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The Unconventional

Under Ring Bros. Marketplace’s unique model — the brainchild of its eponymous co-owner — each department operates as an independent business in itself.


A H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T

Progressive Grocer • November 2010 •


Back to the Future
The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.


’d like to welcome you to the first edition of Progressive Grocer Independent with a quote from a past issue of our flagship brand, Progressive Grocer:
“He studied the chain store system — all of its little efficiencies as well as the big ones — and he began fighting it with his own weapons, literally. He had something in his store that the chain store might never have — a personal interest in the customer. That is the one place where the smart, independent retailer has the chain store dragon right on the hip.” —Edward Hungarford, “What Does the Future Hold for the Independent Grocer?” What’s interesting about the above statement is that it came from the first story in the first issue of The Progressive Grocer, which published its inaugural issue way back in January 1922. But what’s even more interesting is that what was written back then still remains true today. Independent grocers’ close relationship with the communities they serve — and within which many actually live — is still a key differentiator against their large-chain competitors. This closeness is why consumers still trust their local grocer while remaining wary of Big Business. As National Grocers Association CEO Peter Larkin says in our Q&A on Page 36, “We are closer to the customer, as we’re not a big business; we are small businesses. We have our finger on the pulse …” Meanwhile, Mark Batenic, IGA’s CEO, also shares his seasoned observations on independents’ community connection as the critical reason for their everlasting relevance, which he says “is evident in the growing segment of shoppers who have determined that personalized customer service from a member of the community is more important than price — even in a struggling economy — which suggests that

independents are quickly becoming the most relevant retailers around.” And though many aspects of independent grocers’ fundamental advantages are indelible, many of the tools independents now use to further enhance this closeness to customers have changed dramatically. When he wrote about what the future held for independents, Hungarford clearly wasn’t thinking of blogs, mobile marketing and social media, or the many other innovations independent grocers have developed to stay close to the customer. Our cover story, for example, features Ring Bros. Marketplace, which features among its innovations the company’s business model itself: six former standalone local businesses brought together by Ed Ring. While each business was in its own right a star among Cape Cod consumers, the new offerings they bring to shoppers as a unified operation has not only made their shoppers happier, but has also generated more sales. Tying everything together at Ring Bros. is my good friend Donald Fallon, who as the company’s general manager is an example of how innovation isn’t just about processes, but also about bringing innovative people into the business. Equally at home behind a computer or a grill, he’s probably one of the only IT experts you’ll see holding cooking demonstrations and classes for shoppers. This past year alone, he installed new front end fixtures and POS hardware and software, launched the company’s redesigned website, managed its Facebook page, and integrated Ring’s Foursquare community into its loyalty program. Indeed, it’s because there’s so much happening among the independent grocer and wholesaler community that we launched this supplement, which will be published as a bimonthly standalone magazine next year. And every issue will be packed with case studies of real independent grocers meeting real independent grocer challenges. Additionally, we’ve created a place online where you can connect with other indeA H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T

From the very first issue of The Progressive Grocer, way back in 1922, independent retailers have been a focus of the publication.

pendent grocers and wholesalers directly: The Independent Grocer Network ( It’s a 24/7/365 community for our readers to share information and pick each other’s brains about all things related to independent grocers. We invite you to join the discussion! I wonder whether, 80-some-odd years from now, a Progressive Grocer editor will stumble upon this column, and have a good laugh at how primitive things were “back in 2010.” But one thing will certainly be the same, and that’s the closeness of independent grocers to the people and communities they serve. Unless of course, food is digitized by then. Joseph Tarnowski Director of Integrated Media/ Technology Editor

27 The Unconventional Independent Ring Bros. Marketplace’s unique operation 34 Retailing Relevance IGA chief Mark Batenic shares his thoughts 36 A Strong Foundation PG’s Q&A with N.G.A.’s new CEO, Peter Larkin

Progressive Grocer • November 2010 •


The Unconventional Independent
Under Ring Bros. Marketplace’s unique model, each department operates as an independent business in itself.
By Joseph Tarnowski


ing Bros. Marketplace, based in South Dennis, Mass., is as independent as an independent grocer can get. Not only is the store privately owned and operated, but it’s also made up of six individually owned businesses, which function as separate business units that individually manage the company’s various store departments.
Although the unique setup might sound complex, it’s actually a seamless mechanism that makes it difficult to distinguish where one ends and another begins. Indeed, elements of each function as a well-oiled machine and permeate every corner of the store, in the form of sampling stations, cross-departmental meal solution promotions, cooking demonstrations and seven large flat-screen TVs. These businesses comprise Ring Bros. Markets, which is not only the flagship store’s namesake, but also an organizational structure in which each department “specializes” in its respective domain:

