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1-on-1 With Judy Spires, CEO of Kings and Balducci’s

WGB’s November Endcap guest dishes on the alleged demise of brick-and-mortar and her affection for positive reinforcement
Judy Spires
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Judy Spires is CEO of Parsippany, N.J.-based Kings Food Markets and Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market.

Welcome to Endcap, Judy. I’ve been fortunate to know you for 25 years, and I’ve always been impressed by your intelligence, sincerity, enthusiasm and adeptness as merchant and marketer. What do you consider to be the trait that has served you best throughout your career?

Judy Spires: Taking care of customers better than anyone else is definitely my passion. That’s why I’m in this business. Of course, to do this consistently, we need a really fabulous team of people, and that’s what we have here at our company. Our store, field and office support associates are so committed and excel at this. They are the best.

During your address at PLMA’s annual conference in late 2017, you said that predictions of the demise of brick-and-mortar are greatly exaggerated. Has your opinion changed? Why or why not?

JS: Despite the predictors of doom and gloom around the demise of brick-and-mortar, I stand my ground, as even Amazon continues to develop physical retail locations.

I think Kings Food Markets’ tagline, “Where Inspiration Strikes,” is a brilliant way to convey your stores’ vision and mission to shoppers. What are your teams doing to further the inspirational cred?

JS: Our team is really stepping up its ability to take advantage of the size and nimbleness of our company. They’ve learned not to merely respond but to be ahead of the trends and the customers we target: as an example, researching the particular herbs and spices that are growing in popularity, and creating recipes that feature them in our prepared foods offerings. I love that we are a flat organization and we can move quickly. We detest red tape and we don’t let it get in our way.

You were quoted as saying that when you first entered the grocery business, you became a fast fan of “the positive reinforcement of retail.” Can you please elaborate?

JS: I started in this business as a cashier, which I found was exciting and rewarding to be able to quantify how much money you’re bringing in an hour, how many customers you’re checking out and the accuracy of your cash balance. As you move into other areas of responsibility—for example, ordering and stocking—you know the immediate movement of the items. For me, it was always rewarding to see the customer’s response in real time. We didn’t have reams and reams of data in the early days of my career. It was a very hands-on way of understanding how customers were responding and how you were performing. Of course, I love that I have immediate insights with sophisticated methods of obtaining much more data while still providing the positive reinforcement I crave.

When thinking about a former influential authority figure from your past, what is the most important thing you learned from them, and how has it benefited you?

JS: One of my mentors was the store manager who first hired me and taught me the passion for the customer’s satisfaction and how to really enjoy what you do. It was through him that I found my love for this business. The other was our former chairman, who always offered such sage advice. One of the most important things I learned from him was, “Whenever you take on a new leadership role, the first thing you do is find out everything your new organization is doing right.”

What’s the most important lesson you learned from one of your biggest mistakes?

JS: Very simple: Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Sometimes we have the mistaken idea that when we’re promoted into a new role, we’re there because we’re supposed to know everything—and we don’t. Life is much easier when you recognize this and reach out to the resources around you. I’ve always found that people are always willing and happy to help and support you. All you have to do is ask.

What is your most prized material possession?

JS: Of course, aside from receiving my fabulous Trailblazer Award from you, Meg, it’s still my Martin guitar my parents gave me on my 16th birthday. I’ve passed it on to my son, who carries forward the love of the prized possession.

Lightning Round

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“From your mouth to God’s ears.”

What is your motto at the moment?

We can do this!

If we’re sitting here a year from now, what would you envision would be the best thing you could tell me?

My company has doubled its revenue and profitability.

What was your dream job as a kid and why?

I wanted to be a Broadway star and sing my way through life.

What is your present state of mind?

Always optimistic.

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