Retailers

Q&A With HMart’s Vince Colatriano

Conventional veteran lends experience to fast-growing Asian chain
Photographs courtesy of HMart

Vince Colatriano was hired to bring his experience to HMart, but it may as well be the other way around. After more than 35 years holding top sales roles at conventional Northeast supermarkets such as Pathmark, Kings Super Market and A&P, Colatriano in 2016 joined the Lyndhurst, N.J.-based Asian-American chain, known formally as Hanahreum Group, as an executive vice president.

In this role, Colatriano is helping the fast-growing and much-loved specialty retailer—by store count (now 70 in the U.S.) and estimated sales (well above $1 billion), far and away the country’s largest Asian-American chain—bolster its assortments and develop business practices consistent with the high-volume scaled conventional peers from whence he came. Established by Il Yeon Kwon as Han Ah Reum (a Korean phrase meaning “Arm full of groceries”) in Queens, N.Y., in 1982, and still led by its CEO-founder and his family, Hanahreum Group is a vertically integrated business that includes an importing and distribution arm known as Grand BK Corp. and has been building new stores at a rate of about five or six a year whose dazzling fresh merchandising, deep assortments and foodservice elements make them destinations for generations of Asian-American shoppers and curious foodies.

The following Q&A was excerpted from a conversation on Jan. 20.

Jon Springer: You came to HMart as an EVP in 2016. What are the things that they look to you to do, and how has your expertise helped HMart?

Vince Colatriano: Our leadership has adopted a company vision, which is, “To feel at home wherever you are from.” And our customers led us that way. And I’ll be honest with you—they literally do feel at home. They’re so happy when we come to their neighborhood, they can finally get the things that they can’t always find in a mainstream retailer.

What I bring is that other piece—the mainstream retail, because I am not the expert on importing Asian goods. There are a lot of experts here at that, thank goodness! I help the company with the way things are done at the larger organizations, and things that we haven’t experienced yet but we’re experiencing now for the first time, because we continue to grow.

Vince Colatriano

What sort of things would you point out?

What I can say is, as entrepreneurs, we’ve developed a lot of things on our own here, and we continue to do that. ... Our e-commerce continues to grow. Our distribution of domestic products continues to expand. And I help with those areas.

Given your background at high-volume merchants you might also bring merchandising experience, but HMart does a great job of merchandising already.

Absolutely. Very identifiably, on the produce, meat and seafood side, we are above anybody I’ve seen among our competition. We’re very proud of how we go to market with that. What we’re building is to try and make the same kind of "wow" on our assortment in the rest of the store.

HMart produce

The question with specialty retailers is often, what do you do when that next generation of consumers comes of age? Are they going to assimilate into the mainstream retailers? What are you seeing among younger consumers?

For a lot of our consumers, "I feel at home" really resonates.

Our staff and our customers stay very connected to what their home is through social media, and many have family members overseas. And when there’s things that they need or want, thank goodness, we’re the best place to find those things.

Are we looking at the next 30 years? Of course we are. We absolutely are. The way we’re going about e-commerce is developing, the same as everybody [in the industry]. But I don’t think that’s happening among the ethnic markets in quite the same way we are addressing it.

Can you share any detail?

Holidays are very significant to our customer base, so we are making sure that we have the right products available, and making it easy for them to send gifts for holidays. And we’re continuing to expand our assortment. I can also say that we want to take things beyond [what we currently offer with] Instacart—but I’ll just leave it at that.

We’re very fortunate that what HMart delivers is very difficult for a lot of people to reproduce. For a Western market to do its own Asian offering would take quite a bit of infrastructure.

I know a lot of people—like me—like to go in and just see HMart stores, and try something new, like a jarred honey tea or a style of noodles they don’t see in the supermarket.

I must say there are a lot of areas that are easy to experiment with, and don’t require a lot of involvement, whether it be fresh fruit, or beverages, or the snack aisle. There’s a lot of fun things to experiment with, and I do it myself. So I understand exactly what you’re saying.

We have a significant amount of food lovers, or people that are not Asian, coming into our stores to shop because they want to experiment with food and they know the best source of these ingredients is in our stores.

I’m very impressed with the social media that our marketing team has put together on Instagram and Facebook. The recipes and how they’re presented—how they make it look easy, and then make you want to try them. They look easy to execute, and fun to eat, and we get a lot of customers for that exact reason.