Ed Ring, owner, Ring Bros. Markets

fresh produce, dairy and grocery items; Harney’s Liquors, which offers wines, craft brews and top-shelf liquors; Dark Horse Beef and Deli, which features a selection of all-natural beef, chicken, cheese and deli products; Nata’s Noodles and Montilio’s Express offering desserts, freshly made pasta and prepared gourmet foods; Spinner’s Pizza & Burrito, where gourmet pizzas, burritos, take-home meals and homemade desserts are available; and Chatham Fish & Lobster, which sells fresh-caught fish (many right from the Cape), shellfish and lobster. With industry roots that date back to 1925 in Salem, Mass., the third generation of Ring brothers, led by Ed Ring, moved the business to Cape Cod in the early 1970s, finally settling into its current location in 2002. Ed Ring expanded the business in the
Progressive Grocer • November 2010 •

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1990s, creating a specialty store, Broadway Marketplace, near Harvard Yard in Cambridge.
A new concept

“I guess you can call me the innovator of the concept,” declares Ed Ring, who recalls arriving at the idea for his grocery company’s unique model about 15 years ago in Paris, where there were all of these individual markets. Here was a bakery, across the street was a meat market, next door was a cheese market. It was common to find them as separate boutique stores located near each other, each with their own look and feel. Some traditional supermarkets try Perfecting the Core to do this with store-within-store concepts, but unfortunately don’t The store was profitable almost quite pull it off — at least not aufrom year one, and the driver of thentically. this success, according to Ed Ring, “Not long after my Paris trip, is how the business model allows an opportunity opened up in the the various sub-businesses to foCambridge area,” Ed Ring contincus strongly on their core compeues. “I signed a lease in the store, tencies. “When the fish guy opens and then handpicked the best loin the morning, all of his energy is cal businesses to come into the into making the fish look good,” store with us.” he says. “Same with the meat guy Based on the model’s success, — everyone is totally responsible he replicated it when an opporfor their own product and departtunity arose in Cape Cod. “I’m the ment. It’s a little different from manager of Dennis Management a traditional supermarket, where Co., which actually controls the you have a manager rather than store and is the vehicle to pay the an owner doing it. When you rent, distribute the money and so have an owner doing it, they have forth,” explains Ed Ring. “I’m the more vested in the department’s owner of the market part of the success.” store, and there are six owners to- Ring Bros. prides itself on offering products shoppers will not find at Tying the departments together tal — all handpicked.” [Since the traditional supermarkets — particularly the chain supermarket that are Pat Ring, son of Ed Ring, who has a store right across the street. interview, Marc Reingold, owner of serves as the store’s buyer and Harney’s, has been made manager of Dennis Management Co.-Ed.] operations manager, and Donald Fallon, the store’s general manWhile the operation has enjoyed success since early on in the ager, who, in addition to managing the front end, handles the life of the business, it’s no easy task. Keeping the momentum go- store’s marketing and promotions, including cooking demos (Faling means that the business must recreate itself every day, accord- lon attended the Culinary Institute of America). Together, the pair ing to Ed Ring. handles everything connected with running the business, so the “We’ve made many improvements over the last couple of individual owners can do what they do best: sell their products. years,” he explains. “We just restructured our entire front end. We “We’ve gotten to the point now where it’s really automatic,” had four registers, now we have six; we spent $150,000 on a new says Fallon. “Pat Ring will send me a list of things that he wants to front end system, which has dramatically improved our efficien- have sampled out, and a schedule of promotions and events, and cies. We just put in several flat-screen TVs throughout the store.” I’ll work with the various owners to assemble everything that’s Heeding the timeless retailing adage that if you’re standing still, needed, and do it. Generally, when it comes to the demos, I try to you’re going backwards, Ed Ring says it’s paramount to keep pace use ingredients that I know are going to be in the store seasonally, with evolving consumer expectations: “I don’t want to look dated. that we’re always going to have on hand. For example, I probably I need to be 2010 — I can’t be 2003. We have a full-time main- wouldn’t do something with rabbit, because we’re very rarely gotenance associate — not many single-store independents have ing to have rabbit in the store. But if there’s something special that. He keeps the store shining, pressure washing, painting,” and that we want to do, such an Oktoberfest, Pat Ring is steadfast in
• Progressive Grocer • November 2010 A H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T

