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The secret to your store’s success isn’t as complicated as you might think. I know, I asked

I recently got in touch with several grocers who I respect tremendously. Some I’ve met at conferences, and we’ve had wonderful conversations. Others invited me into their stores, spending more time, I’m sure, than they could spare to show me around. My call was to answer one question. OK, two: What’s the smartest thing you’ve ever done in your business? And, if you could go back in time to when you first got into grocery, what advice would you give yourself?

Why these two questions? Because in retail it’s easy to get devoured by all those mosquito-like problems that come up every day. A supplier problem here, a customer spat there, then a staff issue pops up and your day is gone. Too many such days and you can easily lose focus of what made your store work so well in the first place. By asking some great operators these questions I hoped to isolate that secret element to their success. And, perhaps, remind you of yours.

Let’s start with Will Willemsen in southwestern Ontario. He and his wife, Ingrid, run two of the most beautiful stores you’ll ever visit, called Sunripe. They are all about fresh, and several times a week Will makes the long trek down to the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto to buy his produce. No wonder he says his smartest move ever came the day he decided to buy all his produce himself rather than through a wholesaler. Wise decision No. 2, says Willemsen, was to make sure that he owned his stores’ real estate.

Willemsen started out with a small fruit stand and little money to buy inventory. It took hard work to build his business. If he could go back in time, he’d tell his younger self to make his stores different than competitors, and to worry less about being cheaper.

Up north a ways in Thunder Bay, David Stezenko, owner of Quality Market, admits he doesn’t have all the answers to his business. That’s why he says getting involved in the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers’ share groups was his best decision. These groups let grocers from around the country share their experiences and trade advice. “Invaluable” doesn’t even begin to describe the help he’s gotten from them.

Stezenko has two tips for his younger self: “Always keep your priorities in line. Family has to come first.” And for the business: “Set goals. Then work hard to achieve them.”

A few grocers I spoke with think alike. Steve Sharpe, of Sharpe’s Food Market in Campbellford, Ont., and Neil Kudrinko, owner of Kudrinko’s further east in tiny Westport, have at one time or another operated both as independents and franchises. Going all-independent was the wisest move they made, they say. It freed them to make important decisions in their business and to develop their own brand in the towns they serve.

Both of these men also focused their attention on people. Sharpe’s best move has been to hire the “right” people for the job. Going back in time, meanwhile, Kudrinko would remind himself to make customers the centre of his business and to spend as much time with them as possible. “My most effective time is spent with customers, finding out about products they are interested in,” he says. “Today’s consumer is far more informed than 20 years ago. Many times I’m being educated by the customer who’s already gone online and done a lot of the research for me.”

One other grocer I touched base with is Frank Lovsin. The owner of Freson Brothers IGA in Alberta, he’s been in this business more than 60 years. Lovsin surprised me when he said his smartest move came as a young man of 23 when he broke his leg playing baseball. “I couldn’t do the physical work, so I learned to delegate. I saw then that it was more important to work on the business rather than in it.”

Lovsin also had some sage advice to his younger self: “Follow your gut” and maintain “a positive attitude. It will not let you down.”

Those are good words to keep in mind, whether you’re new to grocery or, like these guys, seasoned vets.

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