Locally Owned Vermont Grocery Stores Going The Extra Mile

Publish Notes: 

Champlain Business Journal October, 2011

Locally Owned Vermont Grocery Stores Going The Extra Mile

BURLINGTON, VT.-In the always-competitive and ever-evolving Vermont food sector, locally owned grocery stores and markets need to find creative ways to survive amongst the larger grocery store chains. Though fads and new marketing twists will always come and go in retail, sustainability will come down to keeping prices competitive, offering better personal service and convenience and finding a way to stand out amongst the competitors.

Photo courtesy of City Market in Burlington
Not an easy task when you consider privately-owned stores having to go up against big chain and "supercenter" stores which combine the convenience of groceries and general merchandise. This has been a trend throughout Vermont over the last two decades, with Price Choppers chain stores going up in Barre, St. Johnsbury, Morrisville and Rutland, Grand Unions in Morrisville, Middlebury and Brandon, and Shop N Saves in Williston, Bennington and Brattleboro, just to name a few.

Because of this trend, more and more privately owned or "mom and pop" grocery stores are getting squeezed out by the efficiency of the larger competitors', as well as the way suppliers are now catering to them. In turn, these smaller stores must go that extra mile, going above and beyond to find that specialty niche or service that gives the local shopper added incentive to shop within their own community.

The Shelburne Supermarket has been a mainstay, with local roots dating back to the late 1700's as the communities ' first grocery store. The supermarket moved to its' current location at 20 Shelburne Shopping Park in the 1960's, with current owners Steve and Sara Clayton taking over in the mid 1970's. They key to their success?

"Bottom line, this business was built on quality service and product," store general manager Justin Barker said in a recent interview. "However, I think what also makes Shelburne Supermarket stand out is that we know our customers, we know their needs and we know who they are before they walk in and after they walk out."

Another key to the long-standing success of Shelburne Market is their team of dedicated employees and supervisors, some whom have been with the company for many years and truly care about providing quality products, service and supporting the community. "The Shelburne Supermarket has become a monument of sorts in Shelburne, a place where many in the community meet up. Also, the quality of the products we offer is unsurpassed and our department heads have been in their trade for 20 years plus."

Another locally owned grocery store, City Market/Onion River Co-op is a 16,000 square-foot, community-owned food cooperative located on Winooski Avenue. City Market is Burlington’s only downtown grocery store, open 363 days a year and opened from 7 a.m. to 11p.m. daily. They provide a critical service to the residents of Burlington because they offer general groceries and products, but also organic food and local produce at a competitive price.

The Onion River Co-op is also dedicated to supporting the local economy and enhancing the sustainability of agriculture. They work with over 1,000 Vermont vendors and feature one of the widest selections of local products in the state. They are member-owned, so the profits generated by Co-op members are returned to the members when the co-op is financially stable. This is called the Patronage Refund program.

"Because we are a cooperative and owned by our members, we take great pride in supporting local farmers and vendors, selling fresh products that the larger chain stores sometimes cannot offer," Meredith O'Neill said in a recent interview. O'Neill is City Market's Director of Human Resources. "We also like to think of ourselves as an incubator for many small local farmers and producers who don't have their own storefront, which gives our customers access to all kinds of specialty products."

City Market also has an agreement with the city of Burlington as the "downtown grocery store", to have 30% of their inventory be conventional or name brand products for those who do not "shop organic". "To stay competitive price-wise, we also offer 100 core products such as butter, milk and bread, in which our prices are very competitive with larger stores and sometimes even cheaper," O’Neill added.

Helping local farmers, producers and growers all come together to offer local food freshness seems to be the common thread with locally owned supermarkets. It allows the community growers to offer their products, while creating closeness with the local markets that foster quality food and a healthier lifestyle that a grocery chain store simply cannot achieve.