" that includes:

    •Be proud of your independence. While owning your own business may not be easy, remember that you represent the true entrepreneurial spirit of America.

    •Question everything. Look closely at all facets of your advertising. If you're doing the same thing you did even last year, it may not be most effective.

    •Focus. All too often we try to please everyone, and in the process we please no one. "Price is going to be here forever," Harsha says. "Today I believe independents need to focus on service, not on selling the cheapest ground beef, Tide, or Velveeta."

    •Look. Independents should always be looking at other ways of doing things. "For example," Harsha says, "Study in-store signage at nonfood retail outlets such as Pottery Barn, Best Buy, Target, or any of the newer supermalls."

    •Listen. Ask people where they purchase their groceries and why. Harsha says: "When you visit the dry cleaners or the bank, ask the person at the counter where he or she shops for food and why. This is the most simple, and often the most accurate, form of research."

    •Watch. Spend an hour every day watching how your customers shop. This can be an effective means for planning display placements and shopping flow. "Furthermore," Harsha says, "I often suggest that store owners drive to work and enter their stores in different ways each day. They're likely to gain a different perspective about their operations."

    •Plan. "If you haven't developed a detailed 2004 advertising and marketing plan, then you're already behind," the ad exec says. "Get your team together immediately and begin the process—and remember what the person at the dry cleaners told you about where they shop for groceries and why."

    •Get involved in the community. "If your store and your main competitor operate for the most part in the same way, community relations will make a difference," Harsha stresses. "Community involvement is an area where independents can differentiate as compared to chains. Remember to toot your own horn and get credit for your commitment to the community."

    •Be a kid. According to Harsha, nothing creates more excitement or has more emotional impact than youth-related activities. "A child's laugh cures many woes," he says.

    •Have fun! "Listen and watch for smiles and laughter from store associates," Harsha says. "Then develop a written list of the things that make your people happy. Happiness is addictive among employees—and customers."

    "Overall it's important to know that we've made a difference in the lives of our clients and in their businesses," he says. "They work extremely hard day in and day out to make their stores successful. One of our jobs is to make that work more fun."

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

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