Retail Executive of the Year

With a multi-format strategy, Laura Karet, CEO of Giant Eagle, has raised expectations while meeting the needs of customers. 

Long the dominant grocery chain in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as parts of West Virginia and Maryland, Giant Eagle has made a name for itself by offering a blend of full assortments, convenience and friendly customer service. It now operates 229 supermarkets and registers sales in excess of $10 billion annually.

LauraKaretHowever, the pressure is on the chain, especially with competition heating up and the economy in a seemingly constant state of sluggishness.

When the food and fuel retailer opened two new format stores five years ago—namely Giant Eagle Express and Market District—few industry observers knew what to expect going forward. Since then, Giant Eagle slowly ramped up its multi-format strategy with a flurry of new stores—and now everybody is expecting big things.

That is where Laura Karet comes in. The launch and expansion of these creative retail brands two years ago coincided with the promotion of Karet to CEO of Giant Eagle, making her one of the few women to lead a major grocery chain. The progress of the new formats, along with dramatic price cuts for cash-strapped shoppers and a continued focus on sustainability, convinced Grocery Headquarters that she should be Retail Executive of the Year.

“The goal of our multi-format strategy is to allow us to meet the diverse needs of our customers,” Karet says. “It could be two customers with differing shopping preferences, or one customer whose needs change depending on the occasion. Our hope is that we are providing unique shopping options that provide the variety, value and excellent service our customers expect.”

Some of that sensibility no doubt results from the 44-year-old executive’s experience in marketing two decades ago at Sara Lee and Procter & Gamble. She credits her former brand management positions for allowing her to better appreciate the perspective of a retailer’s business partners, and to realize the importance of being focused 100% on the customer.

“It is important that we as retailers search for those true win/win relationships, and do what is necessary to become the preferred choice for our suppliers to do business,” she says.

Karet joined Giant Eagle in 2000 as vice president of marketing. Most recently she served as senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer, responsible for developing and managing Giant Eagle’s long-term business plan and setting direction for its corporate priorities and innovations.

In January 2012, she succeeded her father, David Shapira, as CEO. The latter assumed the position of executive chairman of Giant Eagle’s Board of Directors. He served the privately held, family-owned company for 41 years and had been CEO since 1980.

“Laura has an extensive background in food retailing and manufacturing, both within and outside of Giant Eagle,” said Shapira at the time of her promotion. “Her amiable and open style has won the respect of our 36,000 team members, customers, suppliers and business partners.”

That surely gives them confidence in Karet’s vision of diverse formats to give consumers shopping options. The banners include Giant Eagle, Good Cents Grocery + More, Valu King, GetGo, Giant Eagle Express and the wildly successful Market District.

“We continue to experience growth across all of our banners and throughout all of our markets,” Karet says. “It has certainly been exciting in recent months to see the growth of our Market District concept throughout Ohio, the state in which we have our largest number of retail locations.”

The latest Market Districts opened in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs last year and in Solon, Ohio, a few months ago. Karet plans to open two more in the greater Cleveland area over the next 18 months.

“Our plans are to continue to focus on growing the number of Market District locations in all of our markets,” she says, adding that there are now three in Ohio and four in western Pennsylvania. “We believe that the concept is truly unique and one that appeals to a wide variety of people who love food—whether they consider themselves culinary novices or the next Iron Chef.”

The happiest grocery store on Earth
Indeed, Iron Chefs would feel right at home in what Food Network chef Guy Fieri has called “the Disneyland of grocery stores.” Everyday consumers and food enthusiasts alike have applauded the shopping, culinary and dining experience of Market District stores that typically measure some 90,000 square feet.

Market District offers something for everybody with familiar national brands alongside unique items from around the world. Some of the highlights:

winedeptA cornucopia of more than 7,000 natural, organic and specialty items;
More than 400 artisan cheeses;
Authentic sushi chefs making classic Japanese maki rolls, Nigiri, Sashimi and Bento with fresh seafood and organic rice;
An in-store cafe that features wine and draft beer by the glass, more than 500 microbrews, craft and specialty beers to enjoy with lunch or dinner and free WiFi access;
An in-store chef demonstration kitchen complete with flat screen monitors and an enhanced sound system for viewing demonstrations and samplings where culinary experts showcase recipes from across the store;
In-store events to entertain and educate shoppers, including live music and daily cooking demos from resident and celebrity chefs.

“Since the opening of our first Market District stores in 2006, we have continued to evolve the concept to make it a true food utopia, with a focus on providing the best food from around the world and exceptional customer service,” Karet says.

However, what truly sets Market District apart, she says, is the ability for customers to find both all of their everyday grocery needs as well as many unique foods not typically found under one roof.

“This innovative approach has allowed us to truly wow our customers by introducing them to foods they may not otherwise have had the chance to try, while delivering on the quality, convenience and value of our Giant Eagle shopping experience,” she says.

“I continue to be wowed by how our Market District team members bring these foods to life in-store every day,” she adds. “Our teams go through extensive training—and in many cases are traveling around the world to gain firsthand knowledge about our offerings—which allows them to act as true ambassadors for those items. Building on this dedication to food experience and expertise, our Market District stores invite nationally recognized celebrity chefs in-store on an ongoing basis, including Martha Stewart, Buddy ‘Cake Boss’ Valastro, Michael Symon, Adam Richman and others.”