Our customers also vary somewhat by the location. In some areas, we have a large Asian demographic, and a heavier Asian customer base, but in some of our more suburban locations, it’s much more complex, which is an asset for us as well. And our suppliers are very appreciative of that, because they know they’re reaching a broader customer base as well.

Can you say how many SKUs a typical store would carry?

We’re pretty much like a standard supermarket, which a lot of people find surprising. We are very similar to standards of a Western supermarket in terms of operations. Again, you may not recognize a lot of the items because they are imported, but in the big picture, our go-to-business is very similar.

And of that selection, how much of a conventional offering is there?

When you really dig deep, there’s a lot of common items that are used by every household. I wouldn’t want to give a percentage, but it’s substantial. It’s not what we lead with, because it’s easy to duplicate elsewhere, and it’s not the primary reason customers come to our store. … But while they’re there, of course, they’re going to buy milk and eggs and beverages that they are familiar with.

I’ve seen a lot of retailers, and each one has their own purpose. But this is the first time I’ve been able to say “This customer is truly being served by us, and not by others.”

Are there some broad lessons that the trade and conventional supermarkets could learn from HMart?

In the trade, not everybody understands that we are a nationwide corporation. We have 18 stores here [in metro New York]. We have five stores in Atlanta. We have six stores in Texas. And some suppliers don’t always recognize that we are not just a six-store guy in Texas; we are a 70-store chain, nationwide, and that gives a big opportunity to build a relationship with headquarters, and get execution on a broad scale. That’s one myth I come across.

As far as connecting with consumers, it’s not a corny thing—when we say “you feel at home," we really do offer something that others do not, and that’s not easy to do. Not to disparage other retailers, but if you look hard, I’ll say there’s not a of differentiation between them.

I’ve seen a lot of retailers, and each one has their own purpose. But this is the first time I’ve been able to say “This customer is truly being served by us, and not by others.”

What is the difference between the best performing HMart stores and the ones that could do better?

I think it’s largely related to the footprint, meaning our own investment into the size and how much we can offer. There’s always a decision to be made about that, but the bigger footprint has more in it. And it makes it more of a destination.

Many of your stores have food courts that are leased out to local restaurant operators.

We find those are good relationships that we continue in other locations. And to your point, that’s not by accident. We don’t have the mainstream [foodservice] brands typically in our stores—they’re usually an extension of what we offer.

We offer what a customer wants, whether it’s within our four walls, or even in the rest of the shopping center. The customer says, “Great. You know, I can do all the things that everybody does, but I can do it in comfort.”  Whether it’s a spa, or a bank or a hair salon, it’s the places they are familiar with.

What should the big stores be worried about when HMart comes to their town?

I don’t think they need to worry about anything. And I’m being very sincere! I actually think they’re kind of happy because in my perception, in most cases we’re not stealing their customer; we’re bringing a customer to that area that’s not being served. So we don’t see guys running crazy sales when we open our store to try to beat us, because the products we’re selling a lot of are the kinds of products that they typically don’t carry.

Your infrastructure also includes private brands. Are you any more penetrated than a typical grocer would be?

We’re in-line. I’d say it’s about a normal level of penetration. But, we stay on trend. Our staff is very active in what’s happening overseas in terms of what’s hot, and what’s trending, which makes it a fun place to work too, from my perspective. You’ll find out what’s coming before the mainstream media finds out.

Anything in particular come to mind?

Just in this past year, we’ve had a lot of success with ice cream treats, and some new ramen flavors that we were able to source and have in stock and ready for our customers. And these are things that they have already spoken to their families about. They were like, "Thank-you for telling me about it, and now I found it at HMart." That just drives it home.

The last five years here has just exploded my education quite frankly, changing perspectives and recognizing customer needs in a new way. It’s just been outstanding.

Can you share how the experience at HMart has influenced your perspective on the conventional business?

I really do enjoy the supermarket business. The last five years here has just exploded my education quite frankly, changing perspectives and recognizing customer needs in a new way. It’s just been outstanding.

And it’s a really fun place to be. And it’s a very young team here that is excited about being exposed to new things.

When March (the coronavirus) happened, customers were panicked, they came to our stores, and we satisfied them so they could take care of their families. We were helping to feed people, and that’s a really cool thing.

Every person learns something every day. That’s one thing I try to say to myself: What did I learn today? Because there is always something. And HMart has provided many growing experiences that will last for a very long time.

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