From the Publisher: Standing at the top

Coborn’s has a well-earned reputation for great service, a strong product assortment and community service, making it a logical choice for the 2011 Grocery Headquarters Independent Retailer of the Year Award.

By Seth Mendelson

“They just seem to care.”

That was what one consumer told Grocery Headquarters on a frigid Minnesota morning standing outside of a Coborn’s supermarket when asked why she shops there instead of other supermarkets in the area.

“I get the very strong feeling,” she added, “that Coborn’s is involved in the community because they want to help and are interested in giving me and my family the best shopping experience possible. It’s why I keep coming back here instead of the Target down the road.”

It is no secret that independent grocery stores are struggling to keep up with the major national and regional chains. Fighting back through lower pricing is simply not going to work, particularly when a chain like Walmart or Kroger can cut its pricing on a product or in a region to combat what others are doing. So independents have to think creatively and, at the same time, look for ways to connect or re-connect with consumers on a different level.

Coborn’s, by all accounts, does that. The privately held St. Cloud, Minn.-based chain has established a niche in its turf in the upper Midwest by stressing a combination of savvy merchandising and marketing with a real down-home philosophy. Coborn’s, led by its president and CEO Chris Coborn, is not only surviving against intense competition, it is thriving. That is why Grocery Headquarters has selected the chain as its 2011 Independent Retailer of the Year.

Accolades by themselves will not get the job done, though. And, it appears that Coborn’s officials are well aware that they must stay ahead of the curve to stay ahead of the competition. As you will read in our cover story this month, Coborn’s has not only invested in the future, it is finding other paths to ensure success in coming years.
Over time, the chain has branched out into other formats, including limited assortment stores, liquor stores and pharmacies. It has developed new software programs that allow for more efficient ordering and it has incorporated the NuVal nutritional scoring system to assist those customers looking for healthier food alternatives.

Most importantly, Coborn’s is making its workers feel like part of the family. The 90-year old chain started an accelerated employee stock ownership program four years ago. So despite the fact that the fourth generation of the Coborn’s family continues to run the company, the 6,700 employees of the operation are its future.

It is amazing what that does for employee morale. Every lost sale to a cluttered meat section or disorganized HBC aisle means a little bit less for each employee participating in the stock program. Conversely, every extra sale means a bit more for them.

Chris Coborn practices what he preaches. Company officials say that Coborn relies on a number of able lieutenants to get the job done. Not surprisingly, he also gives the credit for the success of the company. It is the Coborn’s way of doing things. As we can see, it is working very well.

Seth Mendelson can be reached at 646-274-3507, or smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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