At the other end of the grocery store spectrum are two banners: Valu King and Good Cents Grocery + More. Karet is now transitioning the former—a discount format for a half dozen locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania—to the Good Cents Grocery + More banner. Giant Eagle officials have called the latter “the missing link between discount stores and supermarkets.”

“It’s about meeting our customers’ varying needs,” Karet says. “As we transition our Valu King locations to Good Cents and look to open additional sites, we realize that the Good Cents shopping experience needs to differ greatly from that of a Giant Eagle. However, two traits we are not willing to compromise on are freshness and quality. Good Cents customers can be confident that they’ll find a variety of fresh offerings including conventional and organic produce, deli, cheese and meat cut on-site, as well as other items of the same quality as those found in any of our other banners.

“What also separates Valu King and Good Cents from other deep discount stores is that customers do not have to sacrifice conveniences such as access to shopping carts without a required deposit, the opportunity to redeem manufacturer coupons, the ability to pay with major credit cards as well as finding many popular national and regional brands,” she adds.

A new banner, Giant Eagle Express, debuted in the Pittsburgh area in 2007. Karet opened a second location last year—a 14,000-sq.-ft. unit in Indiana, Pa.—to offer shoppers fresh prepared foods, convenience-oriented services and fill-in grocery items. The store also includes an in-store bakery, 150 varieties of domestic and imported beers, meat and seafood offerings, farm fresh produce and a broad selection of the most commonly shopped for grocery items.

Karet acknowledges taking a very deliberate approach to where and how to grow the Express concept stores. Since opening in 2007, the retailer has continued to revise and enhance the experience at the Pittsburgh Giant Eagle Express.

“We believe the concept was a perfect fit for the Indiana, Pennsylvania, market, with its high concentration of college students looking for fast and convenient high quality meal solutions,” she says. “Also, we announced our most recent evolution of the concept with plans to open our first Market District Express south of Pittsburgh toward the end of 2013, bringing our unique foodie experience to a more intimate setting.”

In addition to grocery stores, Giant Eagle operates a successful chain of 190 fuel and convenience stores called GetGo. The concept for the format began as a way to provide redemption for Giant Eagle’s fuelperks! customer loyalty program. Every time customers spend $50 or more at Giant Eagle or GetGo and present their Advantage Loyalty card, they earn 10 cents off per gallon of gas at GetGo.

Karet is pleased that the format has evolved into a convenient stop for fresh, made-to-order foods such as subs, breakfast sandwiches, personal pizzas and more for customers who are on-the-go.

Such a focus on customers—especially in these tough economic times—was apparent in March of this year when Giant Eagle rolled out the single largest price reduction in its history: It lowered prices on 3,000 items by 15%.

“We strive to create the best overall value and shopping experience for our customers by offering many savings opportunities including great weekly specials, Fuelperks!, strong pharmacy programs and competitive low everyday prices, Karet says. “We realize that our everyday prices are a very important part of our value offering, and we are dedicated to continuing price reduction activities in the future.”

The “green” Giant
Giant Eagle has a solid history as a proponent of sustainability and has outfitted some of its stores with eco-friendly features. In 2010, it received four awards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its sustainability efforts, as well as special recognition for its environmentally friendly transportation initiatives. In December 2004, Giant Eagle opened one of the first LEED-certified supermarkets in the world in Brunswick, Ohio, near Cleveland. A GetGo outlet in the Pittsburgh area was one of the first C-Stores in the nation to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification.

LEED is a national green building rating system administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). To be certified, a building has to meet certain prerequisites and performance benchmarks (credits). Buildings earn Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum certification depending on the number of credits they achieve.

When Karet became CEO, she built on the chain’s record of sustainability. A prominent example is the 83,000-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art grocery store in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights that the local newspapers dubbed a “green” supermarket. The store offers customers a first-class shopping experience with an increased focus on prepared and fresh foods, health, beauty and wellness, convenience and value.

One of the store’s more noteworthy eco-friendly features is the solar roof, featuring a tubular solar array and skylights that help offset the store’s need for electric power from more traditional sources.

“Many of our locations are LEED certified, and a great many more incorporate many of the sustainable features of our LEED stores,” Karet says, assessing her chain’s efforts at sustainability. “Most recently, we equipped select new locations with solar roofing features, including our Broadview Heights, Ohio, Giant Eagle and two Pittsburgh area GetGo locations. Actions such as these build on the many strong partnerships we have built with organizations including the EPA and its ENERGY STAR, GreenChill, SmartWay and Green Power programs.

“We are committed to being contributing members of the communities we serve,” she continues. “This commitment takes many forms, including our many charitable endeavors, the great volunteer work being done by our team members on a regular basis, the work we do with regional suppliers of produce and other goods and our efforts toward being an environmentally responsible retailer.”

Karet credits success she has achieved to the hard work and dedication of the chain’s employees.

“Their tireless efforts and commitment to serving our customers is what will ensure our success for years to come,” she says.

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