generally maintains the store’s many moving parts in pristine condition. “Your store can never look tired.” While Ed Ring’s “personal” portion of the business accounts for approximately 40 percent of the store’s sales, it’s by no means a traditional grocery department. To the contrary, its grocery offerings consist of about 20 percent mainstream products, with the remaining 80 percent comprising unique and specialty items that the store receives via UPS deliveries several times a day. Ed Ring prefers to do business with suppliers that support the nontraditional business model with regular product demos and participation in the store’s many themed events.

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Ring’s Renaissance Man making sure we have enough sausages.” Fallon and Pat Ring, meanwhile, keep up a constant dialogue with the various department owners, determining what ingredients they’d like to promote each month, and then working these items into the various events. Fallon also taps the insights of “resident experts” such Laurie Carullo, owner of Nada’s Noodles, and her partner, Frans Weterrings, who’s also a chef, to bounce ideas off to refine the process. “This month, we did coq au vin, and we had a long conversation about the nuances of preparation, such as comparing traditional vs. contemporary, views of what constitutes the ‘classic garnish’ and so forth. This helps us better educate our customers. The people who shop here appreciate the finer details of food art. They like to know that little trivia, the small pearl onion in the bacon, how you sauté them, how you use them to garnish a meal. That’s something you don’t see at a lot of grocery stores.”
Quenching the Thirst
Ring Bros. general manager Don Fallon is truly a renaissance man. He’s the store’s retail technology guru, its resident chef, marketing maven, sustainability soldier — and a part-time magician. And while his sleight of hand is reserved for children’s parties, Fallon still performs magic inside the store. Perhaps his greatest trick is helping the various businesses that make up the store — and their owners — work together seamlessly. “Don is really the center of the operation,” says Ed Ring, owner of Ring Bros., which, in addition to being the name of the store is in operational terms the business consisting of its grocery and dairy departments. “Don’s job basically is to keep it all even, whether it’s putting together a promotional strategy or selecting ingredients for a cooking demo.” Fallon’s latest IT adventure has been redesigning the store’s website, a task which is still in progress. “When I first started, the site was small and simple, and over time we expanded it by adding things like all the events and recipe pages, and eventually there were Ring Bros. general manager Donald Fallon shows way too many,” he says. “And the blog is now gone, since we shoppers how to cook at the store’s demo station. use Facebook to communicate regularly with our shoppers. We try to put something up on Facebook every day to keep people interested in what we are doing rather than just promoting products. We’ve also gotten good responses from our Tuesday Trivia posts. And updates on Facebook are automatically fed to our Twitter account. I also handle the Foursquare integration to our loyalty program.” Last fall, Fallon installed new point-of-sale software and hardware while adding two lanes to the front end to handle the store’s growth. Not only was he able to handle the installation in just one day, but his customers are also amazed by how fast the lines move since the deployment. Operation of the new system is smooth, even on the store’s busiest days. Ever the showman, Fallon says the best part of his job is when he gets to exhibit his cooking prowess during weekend cooking demonstrations and weekly classes, during which he teaches both adults and kids how to prepare a variety of dishes. To highlight these demos, Ring Bros. installed a 50-inch flat-screen TV over the cooking demo area, and six 42-inch flat-screens throughout the store. During one of Fallon’s cooking demos, one camera points down at the stove, as on TV cooking shows, and the image is displayed on the screen behind him. Another camera shoots him from a side angle, and this video is broadcast to the six other TVs installed throughout the store. “Shoppers may be over on the opposite end of the store, where you previously couldn’t really see or hear anything that’s going on at the demo center,” says Fallon. “Now, with the TVs, they’ll look up and see and hear what’s happening, and it draws them over.”

