Thinking Outside the Big-box Store

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Windsor Star/Beatrice Fantoni

Call it the resurgence of the little box store.


Small groceries and delis opening in the city’s east end suggest Windsorites – and not just the older ones or the ones without cars – don’t want to do all their shopping at the superstore on the other side of town anymore.


“It’s definitely not the death of the big box,” said Louise Jones, who along with her husband Bill Hucker, is planning to open a small grocery shop on Wyandotte Street East at Chilver. “There’s room for everybody on the plate.”


Jones and Hucker have started transforming what used to be the convenience store at 1767 Wyandotte St. E. into a mini-market that offers just what the neighbourhood is looking for.


“This is for a different part of your grocery shopping,” Jones said.


This part of the city is notorious for being a bit of a food desert. While there are plenty of nice restaurants and cafés and some corner stores, the nearest groceries to the west are not within easy walking distance and the stalls at Windsor Market Square on Ottawa Street and Walker Road aren’t open past 6 p.m. on weekdays.  Being able to walk a couple of blocks to pick up eggs, bread or fruit for the kids’ lunches would make a real difference in this area, Jones said.


Right now, Jones and Hucker are surveying residents about what kinds of foods they would like to see in the store. Just days after setting up a Facebook page and an online survey, they had some 140 responses and dozens of comments. Suggestions ranged from staying open past 6 p.m. to offering delivery service to stocking fresh produce alongside locally produced pantry items like honey and cheeses.


Michael Pearce, an expert in retail and marketing and a professor at Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., said smaller neighbourhood shops are making a comeback since losing out to supermarkets and superstores.


“The interesting things about food retailing is it goes in cycles,” Pearce said.


With the rise of the supermarket, our routine grocery trips have moved from the local market to the supermarket which then gave way to the superstore. The smaller neighbourhood retailers faded out, leaving a void between convenience stores and big-box stores. But because we tend to do our routine shopping, stock-up shopping and “adventure” shopping in different places, Pearce said, there is room for the “little box” in food retailing, too, he said.


In Windsor, mini-markets like Giglio’s near the university and La Stella on Erie Street, have survived over the years by serving more densely populated neighbourhoods where residents still walk to do their shopping.


Offering better hours, the convenience of being just a few blocks away and offering specialty foods that supermarkets typically don’t carry are all ways smaller markets are competing in the grocery business, Pearce said. Many smaller stores do well because they become destination stores for particular foods, such as health foods or prepared meals, he said, and they can also offer the personal attention that isn’t part of the experience when you’re shopping at the Giganto-Mart in the suburbs.


Further east in Riverside, a new deli happily co-exists with the grocery store and discount retailer in the same plaza. Donna DiPietro opened Donna’s Deli in May, but because it offers very specific foods and services, it’s not in direct competition with the nearby FreshCo or Giant Tiger in Riverside Plaza.


“It’s been getting busier every day,” DiPietro said. “If you find the right spot and the right little business, you can make it go anywhere.”


Deli meats and fresh bread are the biggest sellers (the deli goes through about 100 kilos of deli meat a week) and many of her customers are people who live in the nearby apartment buildings and walk to her store to shop, she said.


DiPietro said she purposely stays away from traditional grocery items like milk and eggs, because those are available a few doors down at the other stores. Instead, the deli offers an impressive array of fresh-cut deli meats and cheeses – including locally produced kielbasa and cheeses – along with freshly baked bread from Italia Bakery. The deli also offers ready-to-cook lasagna, cabbage rolls and shish kebabs.  On the neatly stocked shelves are dozens of imported pastas, oils, espressos, sweets, condiments and Italian housewares.


The trick to keeping a business like this afloat is a combination of location and customer loyalty, DiPietro said. Delis like this one are few and far between in Windsor. Customers have told her they’re glad they don’t have to drive down to Erie Street to buy fresh prosciutto or provolone, she said.


One midday customer who has been coming to the deli since it opened said she thinks it’s great. “They’re courteous and fast,” said Pat, and it’s closer to home than Remark or Market Square. Plus, Donna’s carries gluten-free pasta, she said.


Back in Walkerville, Jones said she knows business can be tough in Windsor, but her experience as the owner of Jones & Co., has taught her a business can thrive if it listens to its customers and offers what they’re asking for.


“They talk about voting with your dollars and I think this neighbourhood really does that,” Jones said.


Given the slim profit margins of the grocery business, Jones said they aren’t looking to get rich on it. “We’re just goofy enough to enjoy the process,” she said, and picking up your groceries at the shop around the corner takes you back to your roots, she said. “It’s about building community.”


The little shops that could


How can a “little box” shop compete with the big-box stores? “It won’t be just a smile at the cashier,” says Michael Pearce, an expert in retail and marketing and a professor at Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont. “It’s got to be more than that.”


Hours: There’s research to show a large proportion of us now who make the decision about what to eat for dinner when we’re leaving work, Pearce said. Sure, that’s a gold mine for takeout restaurants, but it can also be a niche for neighbourhood groceries if they’re open late and sell the right combination of prepared foods and fresh foods.


Location: If the mini-market is just a few blocks away, there’s no need to drive half an hour through traffic, park in a gargantuan parking lot and troll massive superstore aisles. Being nearby and smaller-scale appeals to people who value their time more than their money, Pearce said, even if some items are a little more expensive than at the superstore.


Serve a niche: Whether it’s stocking certain ethnic foods, offering gluten-free options or creating a unique shopping ambience, small food stores can compete by serving niches that large supermarkets typically don’t, Pearce said. That’s what makes some of these shops into successful “adventure” shopping places. It might not be the place where you go stock up on six months’ worth of toilet paper, but it becomes the place where you purposely stop in to see what’s new and pick up some special treats.