Many grocers will attest when visiting a competitor they are not allowed to take pictures or even jot down prices, even when asking permission. The reason, according to at least one cranky, store manager was, “We don’t want to give away our secrets.”

Some 'trade secrets' hide in plain sight

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

Secrets? In a publicly accessible supermarket?

Unless you have proprietary gadgetry that mysteriously draws customers into your store, how grocers do business could not be more obvious.

Whatever sets one produce department (or chain, for that matter) from another is something that every retailer would love to wrap their arms around and indeed shield from prying eyes.

And whatever features makes one chain strong, be it price, selection or quality, one thing is certain — those components are neither secret nor something that goes unnoticed during a casual visit.

So what does make customers prefer one store over another? Collectively, what makes one chain consistently sustain high market share while their competitors lag behind?

Especially when all the guns in the retail arsenal are used, as if it’s simply a matter of following a formula or check-list: Competitive pricing, quality products, selection, sanitary conditions, knowledgeable and well-trained employees, ample parking, easy access, good lighting, ease of shopping, wide aisles, interesting layout, clean restrooms and fast, friendly service, to name a few.

Matching features, even underpricing a competitor, doesn’t guarantee an advantage. It’s the leader’s je ne sais quoi that makes underperforming competitors squint from a distance, with hands on hips, suppressing the predictable grumbling.

So what is the “special something,” you may ask.

I wish I knew for certain, but I’ll offer a guess. In a word: Relationships. It has worked in produce, with grower-receivers for many years, and this business concept succeeds at other levels too.

I once worked for a large chain that, during a decade-long stretch commanded a more than 50% market share, despite our closest competitor having a national brand, a similar format, sharp pricing, and twice as many stores. 

This performance held up so well because of all the measurable factors listed. But I believe it really was the relationships, apart from everything else.

The chain earned share largely because it was the popular, even festive place to shop. Every comment card was answered.
We were the local “good guys” that connected with customers and were supporting everything regional. Relationships, large and small, took the extra steps: from great media and public relations, to having enough baggers.

A concerted effort was made to make customers feel welcome, from big parking spaces all the way to offering one-cent mechanical horse rides for the kids in the front end.

Oh, and the relationship also included plenty of fresh, quality merchandise, too.

Not exactly a “secret” that can be easily photographed. Or duplicated.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail armandlobato@comcast.net