Local chains cultivate customer loyalty

A woman tends the blueberries at Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud

A look at three regional supermarket success stories: Turco’s, Stew Leonard’s, DeCicco’s

Michael Powell has a simple rule: Every store needs a story.

Powell works at the Los Angeles-based research and design firm Shook Kelley, helping markets sharpen their skills and define themselves: to tell their story.

“I think, in the past, it had become acceptable to say ‘We’re just running a grocery store. This is a big business operation and we happen to be selling food,’” Powell says. “I don’t think that’s acceptable, anymore. I think people want to believe that you have some kind of passion for food.”

Successful supermarkets strike the right balance between price and passion, he says.

Competition is fierce, and getting fiercer.

Retail consultant Paco Underhill says you can buy groceries anywhere nowadays, at all sorts of “channels.”

To keep customers from changing channels, supermarkets need to differentiate themselves.

Tom Urtz, vice president of operations for ShopRite Supermarkets Inc., says stores have to be “nimble and responsive.”

“I always think competition is really good for the consumer, but I also feel, as a business, your biggest competitor is yourself,” Urtz says. “Whatever store it is – Yonkers or Thornwood or White Plains – we’re always very strong in listening to what our customers are looking for in that store.”

Customers are interested in healthy options, Urtz says, and ShopRite’s response – a decade ago – was to hire a registered dietitian to give free advice to shoppers as they shop. Now, there are 120 dietitians across the company, with four locally, at ShopRites in two Yonkers stores, in New Rochelle and White Plains.

The dietitians talk to customers, help them shop, help them read labels and make choices with allergies in mind, Urtz says.

“It’s an extension of who we are and what we stand for,” Urtz says. “It’s a way of connecting the food with the person where it actually happens, at store level, in the aisle.”

In the Lower Hudson Valley, a few regional stores — Stew Leonard’s, DeCicco’s and Turco’s — have carved out their role, expertly navigating downturns, demographics and entrenched national chains. Each has a different approach, a different story.

Stew Leonard’s hasn’t strayed far from the dairy store that opened in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1969. It found its niche, its story, as a destination store, family friendly and farm fresh, complete with a barn motif and grain silo, hayrides and animatronic animals to keep the kids entertained.

Forty-six years later, Stew Leonard’s has grown into four stores  — a fifth opens in Farmingdale, Long Island next month — all telling the same successful story, selling $300 million a year, with another $100 million in sales at independently run Stew Leonard’s Wines.

There are plenty of things you cannot buy at the store, whose fans call it Stew’s for short.

“The typical big supermarket store stocks 80,000 items,” says Stew Leonard Sr., the store’s 85-year-old patriarch. “We’re trying to stay at 2,000, so that even a smaller grocery store would have 50,000 items. We’re not trying to be everything to everybody. Winners focus and losers spray.”

Stew’s store story is easy to tell, but not easily accomplished.

“The easy part is to buy a can of soup and put it on the shelf, and mark it down and discount it,” Leonard says. “That’s not our business. You go into our kitchen and see the chefs. Everything is show and sell, which is in front of the customer. Everything we can show the customer, we do.”

There have been ups and downs over the years, the low point being Leonard’s 1993 tax-evasion conviction. He was sentenced to 52 months, plus three years of supervised probation, and ordered to pay $15 million in back taxes, penalties and interest, a $650,000 fine, and nearly $100,000 for his incarceration.

His son and namesake, Stew Leonard Jr., is now president and CEO of the chain and the voice of the store in radio commercials, recorded on cattle ranches and turkey farms where the store sources its products.

The family-run business prides itself on the longevity of its staff’s service, making the chain a regular in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” Each employee’s nametag includes his or her years of service.

Stew Leonard Jr. and Stew Leonard Sr. at Stew Leonard's in Yonkers. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud

Stew’s stresses customer service, summed up in two rules etched in granite at each store’s entrance: “Rule #1 — The Customer is Always Right”; Rule #2 – If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule #1.”

There are things Stew Leonard’s sells in Yonkers that it won’t sell in Newington, Conn., 90 miles away.

“Pastrami and rye, baby,” says Stew Leonard Jr. “It sells off the charts here in Yonkers. You go to Newington and they say, ‘What’s that?’”

The customers have changed.

“People read labels more today than in 1969 when we started,” Stew Leonard Sr. says. “People used to come in and load their shopping cart with everything and never look at a label. Now they read labels and they won’t buy it if it’s not natural. I think Whole Foods has done a good job of bringing that to the forefront and Walmart has copied them. And supermarkets all have organic sections of their stores.

“The customer wants it fresh, they want what we’re doing,” he adds. “That’s why we’re doing it. If they stop wanting it, we’d stop doing it and do something else.”

They’re coming to us for fresh items, frequently every day to buy what they’re going to cook that night or buy already-made what they’re going to eat that night. — John DeCicco Jr.

The story at DeCicco & Sons — small, upscale supermarkets that are central to their towns and tailor their shelves to their communities — gets a new chapter this month, with the opening, in Larchmont, of what is billed as one of the “greenest” supermarkets ever.

John DeCicco Jr., the 37-year-old MBA who is bringing technology and efficiency to a 42-year-old family business, rattles off some of the benefits of the new location, at 2141 Palmer Ave.

Among them: A solar-paneled roof generating 30 percent of the store’s electrical needs; a carbon-dioxide refrigeration system that will put wasted heat from the refrigerators to work making heat and hot water; a system to track humidity and temperatures and manage air quality and energy usage; LED lighting that will cut energy use by 90 percent. The store was constructed using recycled bricks, barn-board from upstate barns.

“It’s the most expensive store we’ve ever built,”  DeCicco says, adding that the investment is “a smart one, with long-lasting dividends for this generation and the ones to follow.”

Some of those innovations — which will qualify the Larchmont store for LEED certification for its energy efficiency and design — will be retrofitted into the chain’s other stores, in Ardsley, Armonk, Brewster, Harrison and Pelham.

(Another side of the family runs DeCicco Family Markets in Cross River, Jefferson Valley and Scarsdale, in New City in Rockland and Cornwall in Orange County. They will rebrand the shuttered A&P in Katonah early in 2016.)

DeCicco and his family expect their Larchmont customers will experience this greenest of groceries often, and regularly.


John DeCicco Sr., second left, his nephew Joe DeCicco Jr., left, and his sons John Jr. and Chris DeCicco, the men behind DeCicco & Sons grocery stores at their new Larchmont store which is slated to open in December.

Tania Savayan/lohud

The author

In more than 75 interviews over the past two months, Peter D. Kramer has learned a bit about supermarkets: how they’re designed and, most important, the key role they play in their customers’ lives. His own supermarket journey has been peripatetic, taking him from Waldbaum’s in Tappan to New Hampshire to New Mexico and now to New Jersey, where the father of four has learned to bring his own bags and scan his own groceries.

One thought on “Local chains cultivate customer loyalty”

  1. Please investigate how stew Leonards treats it’s animals. They promote them selves to selling all natural “naked” meats. They have a mini farm that they bring animals into. The force the animals to walk on concrete. Which burns their feet during summer. For thanksgiving they show boated by bringing in Sarah the turkey. She was stressed out, didn’t have proper access to clean food and water and she was by her self. Turkeys and chickens are Flock animals by nature and need to be at least in pairs to live a healthy life.
    If you stop and watch the video about the chickens and the conditions that they say they raise them in. It is disgusting. They feed them corn based meals and trim their beaks. This will allow the chickens to get nice and fat and not be able to use their beaks like the naturally should. This is typical practice of the big box egg producer. We should demand change from a store that uses things like “all natural” and “naked” to promote their meats.

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