Retailers

1-on-1 With Stew Leonard’s CEO

Stew Leonard Jr. shares some of the lessons he's learned while operating during a pandemic
Stew Leonard Jr.
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Editor’s Note: This is a truncated transcription of a Facebook Live session that took place June 25. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Stew Leonard Jr. is the second-generation president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s Farm Fresh Foods, based in Norwalk, Conn., which now has seven stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

In April, you posted a YouTube video of you in a very personal and reassuring way taking a trip through your store showing the safety protocols that are in place. What was the customer feedback on how Stew Leonard’s has handled safety?

Stew Leonard: Going through this whole pandemic, I think we’re building a relationship with customers that’s a little different than it was yesterday. The pandemic is going to change the landscape of retailing quite a bit. But I’ve been doing a lot the things you mentioned. I’ve done 21 videos internally for our team members. But you know, the relationship that we’re building with our customers is going to be more over YouTube, like you said, and even Instagram.

Your animatronics, like the Chiquita banana, are such a big part of the Stew Leonard’s experience. How have you handled the theater aspects of your store during the pandemic’s social distancing mandates? Are the animatronics in play?

There are a lot of trade-offs you have to make because of the virus, and social spacing is a major thing. Fortunately, we have eight-foot aisles and we have one aisle through the store. I think that helped us in this difficult time because people felt they could be spaced apart. But unfortunately, one of the things we had to do was put all the animation on vacation. So the Chiquita banana is not [operating right now] because we didn’t want anybody to congregate there with their families. We had to shut it down.

We’ve had to change a lot of our internal philosophy. We used to have 10 demos going on, and you don’t see any demos right now.

How is the customer feeling when it comes to shopping in the store?

I would say there was a tenseness in our customers coming in at the beginning. Our job was to try to calm them down and tell them that we’re doing triple cleaning now every night, far exceeding CDC standards. We want everybody to feel it’s the cleanest place they could be all day. For over a month, we’ve required everyone wear face masks.

And we’re selling them. This is something we never thought we would sell at Stew Leonard’s, but we sold a quarter of a million face masks. I think in the industry, this is something you’re going to see more of. And we’re selling gloves right now, and hand sanitizer is off the charts.

Talking about face masks and things you’ve never sold before, have customers changed what they’re buying or how they’re shopping your store?

We use Instacart, and that has exploded. It’s up 700% or 800%. Also, we’ve been pushing curbside pickup. It’s not as popular as delivery, but it’s still way up there. At height of the pandemic, over 25% of our store sales for a day were delivery or curbside pickup.

We’ve also seen people buying in bulk more right now because the restaurant industry came to us with a lot of their institutional-type packaging. Since all the kids are home and the restaurants were closed, we put out a 5-pound bag of french fries that was in a pillow pack. We never thought we’d sell it, but it’s selling great.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned since the start of the pandemic?

We all deal with the issue of centralization versus decentralization: How much authority do you give other people to make decisions?

A lot of people want to centralize everything with one person in a corporate office. What I noticed during the pandemic—my biggest management lesson—it’s really good to be decentralized. I walked in and I’d see things that I didn’t even know happened. The team just pulled the trigger. They made decisions on things that I hadn’t heard about. Maybe they didn’t even ask me, they just went ahead and did it. And you know what? It allowed us to pivot quickly to react to each one of the communities. I realized how great it is to have a nimble, quick-moving management team.

Another thing was I was able to really pick out our superstars during this pandemic. We gave everybody the option to stay home if they wanted to, and some did, which put a lot of pressure on the store, but we respected their decision. Other people, you saw them step up in tough times and they kept their calm, they kept their sense of humor. They said, “thank you” a lot. They treated their people really well. I found a little group of superstars around Stew Leonard’s from this whole crisis.

What do you see for the future of grocery as we really move through this and try to get past it?

Everybody was talking about that even before the pandemic, where is retail going? I think a lot of people turned to e-commerce, but for me, it has put an even greater spotlight on perishables. One of the things we notice, even with the Instacart orders, is there’s a lot of packaged goods that are being delivered to people’s homes, but they still want to come in and pick those grape tomatoes. They want to come in and see what’s new in the store. We have to make it an adventure, like a big farmers market for people to shop at. I don’t think they just want to go in and go through a lot of aisles of packaged goods. I think it’s going more fresh. I want to bring more of the innovation back into it.

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