Shopping ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’

Discussion
Aug 22, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

Ruben Cavazos would make Sam Malone proud. The fictional bar owner on the old Cheers television program ran a business where patrons liked to go because “everybody knows your name.”

Mr. Cavazos isn’t making quite the same claim but he said, if you were a Ruben’s Grocery customer, you would shop in his store instead of going to Wal-Mart, HEB or other bigger competitors because “you want to go where somebody knows your name.”

As he told The Monitor, customers take comfort in knowing: “If you’ve got a complaint, you’re going to talk to the boss.”

Ruben’s owner and his primarily Mexican and Mexican-American customers know that, in some areas, the big boxes have an advantage over his store. If they’re looking for toilet paper, they’re certainly going to get a better deal at one of the chains. If they want exotic fruits and vegetables used in Mexican dishes or Coke and Pepsi imported from Mexico, then Ruben’s is the place to go.

Moderator’s Comment: Has it become easier for independent grocers to compete with chains? What lessons are there to be learned from the Ruben’s Grocery
example?

George Anderson – Moderator

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11 Comments on "Shopping ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’"


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Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

With a pinch of what I said about VW – that all customers should be treated equally and courteously – plus a dash of what I said about diversity in crops – that there is room for lots of different types of retailer and product in the marketplace – my conclusion on this one is yes, of course, there is opportunity for independents. It is growing because more people are demanding recognition of their value as customers, not wanting to be treated as some mass market object, but thinking and choosing human beings who may want different things on different days from different stores.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
15 years 6 months ago
Thinking about this from a purely technical perspective, there is not reason in today’s IT environment that an independent operator can’t have applications that are as good as the ones at the major chains. This levels the playing field for the independent as they are probably more attentive to the use of these applications because they represent a business investment made by the principals. They know why they bought the applications and want to make sure they are used to full advantage. These applications will often support the types of tools needed to identify and sustain custom assortments targeted to various demographic groups. This leaves the bigger factor, as other have mentioned, to be acquisition costs. The independent is often faced with challenges because they are not able to reach the volumes required to get the best prices. But technology can help here also. The creation of buying groups, whether through wholesale or cooperative business models can aid the independent operator. Many of the strategies discussed here are on the demand management side. By choosing… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 6 months ago

It’s become less daunting, let’s say, for independent grocers to compete with chains. Those who compete with WM are now generally past the panic point and realize that there is still a market for their kind of shopping experience. Those who compete with chains understand that the chain focus on squeezing costs will eventually push customers away.

So what’s the lesson? In truth, it looks like Ruben’s has a built-in customer base that prefers some unusual items they carry. They were probably never threatened seriously, so there’s no lesson to learn from them.

Bill Bishop
Guest
Bill Bishop
15 years 6 months ago

Competition is never easy, but it has become easier for independents to compete with chains because some chains continue to struggle with building their own identities, and most are focusing more attention on financial returns, i.e., they’re not trying to fill every gap in the market just to fill it.

The key lesson from Ruben’s Grocery is that there is nothing more powerful to connect with customers than an effective entrepreneur who has their own skin in the game. The rest is tactics.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 6 months ago

To answer the specific question–is it easier to compete today?–I can’t see any reason to say ‘yes.’ It’s probably harder. The big chains have learned how to be big and efficient and are now learning how to “think global, act local.” That is offset somewhat by the independents’ development of new strategies to live in a world of Wal-Mart.

So it is perhaps less scary, but I doubt it is any easier. Good for Ruben’s for finding its way.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

As a chain gets larger, any unique constructive selling/caring culture gets harder to maintain. Independents who champion a caring/selling/service culture will make headway.

As a comparison, my impression of Home Depot has changed. Years ago, the salesperson in the aisle often was a person with the appropriate craftsperson’s skills. Nowadays, it appears to me that the people working the aisles know very little about how to use or select their items.

Ron Margulis
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

Any independent operator who makes it easier to shop at his or her store and harder to shop at the competitor down the street is going to survive and even thrive in the current business environment. I saw a great independent in suburban Toronto last week. It had a Dominion and a Loblaws nearby, and on Thursday afternoon its lot had more cars than the other two combined. The store had great produce and meat, and a wonderfully stocked wine department. The staff was friendly, especially the cashier. They made it easy for consumers to shop at the store, and hard for them to shop anywhere at the nearby chains.

David Livingston
Guest
15 years 6 months ago

Wal-Mart has beaten down the plain vanilla bureaucratic publicly held chains making it easier for independents to stand out. My favorite independent retailer in New Orleans knows all the names of his customers. All the women are named “sweetheart,” “baby” and “darlin’.” All the men are named “cuz.” So it’s easy to remember everybody’s name.

Michael Tesler
Guest
Michael Tesler
15 years 6 months ago
Yes, knowing your customers and delivering “extreme levels” of service are crucial to survival when competing with the giants and the ability to do this every day is the clearest competitive advantage the little guys may have. And yes, because the major supermarkets are perceived by many to be boring, unfriendly, and more difficult to shop it can appear that they are easy to compete with. However, it is never easy for owner operated smaller stores. One area of concern is that many fail to realize that, no matter how crucial customer service is to success, it will always be secondary to the need to consistently deliver the right product at the right time. Consumers buy the goods; service can either enhance or screw up the experience but, ultimately, it’s about product and value. Ruben’s is the place to go for “exotic fruits and vegetables” and “Coke and Pepsi from Mexico.” You can go anywhere and have people know your name but you have to go to Ruben’s for those hard to find items.
Dean Cruse
Guest
Dean Cruse
15 years 6 months ago

Thinking about this maybe 6 months ago, I would have said that it’s going to continue to be difficult for independents to compete with the big chains due to basic economies. I’m not sure that’s true right now. I wonder if there is somewhat of a consumer backlash, or maybe a potential for one, against the big guys? WMT’s recent warnings about gas prices squeezing consumers notwithstanding, most of the people I know would much rather visit their local grocer and get the personal service than deal with the crowds, parking, etc. associated with the larger chains.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
15 years 6 months ago

Everyone has a comfort index and there’s a “value equation” within that index. People go to a favorite bar, grocery store or retail boutique because that’s where they get their greatest “social psychic income.” Independent operators should always capitalize on that. Many people go to Ruben’s Grocery because he provides them with a higher comfort index than the lower-cost chain store do.

Price differentials are extremely important (Wal-Mart has proved that) but so are the comfort indexes when caringly projected personally by the customer-involved retailer, i.e., “I will give you what you want, when you want it, listen to your complaints with concern, serve you better than the chain can, make you feel welcome and comfortable …but there is a slight cost for my ticket to your shopping comfort.” The trade-off enhances the independent if he truly believes in this human phenomenon.

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