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Mark Batenic – IGA

Mark Batenic – IGA

Long-time leader of independent grocers Mark Batenic talks about how they can best serve their communities


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IGA Chairman Mark Batenic

What does the Independent Grocers Alliance do?

It’s an organization of retailers who share core values in taking care of the shopper. It’s a franchise model that offers a business platform and guidance on how to run your business. We’re in 32 countries, mainly the US, China, Australia and South Africa.

How are independent grocers doing?

The homogenization of shoppers from 20 years ago has gone away. CPGs are struggling with this. They’re used to shoving a product out through the system. Today’s shoppers are rejecting that. We think there’s nobody better to listen to what shoppers are saying than the independent retailer. 

We’re also pushing our guys to have proprietary products. What are you famous for? What’s that one item that differentiates you and will make a shopper drive or walk past other stores to get to yours? It could be a cookie, a meatloaf mix, whatever.

Is the US market growing? Or is it a case of winning market share against others?

It’s growing. The population growth helps but the shopper has moved towards fresh. There’s a natural growth there. The biggest challenge a lot of the stores have is meeting that new need for fresh, prepared, ready-to go food. People like the convenience. 

When you have more fresh, you’ve got to have resources in the store. Do you have that deli manager? Do you have technicians in those prepared foods departments? A lot of independents have done it very well with training programs. It does drive costs up, and transactions are somewhat smaller, but usually if they’re in perishables, they’re more profitable. The whole idea is to have customers come back every day.

If you’re already running your own store, isn’t going omnichannel a real challenge?

Yeah, it is. If you’re a single store operator, putting a program together can be incredibly expensive. A lot of times they partner with somebody, especially in the delivery area. There are lots of start-ups doing that.

Do you still see a strong future for bricks-and-mortar stores?

We have an average footprint of 25-35,000 sq ft in the US. That was considered small and outdated, but today’s shopper sees it as agile and quick. The most asked question at 4pm every day is “What’s for dinner?”. If you have the solution in your store for that, that’s where you’re going to win. 

The other thing is, people are social beings. We see our independent stores as community centers, where people can gather and share all kinds of things. 

But the investment is much greater. You could get into a store fairly reasonably from a cost standpoint 10 years ago. Today, it’d take you about a quarter of a million bucks. That’s just to get your foot in the door. But it’s no different than a franchisee who wants to go into a franchise, whether it be fast food or cleaning carpets or something like that. Those are all entrepreneurs.

Is there one issue that concerns your stores more than others at the moment?

Finding qualified help. Entry to the grocery business is always as a stocker, checker or something like that. It has an image of low wages. As we move into more prepared foods, you’ve got to have people who want to learn the rules on all those things. But as the population ages, young people don’t want to go into those jobs as a career. You work weekends. You work nights. That’s when people shop. Without question, that’s the number one concern around the world.

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