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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    How Conn.'s smaller grocery store chains compete with the big ones

    Though some of the state's family-owned small supermarket chains don't get the level of attention that competitors like Stop & Shop, Big Y and ShopRite receive, they continue to survive and thrive in a highly competitive industry sector.

    Connecticut has several small supermarket chains that have been in existence for decades and some for even more than a century. And although the odds are stacked in favor of the larger grocery chains, the owners of the small supermarkets are taking the necessary steps to keep their businesses around well into the future.

    LaBonne's Markets was founded in 1962, though the family's involvement in the grocery business predates that, said Bob LaBonne Jr., the owner and chief executive officer of the grocery chain.

    The sixth-generation family business employs about 400 people.

    "We have great people who work for us who have a passion for what we do," LaBonne said. "Some of the people who work for us are the third or fourth generation. There's so much competition out there and it makes the people we employ so important, so we treat them like family."

    As an example, LaBonne said one of his oldest employees started working for him at the age of 67 and retired when he was 89.

    "People like to see familiar faces when they shop," LaBonne said. "They want people who care about them."

    LaBonne acknowledged that his family's chain "doesn't have the buying power of a national chain," which is a challenge in terms of keeping prices down.

    "We have weekly hot deals, which are centered around the items that people build a meal around," he said. "We try to compete every day."

    LaBonne said that while "a certain percentage of people consider prices as the most important thing when they shop, "others are more focused on other factors like customer service and the ability to get in and out of a store quickly.

    "We have extra people in our stores to make sure you can get in and out quickly," he said. "A big store is going to take you longer to get out of."

    But LaBonne said the chain's stores remain competitive when it comes to prices.

    "We try to make sure items that you buy on a weekly basis are at or below competitors' prices," LaBonne said.

    LaBonne said he and his staff never lose site of the fact that "family meals are important to people."

    Geissler's Supermarket announced last month that it was acquiring Fitzgerald's Foods in Simsbury, said Bob Rybick, president of Geissler's Supermarket, which currently has six stores in northern Connecticut and one in Agawam, Mass. They will add an eighth store within the next two weeks when they complete the purchase of the of Fitzgerald's Foods in Simsbury, which will add about 100 employees to the chain's workforce of about 400, according to Bob Rybick, president of Geissler's, another family-owned company that he and his brother run along with a pair of cousins.

    Geissler's was founded in 1923 when Rybick's grandfather, Adolph F. Geissler, bought a small grocery store from his brother for $2,500, which was located on Main Street in East Windsor's Broad Brook section.

    Rybick and his family have "leaned heavily into technology" to help the chain grow and tell its story to customers.

    Geissler's is about to launch what Rybick describes as "smart cart technology" in dozens of its shopping carts across the chain. He said the technology will be the equivalent of having an iPad attached to your shopping cart as well as a scale to weigh produce.

    That will allow customers to make more informed choices about their purchases and also enable the chain to interact with its customers, according to Rybick. The chain has been testing the technology in select locations for about a month and half now, he said.

    Rybick said he envisions a future where customers using a smart cart will pass products in a store that will have sensors on their shelves that will send customers information about the products, including background about where products came from.

    "We're not there yet, but it's a way for us to tell stories about the suppliers that we use," he said.

    In addition to investing heavily in technology, Geissler's also recently completed a $2 million renovation of the chain's Granby store. The renovation includes space for a fresh popcorn popping kiosk and room for fresh chocolate sales space in partnership with Bolton-based Munson Chocolates.

    Rybick said Geissler's is also partnering with a number of food business start-ups to bring their products to market.

    One of those start-ups is Pop's Famous Guac, a start-up specializing is guacamole that Rybick discovered at a local food market.

    "We see ourselves as a food incubator and test site," Rybick said.

    Another successful small grocery chain is Highland Park Market. The Manchester-based chain, which has been in business for over 130 years, also has location stores in Glastonbury and Farmington. Highland Park Market officials did not respond to inquiries from Hearst Connecticut Media for this story.

    James Mohs is an accounting and taxation professor at the University of New Haven. Mohs, who has expertise in profit margins, said even among the smaller, family-owned supermarket chains, there is an increased focus on consolidation.

    "Mergers create economies of scale, even at this level," he said. "Those economics allow for better pricing for these chains."

    Mohs said small independent grocery stores benefit from being in locations that larger chains chose not to locate in because customer traffic volumes are not large enough.

    "To some extent, these chains are able to stay profitable, even though their stores are small, because they are the only game in town," he said. "The smaller stores have the personal touch and people will pay more for the personal touch."

    Mohs estimated that Connecticut supermarket shoppers are equally split between those who shop solely based on price and those who will pay a little more for better services and quality of goods sold.

    Wayne Pesce is president of the Connecticut Food Association and he said another small independent chain that does a good job competing against the larger grocery chains is Caraluzzi's Markets, which has stores in Bethel, Danbury, Newtown and Wilton.

    "Caraluzzi's does a brilliant job," Pesce said. "One of the really smart things they have done is locate liquor stores they own next to their grocery stores."

    He said small independent supermarket chains must walk a fine line between balancing quality and service with prices that may be a little higher than the larger chains.

    "As a consumer, you're willing to pay a little more for quality and service," Pesce said. "But at the same time, the stores with the higher prices are losing at the game."

    One of Carluzzi's loyal customers is Sharon Rosenblatt, who lives in Wilton.

    "They seem to always have more of the smaller things in stock that some of the bigger stores by me didn't have during the pandemic," Rosenblatt said. "Two things that come to mind were mint chocolate chip ice cream by Häagen-Dazs and for my dogs, toothbrush bones."

    Rosenblatt said she also likes "how they're in the community and seem to hire within."

    "Everybody just seems happier there and the store is cleaner," she said. "Also they have much better produce."

    Sue Morgan has been shopping at LaBonne's Markets for 35 years. While she does not shop there exclusively, Morgan said the chain's Woodbury store "is definitely a go-to."

    Paula Fowler works in Hamden and lives in Wallingford, but does her grocery shopping at LaBonne's Prospect location.

    "I love the meat department," Fowler said. "I'm able to get cuts of meat there (in Prospect) that I can't get at Stop & Shop or Big Y. And they have certain things that I can't find anywhere else."

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