Moving from a standalone store to a department less than half the size actually helped grow sales for Harney’s Liquors, the business that serves as the store’s adult-beverage haven. “We moved from a 9,000-square-foot location to a 4,000-squarefoot department,” notes Marc Reingold, owner, Harney’s Liquors owner Marc Reingold, “yet my sales have doubled, and we’re more profitable as part of Ring Bros.” Helping to drive these sales is Harney’s tie-in to the food businesses surrounding it, as well as Reingold’s adjustment of his assortment to leverage the food connection. “Previously, we sold beer and liquor with a small selection of wine,” he says. “Now wine is a major focus, since wine naturally goes with food.” This food-wine relationship has become an integral part of regular Ring Bros. events coordinated and hosted by Fallon. “The folks from Harney’s will get together with me before the cooking demos to discuss which wines we want to pair with the meal,” says Fallon. “When the dish is done, I’ll bring someone from Harney’s over and he’ll open the bottle of wine, everybody will get a sample, and then he’ll talk about the wine for a bit — and hopefully they’ll buy that, too,” he quips. “Then we serve the food, and the guests see how well it pairs with the wine.” “That happens with a lot of our demos,” Ed Ring reflects. “They’ll come in and see them, but they’ve already got their dinners planned for that night. They’ll take the recipe home, and then the next day or a few days later, they’ll come in and get all the ingre30
• Progressive Grocer • November 2010

dients and make them for their families. In many cases, they make it more than once,” based on verbatim feedback he picks up from multiple demo attendees. Other events that tie in wine are the store’s Spring and Fall Food & Wine Festivals, during which shoppers can sample new products while tasting some of Harney’s latest offerings. The free event includes cooking demonstrations throughout the day, and gourmet food purveyors from around the country are on hand to give out samples of new products. During these festivals, Harney’s holds its popular Grand Wine Tasting, which features a selection of more than 50 fine wines from around the world.

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Here’s the Beef

came calling. Owner Rita MacLellan immediately

loved the idea of joining the marketplace. Richard Pimental, owner of “The great thing about Ring Bros. is that you have Ring’s Dark Horse Beef & Deli — support all around you,” MacLellan beams. “Don [Falwhich features the store’s meat, lon] does a great job of putting together promotions deli and gourmet cheese departand including our various businesses in his cooking ments — left his job as general demonstrations. Our customers love when he runs manager at an A&P to help Ed Ring his class on making pizza from scratch. Some of the develop his Broadway Marketplace other owners we’ve known for years, so it was comstore in Cambridge, Mass. He also fortable to enter this has a store of his own, Cotuit Fresh Market, which is run by his wife, Rich and John Pimental, owners of Dark Horse setting where there is a high level of mutual Lori, and son, John. Beef & Deli. respect.” Dark Horse’s butcher shop feaSpinners sells everything pizza, tures 100 percent USDA Choice all-natural meats cut fresh daily, including premium Black Angus beef, a full line of all-natural chicken and it’s all good: pizza by the slice, and a wide variety of sausages, as well as popular cuts of lamb, pork whole pizzas, homemade pizza and veal. Its deli offers hundreds of gourmet cheeses sourced from dough, pizza toppings and gourmet around the world, and now carries a full line of Boar’s Head products. pizzas are among its many offerDespite the varied selection available at Dark Horse, if you ask ings. It complements its prized pizza Pimental, it’s service that sets the shop apart. “You have to re- business with a host of Mexican ally spend the time and thoroughly educate employees on how to foods, including burritos in a vari- Rita MacLellan, owner of help shoppers,” he says. “They should be able to help the consum- ety of flavors, quesadillas and other Spinners Pizza & Burrito. er decide which product is right for them, explain how it should be south-of-the-border favorites. prepared, and suggest food and beverages that will complement a customer’s selection.”
Oodles of Noodles Chatham Fish & Lobster

Nata’s Noodles was a local producer, wholesaler and retailer of fresh pasta that serviced many Boston-area restaurants. Carullo, Nata’s owner, was invited to join Ring Bros. because she was the best local producer of the specialty item. “It’s the only Laurie Carullo, owner of Nata’s Noodles fresh pasta on the Cape,” and Montilio’s Bakery Express. she says. “When we were a standalone store, we were predominantly a wholesale business. When we joined Ring Bros., though, we had extra space and expanded the business to include prepared foods, homemade soups and salads.” Nata’s is also where you’ll find another Ring Bros.’ chef: Weterrings, who prepares the fresh offerings available at Nata’s and assists with its catering business. While the retail business has grown, Carullo still sells fresh pasta wholesale to local restaurants. She also runs the store’s Montilio’s Bakery Express, a satellite store of Montillo’s Baking Co., a well-known Boston bakery that opened in 1947.
Spinners Pizza & Burrito

