'Embracing change because customers are'
KEASBEY, N.J. — Wakefern Food Corp. had its start in 1946, during a challenging time for independent food retailers.
The problem back then was that independent operators were seeing their loyal customers lured away by the big self-service supermarkets of the day, which could offer lower prices. To compete, eight grocers in the Newark, N.J., area began collectively buying merchandise in larger quantities, allowing them to enjoy some of the economies of scale enjoyed by the chains.
In December 1946 those chains formalized their relationship, and Wakefern Food Corp. was born.
Wakefern has since grown into the largest retailer-owned cooperative in the United States, comprising more than 50 member companies that independently own and operate 354 retail supermarkets under the ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace, The Fresh Grocer, Dearborn Market and Gourmet Garage banners in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. What has not changed in the years since the company was born is that the environment facing the independent grocers that are Wakefern’s members remains challenging.
For its success in staying true to its original mission while continuing to evolve in response to competitive challenges and changing consumer needs, Wakefern is being honored as Mass Market Retailers’ Regional Grocer of the Year for 2019.
“It’s a time of great change and challenge in our industry, but we’re excited for the journey ahead,” Wakefern chairman and chief executive officer Joseph Colalillo said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in October. “With every new program we introduce, we are committed to providing the best shopping experience for our customers.”
Colalillo told MMR that recent initiatives the company’s leadership is excited about include the successful launches of two innovative store brands, Bowl & Basket and Paperbird.
“These two food and household lines are debuting on store shelves with the best assortment of high-quality foods and products at great everyday value,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the items arriving in our stores and to hear customers buzzing about new products like our delicious kettle-cooked gourmet potato chips and our Bowl & Basket specialty avocado oil.”
Colalillo also points to Wakefern’s opening earlier this year of its first stand-alone micro-fulfillment center.
“The fulfillment center uses advanced robotics to quickly assemble ShopRite from Home grocery orders before they are finished in our stores, enabling Wakefern to expand the reach of its online shopping service,” he says.
Wakefern is also using technology to improve its customer service in other ways. The retailer is making it easier for customers to design their own custom cakes, and to order catering and deli items online, and ShopRite dietitians can now answer questions from customers via online chat.
“We are embracing change because customers are embracing change — the way they shop, the way they work and the way they live,” Wakefern president and chief operating officer Joe Sheridan said at the annual shareholders meeting. “We are pairing high tech with a human touch to provide the very best shopping experience. Today’s customers want great online shopping options, but they also want a personalized experience. Our promise is that we will deliver all of that to our customers.”
Wakefern, which reported retail sales of $16.6 billion for the 52-week fiscal year ended September 28, in October also launched the new ShopRite Right Price Promise initiative.
“Right Price Promise is a new value program committed to everyday-low prices on items our customers purchase most frequently, so they don’t have to wait for sales,” Wakefern executive vice president Chris Lane says. “We introduced ShopRite’s Right Price Promise on October 6. Some of the first items included apples, tomatoes, shredded cheese, sugar and flour, and we are adding new items to the value program every few weeks. By moving to everyday value pricing on key items, our customers can count on ShopRite as their one-stop shopping destination.”
Lane also points to the recent launch of the new Paperbird and Bowl & Basket private label lines as an example of Wakefern’s focus on the value proposition.
“We’ve always been about providing great value to our customers,” he says. “It’s one of our biggest strengths and a pillar we are always building on.”
Later in October Wakefern announced that New Jersey-based Nicholas Markets, owned by the Maniaci family, had become the 51st member to join its cooperative.
Nicholas Markets had operated four stores under the Foodtown banner in the New Jersey communities of North Haledon, Cedar Grove, Colonia and Washington Township.
The stores will be rebranded under Wakefern’s The Fresh Grocer trademark. They join nine The Fresh Grocer stores located in the greater Philadelphia area. Nicholas Markets was founded in 1943 by Rocco and Nicholas Maniaci, the grandfather and father of current president and CEO David Maniaci.
“The competitive landscape in New Jersey has grown fierce in recent years,” Maniaci said of the move to join Wakefern. “I believe Wakefern’s deep roots in the state will help me navigate this and other challenges facing the supermarket industry.”
Wakefern, whose ShopRite banner was recently listed among the top supermarkets on Newsweek magazine’s America’s Best Customer Service list, sees its member/owner companies as among its greatest competitive strengths.
“The power of our family-owned ShopRite stores is that our members are in their stores each day,” Lane says. “They are on the front lines and they recognize trends and understand the evolving shopping basket. They listen to their customers and do all that they can to provide the products they want and need at the prices they can afford.
“Many of our member families also represent third and fourth generation grocers who love and understand the business and are willing to make changes and implement new technology that makes shopping more convenient for customers. They also live in the communities where their stores operate, and they have roots in the community; they know their neighbors and support myriad local organizations. Our members know the supermarket retail business inside and out, and Wakefern support allows them to focus on running their stores and servicing their customers. It’s that combination of experience and expertise that drives our success and earned us the prestigious spot on Newsweek’s America’s Best Customer Service List.”
Colalillo says that everything Wakefern is doing is designed to support those member companies. His dedication to that mission is inherent in his dual role — besides his leadership position at Wakefern, Colalillo heads one of those companies, which is based in western New Jersey.
“My father opened the ShopRite of Flemington, N.J., and founded the family company, ShopRite of Hunterdon County, 61 years ago,” he says. “Today, in addition to the ShopRite of Flemington, our family company operates four ShopRite stores, which are located in Greenwich and Clinton, N.J., and Yardley and Bethlehem, Pa. We employ close to 1,800 associates across our five ShopRite stores, and our family of associates are a driving force behind our company’s success. We are all proud of our deep roots in the communities we serve and our decades of experience in the food industry.”