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updated: 10/31/2011 7:58 AM

Local grocers build success on unique characteristics

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Picture an industry dominated for decades by large chain stores. Add traditionally tight margins. Then ask Rob Prisco and Peter Arvanitis how their independent grocery stores are doing.

"We've learned some things the past year," Prisco says. "Long hours and a lot of headaches," Arvanitis responds. But "we're doing OK," is what each adds with a hint of both pride and accomplishment.

In fact, their separate successes are an indication that independent businesses can prosper -- even today, even in the highly competitive retail grocery sector. Building on unique characteristics can make the difference.

Prisco is president of Prisco's Fine Foods Inc., a one-store, family owned business that has been in Aurora since 1926. Arvanitis is general manager of two purposely different Village Market Place stores, in Skokie and Carol Stream, that he owns with his father, brother and a cousin.

Although Arvanitis says customers appreciate that "owners (sometimes) bag the groceries, and customers can talk directly to us if they have a problem," freshness -- especially in the produce section -- and neighborhood awareness are key elements in the family's success.

"We buy produce everyday," Arvanitis says as an example. "If you don't have fresh items, no one will come to the store."

Neighborhood awareness is reflected by the fact that items vary in each store. "Skokie has a heavy Jewish and Russian ethnic base," Arvanitis explains. "Carol Stream has different ethnics." To match preferences with products, "we work with independent vendors (the big chains) wouldn't consider."

The Prisco success has its own differentiating elements:

• The store has been a member of Central Grocers Inc., a Joliet-based wholesale coop that serves some 200 independent grocers in the Chicago area, since the 1950s. Membership, Prisco explains, "allows us to be competitive on price."

• "We cut our own meats," Prisco says. "We have two full-time cutters and lots of part-time help. We do it like Dad did it."

• At Thanksgiving, the store sells "hundreds and hundreds" of Ho-Ka turkeys from Kauffman Turkey Farms in Waterman. Prisco's isn't the only store that sells Ho-Ka turkeys, but Prisco traces the relationship back to trips his grandfather made to Waterman to pick up turkeys.

• Prisco's has developed a series of in-store cooking schools conducted by Phyllis Kramer, a popular former home economics chair at West Aurora High School.

"She loves the store," Prisco says. "She shops here. She develops her own recipes. People know her and like her. She cooks from scratch, and we feed everybody" who attends the classes.

Prisco also is willing to try new approaches. "We did a Groupon," he exclaims. Learning from others not always happy experiences, Prisco's tailored its Groupon to fit the store's pricing parameters. So far, so good. Prisco's tracking system indicates "we're getting a significant amount of overbuy."

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at 2011 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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