What do you find when a veteran produce executive has the opportunity to fulfill his dream of owning and operating his own supermarket?
A fresh fruit and vegetable department unlike any other independent its size. It was five years ago that Will Wedge, former director of fresh merchandising for Hannaford Supermarkets, a 186-store chain headquartered in Scarborough, ME, decided to open Will’s Shop ‘n Save, in Dover-Foxcroft, ME.
The Time Was Ripe
“After 32 years, I just knew it was the right time,” says Wedge. “My wife and I fantasized for more than a decade about owning a small supermarket in a small community where we could make a positive impact. The minute we got the phone call that the former Edwards Family Shop N Save in Dover-Foxcroft was for sale, we jumped on it. A bonus for us was that our daughters, Abby and Emily, were both at Husson University only 30 miles from the store [in Bangor, ME]. Hence, we could spend more time with them as a family and our daughters could work at the store during school breaks.”
Dover-Foxcroft, located in central Maine, boasts a population of nearly 5,000. The majority of residents are of European ancestry. The median household income is $46,273. Produce aside, the town is famous for hosting the one-day annual Maine Whoopie Pie Festival. Started in 2009, the event celebrates the Whoopie Pie, two rounds of chocolate cake sandwiched together with a sweet creamy filling, which is Maine’s official state treat. Festival attendees more than double the town’s population each year on June 25.
“The foundation of our business strategy is customer service. This guiding principle earned us consumer loyalty in this small community,” says Wedge.
Wedge maintained ties to his former employer. In fact, 95 percent of the produce purchases for Will’s come through the procurement team at Hannaford.
“I know firsthand that Hannaford’s buyers procure from the best growers in North, Central and South America,” says Wedge. “The other 5 percent of our produce purchases are direct-store-delivery from local farmers. I visit each local grower I purchase from, and we inspect the product when it arrives at our backdoor. We are able to source local strawberries, blueberries, carrots, squash, potatoes and much more. Our most popular item each summer is sweet corn from Grant’s Farm in Saco, ME. Customers are so conditioned to this, we often get the request, ‘When is that awesome corn from Grant’s coming?’”
Will’s Shop ‘n Save is 15,000-square-feet total in size with 9,100-square-feet of selling space. Limited space means there isn’t an opportunity to offer the 800-plus SKUS of a big Hannaford. However, Wedge continuously rotates in new varieties and this enables him to offer customers a remarkable average of 500 SKUs.
A good example of this is instead of only offering one SKU of eggplant — as it might happen at a typical store of the same size — Wedge rotates in baby, white, Graffiti and Chinese eggplant to offer customers a wide variety. Specialty produce such as Cabel Hall Citrus’ brand of Jamaican tangelos, Ugli Fruit and dragon fruit also occasionally makes an appearance on the shelf. Variety is one reason produce sales average 12 percent of the store’s total sales, and produce sales grew 18 percent since the store opened in 2011. Another is freshness.
“The best part about running a small supermarket is freshness. For example, we offer the same number of apple SKUs as our major competitor in town, which is a 44,000-square-foot box store compared to my 15,000 square foot store. However, I display 20 pounds of each variety at a time; whereas they have 40- to 50-pounds on the sales floor. In turn, my remaining 20- to 30-pounds is in the produce cooler staying fresh. The same is true of leaf lettuces. Being ‘fresh’ is another key component of our produce strategy,” says Wedge.
Two popular produce sub-categories at Will’s are organics and fresh-cuts. Wedge sees organics as still on a growth trend. Best sellers are customer favorites like organic Chiquita-brand bananas, organic Hannaford salads from State Garden, in Chelsea, MA, and organic vegetables from Procacci Brothers, in Philadelphia. All fresh-cut fruits and vegetables are prepared in-store daily.
Wedge says other points that set Will’s apart from the competition include creating a beautiful sensory experience as customers enter the store, educating consumers on seasonality, and promoting healthy attributes of fruits and vegetables. One way he accomplishes these goals is with a department where produce “pops” visually thanks to its bright color and quality. Also, Wedge designed a layout that is easy to shop and conducive to adjacencies showcasing a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. The store’s sign program clearly denotes health attributes and country of origin.
“We continuously train our produce associates on where product is sourced. For example, when Bing cherries started coming in from Washington State this summer, we shared this fact with our consumers. We learned that customers value knowing where their food is sourced, and they appreciate us being produce experts,” says Wedge.
In addition, he says, “We toured more than 400 elementary school students through the store in an effort to educate them on the many facets of the supermarket business. We teach the youth about the health attributes of fruit and vegetables as well as where its grown. Students are amazed to learn everyday produce comes to Dover-Foxcroft from all over the world via tractor trailer, pickup truck, airplanes, vessels, and trains.”
More Then Fruits & Veggies
Produce isn’t the only department at Will’s that offers something special. The bakery sells in-store fresh baked breads, rolls, muffins and donuts, plus offers cake decorating services. Meats and cheeses are the traditional stars of the deli, with name-brand, trendy flavors of luncheon meats such as Black Forest turkey, Lemon-Pepper chicken and Honey ham. Cheeses range from domestic to exotic and include the store’s own Taste of Inspirations label. The deli-prepared-foods section menus hot-to-eat and ready-to-heat meals as well as soups, sandwiches and sushi to-go. Live lobsters from Maine are showcased in seafood. In the meat department, Wedge purchased a meat tenderizing tumbler. This enables customers to place their selection of beef, pork or chicken into the cylinder, select from over a dozen marinades, and the tumbler pressure separates and infuses the muscle with marinade.
Community Is King
Community plays a big role at Will’s. Wedge is a leader in the town’s Kiwanis chapter and Chamber of Commerce, hence knowledgeable and supportive of local events such as the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival. He and his family are also very connected with area churches and especially the Food Cupboard, the local food pantry. Finally, Wedge’s wife, Melissa, engages with customers daily via the supermarket’s Facebook page.
“Our goal has always been, and continues to be, viewed as the ‘local’ supermarket of choice,” says Wedge.
In five short years, Will’s Shop’n Save earned success. In fact, Wedge, an Air Force veteran, was named the 2016 U.S. Small Business Administration’s Veteran-Owned Business of the Year for Maine and New England.