In an era where multinational big box stores rule the roost, locally owned grocery stores turn to community engagement and history to keep up and keep their doors open.
Take Miller’s General Store in Lyndon Station. Open continuously since 1857 and credited by owner Tom Miller as the oldest grocery store in Wisconsin, Miller’s runs with the familiarity of any small-town general store.
Miller, standing behind the counter, greets customers by name as they come in. He answers questions about products and engages in active conversation with his customers. According to Miller, presenting that familiar face to the community, and providing resources they won’t find elsewhere, is crucial to maintaining steady business in this day and age.
“We’ve had to branch out into many different things,” Miller said. “We carry hardware, we do the DNR registration, we’re finding things to offer our customers. We’re a grocery store, but we try to present ourselves as a one-stop-shop so they can get anything they need.”
Miller acknowledges it’s difficult to stand out in this market, especially with a massive Walmart 10 miles up the road. But his strategy to stay relevant is twofold: present a singular destination for locals and tourists alike to pick up anything they need, and to stay constantly involved with the community.
According to Miller, one of his store’s main goals is to be involved with as many local endeavors as possible, to give back to the community that has stayed so loyal for so many years. Miller’s General Store has a hand in anything it can for miles around.
“I ran the Chamber of Commerce here for years, I’m president of the Mauston wrestling club, we’re involved with VFW, with the churches, fundraising for the schools,” Miller said. “I think that’s another challenge for non-corporate stores … If you walk into Walmart and you’ve got a benefit going on, you’re not going to get anything… locally, they don’t give back a whole lot. There hardly goes a week that we don’t make a donation.”
Miller’s checkout counter is always stocked with at least three raffles to benefit local organizations, and Miller himself is there, standing behind the counter with a familiar face to his regulars.
Miller’s General Store is something of an outlier; family-run stores where the owner stands behind the checkout counter are not common anymore. However, that does not mean that local Wisconsin grocery stores are going out of style. Maurer’s, with locations in the Wisconsin Dells and Janesville, has the unenviable position of being the closest grocery store to Walmart.
But according to Kristie Maurer, vice president of the company, Maurer’s and Miller’s pursue a similar strategy to maintain a local customer base.
“We set out to compete on a community basis,” Maurer said. “We believe that we are part of this community, and initiating community involvement. We are not the size, nor will we ever be the size of a big box grocery store. But we want to be the local community member, providing fresh food to the residents of the Wisconsin Dells area.”
Maurer’s is a more complex organization than Miller’s; it has two locations, more of a corporate structure and a large staff. But the approach to keeping customers coming back stays similar.
On the Fourth of July, Maurer’s hosted a block party for the Dells area, fully decked out with a DJ, bouncy castles and a massive grill. According to Maurer, all of the money raised at the event will go to local charities within the Dells.
“That is one event that we do, that allows us to participate as members of the community, but really as a way to give back,” Maurer said.
Maurer’s participates in plenty of other fundraising events and community outreach programs throughout the year; be it sponsorships of Knights of Columbus or a myriad of other charities. According to Maurer, this is a common strategy across locally-owned grocery stores.
“You will find that all independents participate in community events, or are community sponsors within their organization,” Maurer said. “And I think that is what is extremely important within the independent sector. Independent grocers are members of their community.”
While everyone interviewed repeatedly hit home the point of community involvement being a vital part of functioning as an independent grocer in this market, another point often came up: product freshness.
Miller was particularly emphatic about this point. He said that his store focuses on freshness and service, and that focusing on local suppliers for perishable products is incredibly important to their business model.
“I think our quality of product is something we really thrive on,” Miller said. “Sometimes when you get fresh meat from big box stores, it’s coming from big manufacturing plants. Most of our food and fresh meat is cut locally and brought in locally.”
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Keep it local
Local suppliers are a vital part of the formula for success among local grocery stores. According to Mike Glick, president of G&R Foods in Reedsburg, those independent stores are just as vital to them.
G&R is a wholesale dairy distributor, with no front-facing sales operation for revenue. According to Glick, local stores like Maurer’s or Miller’s tend to be more welcoming of local suppliers, and won’t default to the cheapest option for distribution.
“Your smaller grocery stores, they’re more open to trying local suppliers, and giving local suppliers exposure,” Glick said. “We package Irish butter here in the state. The big box stores, they didn’t really show any interest. Whereas the smaller stores, they jumped right on it. Because they wanted to help someone that was local.”
Glick’s company works with Quillan’s market in Reedsburg, as well as the two Festival Foods locations in Mauston and Baraboo. According to him, this crunch on local suppliers has come as a result of consolidation across the industry.
He uses Kroger’s as an example, a company that has seen massive growth through buyouts since G&R opened in 1995. Glick said that companies like Kroger buy in such large bulk that their price point outstrips the necessity for smaller suppliers.
Glick’s solution to this problem is to focus his business on, as he puts it, “specialty-type stores,” where people will be shopping for specific brands instead of the lowest price point.
“We’re willing to do the things that the big suppliers won’t do,” Glick said “We’ll split palettes. We’ll pick an order. If somebody wants 20 cases of something, 10 cases of something, 30 cases and another 10, we’re willing to do that.”
Splitting palettes is not a common practice for larger distributors. For Glick, one more thing that sets his company apart is that they ship directly to customer stores. Larger suppliers will ship to a remote distribution center first; but G&R cuts out the middleman.
All that ties back into Miller’s comments on product freshness. Independently owned grocery stores may not be able to offer the variety or necessarily the price point of a Walmart or Costco, but they can run circles around those big chains when it comes to fresh, local product.
There is one more vital component to the formula for a successful independent grocery store in the era of the big box: excellent customer service. For Willie Schmidt, manager at the Sauk Prairie Market, service eclipses every other factor.
“We outdo them on service,” Schmidt said. “Service is the biggest thing. Quality of product, stuff like that.”
Sauk Prairie Market holds a unique position among the stores profiled here. It’s a member of Sentry, a grocery chain with 13 locations across Wisconsin. It has a higher level of corporate control than any of the three other stores mentioned above, but the strategies remain the same: fresh, local products, excellent customer service and a commitment to the community.
Schmidt said that Sauk Prairie Market commits to fundraisers with a wide variety of organizations across the community, from schools to local service clubs. Even corporate-level stores have to integrate with the community to thrive in the current market structure.
Ultimately, these independent grocers need to establish some sort of edge in the market to maintain a robust customer base in the face of constant growth from stores with access to more capital. According to Miller, he hopes that these efforts can help his store keep afloat in the marketplace.
“You hope that gives you a little bit of an edge, that people are going to remember those things,” Miller said. “That it’s something they consider when they pick where they go to shop, and it’s too bad that more don’t.”
Miller also challenged the widespread notion that the main appeal of stores like Walmart is low price point, saying that independent stores are more competitive than people might think.
“I really challenge people to go into the smaller stores like Maurer’s and Miller’s and do some price checking,” Miller said. “And I think they’ll be surprised to see that we are actually cheaper on a lot of our items.”
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on this story.