Owned by David Carnes, Chatham Fish & Lobster has been a Cape Cod favorite for years in its original South Chatham location — which is still in operation — and continues the tradition at Ring Bros. with seafood that’s caught fresh daily. Its offerings include fresh fish such as flounder, sole, haddock, swordfish and bluefish, as well as shellfish including clams, mussels, oysters, fresh crab meat, fresh lobster meat and crab cakes. It also sells live lobsters ranging from 1 pound to more than 6 pounds, and specialty items such as seafood paté, marinades, homemade chowders and cocktail sauces.
All for One

Like Nata’s, Spinners Pizza & Burrito is also a woman-owned business that began as a standalone operation before Ed Ring
• Progressive Grocer • November 2010

Having six business owners working this closely together isn’t without its challenges, however, and the folks at Ring Bros. would be the first to admit this. “They are all business owners, and business owners almost by definition, have strong ideas — that’s why they’re business owners,” notes Fallon. “There’s always going to be situations where all parties are not in agreement about something.” To minimize this, the owners have quarterly meetings to discuss operations and address any differences before they become an issue. This continual dialogue also fosters a spirit of innovation among the owners, and when a good idea comes along, they typically all get behind it, explains Fallon, noting the group’s penchant for being “very supportive to trying new things. This is very important, because a lot of businesses out there get to where they want to be, and then it’s just cruise control. They don’t change a thing. But if you don’t innovate every day, you get stale, and we try to innovate all the time.” ■

A H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T

Retailing Relevance
Independent grocers excel at creating relevance.
open-loop geothermal technology for all of ven in a marketplace dominated by chains and big boxes, his store’s heating and cooling requirements. These are just two examples, but I hear there will always be a place for independent grocery retail- success stories literally every day about how ers. No doubt, there are some who will say I’m biased in independents are listening and reacting to this opinion, but I prefer another description — informed. customer needs, making them the most relevant retailers in their marketplaces. And My everyday dealings with independents give me the evidence I it’s not just IGA independents — it’s indeneed to speak confidently about the future of pendents across the board. All across these great retailers, and the reason I believe America, we’re seethis can be summed up in one word: relevance. ing independents exercising their longevThis relevance is evident in the grow- and adapt with conity, from D’Agostino ing segment of shoppers who have deter- sumer needs, and, Supermarkets in mined that personalized customer service most importantly, New York to Mcfrom a member of the community is more innovative. Caffrey’s Markets Take IGA retailer important than price — even in a strugin Pennsylvania and gling economy — which suggests that in- Tyler Myers, for New Jersey, from dependents are quickly becoming the most example. Tyler was already running Founded in 1926, the Independent Grocer Alliance Coborn’s in Minnerelevant retailers around. I had my first glimpse of the enduring en- two successful IGA counts as its members more than 4,000 stores in sota and South Dakota to Russ’s Martrepreneurial spirit of independent grocery stores in western more than 40 countries. kets in Nebraska to retailers when I was a 19-year-old college Washington state student working at Rusty’s IGA in Lawrence, when he decided it was time to address Quinn’s Food 4 Less in California. Here’s another great example of this: Kan. Even then I was impressed with the the fact that there were no supermarkets way things worked at that store; I remem- in downtown Seattle itself. In 2008, he This spring, the Cherry family of Cherry’s ber thinking it was entrepreneurialism at converted the basement level of a historic IGA celebrated 100 years serving their its best. The management at Rusty’s IGA department store to a full-service IGA and Girard, Ill., community. How did they celidentified its customer base, and then made began catering to downtown Seattle’s con- ebrate? By completely remodeling and every investment dollar count by putting it do-dwelling residents, workers and pedes- expanding their store. If that’s not a testoward programs and initiatives that would trians. Now he’s connecting with his urban tament to the staying power of indepenmake theirs the best shopping experience customer base by marketing to them in a dents, then I don’t know what is. Yes, there will always be a place for indepenaround. And it was — because it was always way they understand: using lots of digital listening to what customers wanted, and re- interaction, including Facebook specials dents in this marketplace. I’m certain of it because I see the innovative ways independents and online ordering opportunities. acted quickly to meet their needs. Then there’s Mohamet IGA’s Brooks Marsh. are connecting with, and staying relevant to, Today, the considerably more than 8,000 independent grocery retailers in this country When Brooks wanted to remodel, he con- their customers and I know that it will serve have held true to their entrepreneurial roots, ducted a customer needs survey to find out as inspiration for a whole new generation of making them some of the savviest marketers what residents in the small town of Mahom- independent retailers and a whole new genin the industry. I’ve found an endless variety et, Ill., really wanted from his store. He was eration of devoted and loyal shoppers. ■ of examples among our members of the IGA shocked to learn that “going green” ranked at Alliance, as well as among those indepen- the top of the list. He had already planned Mark Batenic is president and CEO of the dents outside of our group. They’re hard- to update with green in mind, but his shop- Chicago-based IGA, the world’s largest alworking and compassionate retailers who pers’ opinions made him realize he needed to liance of independent grocery retailers. For never hesitate to give back to the commu- think deeper than energy-saving light bulbs more information about IGA, or to sign up nities they serve. In addition to that, they’re and deli cases. One year later, Brooks was for its daily e-newsletter, The Independent observant, nimble in their ability to evolve one of the first grocers in the country using View, visit
• Progressive Grocer • November 2010 A H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T

