Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Oliver's Market is a 2021 Winsight Grocery Business Remarkable Independents honoree, recognized for excellence in in-store experience—a category that was reframed, if not redefined, in the tumult of 2020. (You can read more about Oliver's, which operates four stores in Sonoma County, and meet all of this year's honorees online and in our January/February issue.)
With one calendar quarter of 2021 now under retailers' belts and COVID-19-related restrictions being relaxed to a small or large extent across the country, WGB wanted to check in with members of the Remarkable Independents Class of 2021 to see how the year is shaping up. How have their expectations, such as they were, aligned or differed from reality? What are the greatest opportunities and challenges on the horizon?
We begin with five questions for Oliver's Market General Manager Scott Gross.
Christine LaFave Grace: With three full months of 2021 on the books, how are things looking?
Scott Gross: January, February and March have been challenging for the fact that we’re competing with last year, like everybody else, particularly with the panic buying and the unknown of what was happening at the time. With that said, I think we’ve done well overall as far as managing health and safety, the cost of doing business—everything together—and remaining open.
What a challenging 2020 it was, and 2021, from our perspective, might be even more challenging for the simple fact that we’re competing against unsustainable challenges—if you’re looking at financially [vs. 2020], if you’re looking at the rebuilds each community has to go through in supporting our employees, our vendors, our local partners.
We’re looking for a bright future; it’s just the unknowns are so unknown. Even when we are looking ahead to [fully] reopening, what does that look like?
Has Oliver's playbook changed at all? What could look different; where do you look to remain consistent?
We’re highly involved in our community, and we’re highly involved with our local partnerships. We’re not trying to be the big-box stores. We’re not trying to think that we’re going to compete with the Amazons of the world, the Krogers of the world. And a lot of conversation is doubling down, if not tripling down, on local and what it means to us, the importance of supporting small business.
When we had to rely on the supply chain, our local vendors stepped up. And it went both ways—us to them and them to us. Our approach hasn’t been too much into the digital realm. It is a conversation, but with digital—that’s not really our MO. It’s not our strength. Our strength is being in front of the people and enticing them to come to the store.
Quarterly, we run a big local ad here that focuses purely on brand, and the brand is “what local means to us.” Local to us means Sonoma County, and in the ad we name all of our local partners and thank them. That’s something we did pre-COVID. Since 2017, we’ve unfortunately had to deal with multiple wildfires, a flood—we’re pretty seasoned here as far as how to deal with natural disaster responses—and our team rallies around each other each and every time.
We’ve always seen a lot of growth numbers [from] our local marketing, our local branding. That’s kind of our format. We know our community is our people who work for us and the people that shop with us. We try to triple down more every year on a lot of gratitude. We know we’re lucky.
What changes do you see from December, whether in customer behaviors or the overall mood in-stores?
There are definitely more people coming back to the store now than there were in December. That’s [in part from] restrictions being lifted, but at the same time, we’re also seeing bigger baskets. I think a lot of shoppers in the last year have gotten more familiar with their cooking skills or their interest in cooking. And that’s being introduced to the younger generations now—that’s encouraging to see. It’s exciting to see that the next generations are possibly going to be that much more into food and what it means to be sustainable, what it means to shop with a local farmer. I’ve seen it with our customers, with our own employees and just in conversation.
What do you think will be permanently altered by the pandemic, either operationally or in terms of shopper behavior?
I think information. Our format has been person-to-person information. Informational signage when you hit the stores, focus on customer service—that’s one of our core values. The more information given to the customer on these cool new items hitting the market, and new local farms—any of that sort of information to help educate the general public seems to work in our favor.
It sounds silly, but even something like [signage that says] “Scott likes this” on a product goes a long way when you’re shopping. We try to call that out and do write-ups for products, so it’s not this really fancy cheese that no one can pronounce, but what it tastes like. And if you do that continuously through the store, you can really build a lot of brand trust.
As you look out to the rest of 2021, what gives you pause? What gives you hope?
Pause is as we reopen, with the restaurants and the bars, et cetera reopening, what effect that will have on our store-level growth, compared to what we saw in 2020. What I am hopeful for is that our county is getting more and more successfully vaccinated, people feel more and more like themselves, feel more and more safe, feel a sense of relief that we did make it through this thus far and there is light at the end of the tunnel. And even when it was dark, we were here for them, and we’ll do everything we can to be there in the future for them.
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