By Mark Batenic



When potato sales are less than super, our heroes arrive to help save the day. They are…

Category Manager Steve wasn’t feeling the holiday spirit… Hmm… customers aren’t buying more potatoes like they usually do during the holidays. Wonder why?

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Ken Tubman?!

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On Ken’s next visit…

Holiday sales are booming since I ran that ad! Thanks Ken! But maybe use the door next time? Sorry about that.

Your idaho Potato Fieldman has great ideas for boosting your holiday sales, too. Don’t hesitate to call on him. And stay tuned for our next exciting episode!


A Strong Foundation
The National Grocers Association’s new CEO, Peter Larkin, plans to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor.
view took place before the recent midterm elections-ed.], and even though we’re not electing a president, we have some very his past July, Peter Larkin, former president and CEO of important congressional elections that the California Grocers Association (CGA), took the helm could be a report card on the Obama adof the National Grocers Association (N.G.A.) as its pres- ministration to date. There’s a very good the house may switch from ident and CEO following the retirement of Tom Zaucha, chance thatcontrol to Republican control, Democratic who had led the Arlington, Va.-based trade group for 28 years. and less of a chance, but still a possibility, that the Senate could shift, so everyone Before starting his own government relations consulting firm in will be watching very carefully, because what happens in Novem2008, Larkin was president and CEO of the Sacramento-based CGA, ber could have a major impact not only on N.G.A.’s legislative where he worked as the trade group’s chief legislative advocate, chief agenda, but on the business community in general. liaison with fellow regional There are a lot of uncerand national associations, and tainties about some of the chief media spokesman. His policies coming out of Washother responsibilities included ington. I can tell you from my overseeing the association’s experience here at the N.G.A. annual convention, educafor the last couple of months, tional programs, publications, there is deep concern over the member services and human health care reform legislaresources. Larkin was also the tion. Health care reform ranks president of the CGA Educaas the top concern among tional Foundation and an offiour membership, and I think cer of the California Shopping rightly so, because there are Cart Retrieval Corp. (a for-profso many questions yet to be it subsidiary of CGA). answered about how the law Prior to joining the CGA, will be implemented. Larkin was VP of state governWe have a relationship ment relations and environ- Peter Larkin, CEO of the National Grocers Association (left), was interviewed with a law firm that has exmental affairs for Food Mar- by N.G.A. executive director Frank DiPasquale for NGA TV. perts on health care issues, keting Institute (FMI) in Washand they are in high demand ington. His retail experience also includes managing government and among our members to help sort out how health care legislation media relations programs for the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. can impact their companies, their employees and decisions they While his career history certainly has prepared him well for his role have to make. Unfortunately, there are more unanswered quesas N.G.A.’s new chief, he’ll be the first to admit that he arrives during tions than there are answers at this point — anywhere from 70 a challenging time for the independent grocer, but feels the strong percent to 80 percent of their questions have gone unanswered. foundation built by his predecessor is the perfect launching pad to And that uncertainty — not only with health care reform, but take the association to the next level, as Progressive Grocer Indepen- with the other initiatives coming out of Congress — makes it difdent learned during a one-on-one interview with Larkin. ficult to know what the future will mean to the bottom line of their businesses. PG: Tell us the state of the industry and how it relates After Congress [returned from] its August recess, all of its attento the independent grocer. tion turned to the Bush tax cuts and whether or not these cuts will be extended, to whom they’ll be extended and for what period of Peter Larkin: We live in interesting times. We’re close to what time. It’s difficult to run a business when you don’t understand could be very important election at the national level [The inter- what the tax implications are going to be going forward, what
By Joseph Tarnowski
• Progressive Grocer • November 2010 A H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T



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Larkin: Energy costs were second on the list of concerns among independent grocers, according to research from our just-released 2010 Independent Grocers Survey. We work closely with EPA to provide members with information and guidance about programs like Energy Star, GreenChill and LEED certification. Again, we also PG: What kind of consumer and industry trends are do this through our convention workshops, N.G.A. TV, articles that impacting the industry, and what’s N.G.A.’s role in we publish online and so on. We make sure that the independent understands that many helping its members address these trends? of these programs, while making retailers more environmentally friendly, also help reduce Larkin: I think the top concosts in the process. We sumer trend impacting our in“Our emphasis is on education, and to gather also guide them on what dustry isn’t going to come as a data and seek industry experts to help our they can do in their stores, big surprise, but given the state members sort through that information, and such as recycling plastic of our economy, value shopprovide some clarity.” bags, earth-friendly cardping is an important trend. —Peter Larkin, N.G.A. board and innovative packHave we experienced a sea aging materials. With our change in the way people shop grocery stores? If the economy turns around, will this trend re- wholesalers, and to a lesser extent but not excluding our retailers, verse to what we considered usual, or is this a permanent shift? the whole transportation area is a key area for sustainability efHow do we help? Our emphasis is on education, and, to the extent forts such as using efficient fuel and consolidating deliveries. that we can be the eyes and ears of the industry, gather data, seek industry experts to help our members sort through that informa- PG: What does N.G.A. offer from a market leadership tion, and provide some clarity as to where the consumer is going standpoint upon which you can build? when it comes to the whole value shopping issue. That’s one of the most important things we can do right now. Larkin: I like the way you phrased the question “upon which Another issue is trust, consumers’ lack of trust in the business you can build,” because I am very fortunate to now be leading an community in general, especially after what happened to this organization that I think has one of the strongest foundations of country’s financial system. The question is, do they trust the inde- any trade association I’ve had the opportunity to work for, and pendent grocer? We think they do. We are closer to the customer, I credit Tom Zaucha and the staff and board leadership for 28 as we’re not a big business; we are small businesses, we have our years of understanding what the focus and mission of this orgafinger on the pulse, and I think that we can maintain the con- nization is, and that is to be the voice, to speak for and provide sumer’s trust. resources for the independent grocer and the wholesalers that Health and wellness is another key consumer trend. Again, our serve them. goal would be to provide educational resources and guidance for So, there is a strong foundation, but, yes, of course we can build our members. Certainly, at our Executive Management Conference on that. A lot of what will come out in our strategic planning and convention workshops, we’ll focus and try and provide some and in our needs assessment will address that topic specifically. I guidance on health and wellness. think it will always be important to address education. Our indeI think that our members are uniquely positioned to provide pendents and wholesalers have different educational needs than some solutions in the healthy food arena by working with public chain grocers or retailers in other segments of the food industry. policy makers to address the food desert issue, as well as by openWe also have a very strong offering in terms of front end ing stores in some of the urban and rural food deserts in the U.S. checkout solutions for our members, through our partnerships Then there is mobile and social marketing, and new ways to with Pan-Oston and FirstData. Our members can really look to connect to consumers using emerging technology. Our members us for expertise in what is the latest and greatest for the front are certainly cognizant that they need to do it; the question is, end of the store, where all of the transactions take place, and what is the best way to leverage these new platforms? That’s arguably one of the most important parts of the whole food where N.G.A. can help, because we have among our membership distribution system. We are also strongly positioned to help our people who are out front leading the way, experimenting with new members in terms of financial management, family business istechnology, being the pioneers, and we have the ability through sues, and I can’t emphasize enough our voice in the government share groups and convention workshops, through our website and relations arena. ■
• Progressive Grocer • November 2010 A H E A D O F W H AT ’ S N E X T

your responsibilities under health care reform will be, whether or not the economy is going to turn around, and they are looking to Washington to give them a clear and concise message about how they’re going to address this situation. Health care is the best example of that, but there are a lot of other issues. What’s going to happen with immigration reform? Many people think that immigration issues only impact the border states, but I think every one of our members ought to be concerned with them. What’s going to happen to the death tax? The list goes on.

all of the various electronic publications we have, where we can share some of these successes and failures, and find solutions for some of the roadblocks people have run into.

PG: What about sustainability?

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