Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Independent Grocer Memo: 96 Year Old Ashland, Virginia Independent Grocer Cross Bros. Grocery Thrives By Providing Service, Service and More Service

Cross Bros. Grocery co-owner Tom Willis rings up a customer's purchases while son and co-owner David Willis bags her grocery order. Service is all in the family because customers are treated like family at this independent grocery store.

Guest Memo: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Grocery Has Family-Style Approach
After 96 years, Cross Bros. in Ashland still sends get-well cards to customers
By Joan Tuppance, April 28, 2008

Each Thursday, 90-year-old Sarah Wright makes her way to Cross Bros. Grocery to shop for groceries.

When she didn't follow her usual routine one week, she received a call at home.

"I've been shopping there since I set up housekeeping in 1947," she said of the small grocery store along the railroad tracks in the heart of Ashland.

"They called me because they wanted to find out if there was anything wrong with me," she said. "There wasn't anything wrong. I just didn't have to buy anything."

Their immediate concern was welcomed by Wright.

"They are very caring people," she said. "I was in a convalescent home for a couple of months after I broke my leg and they came to see me."

The 96-year-old store has been able to retain its comfortable, family-style approach to business throughout the years despite increasing competition from larger grocery chains.

Brothers Herbert J. and Walter N. Cross opened the store in May 1912. They often delivered groceries to customers who couldn't visit the store. They also set up accounts for their customers and billed them once a month.

Current owners, Catherine and Thomas Willis, along with their children David Willis and Cathy Waldrop and their spouses, have continued to provide those services.

"The store was built on those principles," Thomas Willis said. "I remember we used to deliver groceries and stay [at the house] to change a light bulb or put the groceries in the refrigerator. Whoever delivered the groceries would do things like that."

Willis and his wife purchased the store in 1973 with Ruth Hawthorne and her husband, William, when the Cross family decided to retire. Willis started working at the grocery store as an assistant manager in 1954, following his military service during the Korean War.

"When I came out of the service, it was hard getting a job because there were so many people getting out at the same time," Willis said.

The Cross family had enlarged the store three times before its sale. In 1950, the family purchased the A&P store next door and expanded into that space. After 1958, the store's back section was enlarged twice, taking it to its current 6,750 square feet.

David Willis, now president of Cross Bros., began stocking shelves and bagging groceries for the Cross family when he was 15. He had only been in college for six weeks when his dad asked him to work full-time at the store.

Waldrop started working part-time in 1986 and went full-time in 1992.

Waldrop, treasurer of the company, keeps the store's records but she doesn't rely on technology.

"We don't even have a computer in the office," she said, pulling out a large ledger. "I do everything by hand."

Many of the store's shoppers, such as Wright, rave about the selection of meats, which are hand-cut onsite.

"Meat is what we are known for," Waldrop said. "We sell meats to area restaurants and, at Thanksgiving, we take orders for fresh turkeys."

Shopper Susan Tucker will never forget when she returned home from the hospital after having her second child and found two Delmonico steaks in her refrigerator.

"Beside them was a note from Tom," she recalled. "It said 'These are free but we can't wait until you have to buy four.'

That's one of my favorite stories."

Tucker doesn't think of her trips to the store as shopping excursions but rather visits.

"It's never a chore to go to Cross Bros.," she said. "It's a chore to go to other grocery stores."

Back in the late 1980s Tucker strayed from the store, thinking she would save money by shopping in bulk at a big-box grocery.

"I didn't go into Cross Bros. for 10 days and they sent me a get-well card," she said. "They honestly thought I was sick. I never went into the big-box store again. I went back to Cross Bros."

Until recently, the store's customer base has been steady.

"It may be smaller now because of some big-box stores and some larger markets," David said. "But we still carry some specialty items that other stores don't carry such as specialty cut steaks, fresh ground beef cut in-house and our own house sausage."

The store's walls and shelves are adorned with a collection of farm antiques, knick-knacks and bottles. The shelves in the rear of the store hold dozens of scrapbooks and picture albums, filled with photos of Ashland.

Ninety-year-old Harold Starke reminisces about the days when his mother and father shopped at the store. Starke has been a customer for more than 50 years.

"Everything we need we can get here and the prices are reasonable," he said. "They look out for you. They are part of the family of Ashland. I live only three or four blocks from there so I go chat with them and learn about the news. That's how I find out what's going on."

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Editor's Note: Ashland, Virginia's Cross Bros'. Grocery is a perfect example of why the multi-store and single store independent grocer segment not only is alive but thriving in the United States.

Unlike in many country's where few if any independent-owned and operated supermarkets and grocery stores exist, independents of all shapes, formats and sizes continue to flourish in the U.S., despite heavy competition not only from mega and regional supermarket chains, but from mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Target, drug chains which are increasingly selling more grocery items, and online food retailers like Amazon.com and many others.

These thriving U.S. independents all have a number of things in common. First, the y put service as job one, two and three, like the story above about Cross Bros'. Grocery demonstrates.

Second, the independents carry specialty items other stores might not merchandise for shoppers even if sales of such items are minimal.

Third, everything is local with these successful independents. They respect and reflect their communities' and neighborhoods history, culture and demographics. This includes selling lots of locally-produced foods if that applies, being not only a community food retailer but a "member" of the community as well, supporting local groups, schools and charities, and many other locally-based retailing aspects.

Lastly, independent grocers innovate. Unlike most chains, they can move fast to try something new or to respond rapidly to changes in the economy locally. When organic foods became popular, it was independents in the U.S. who first reflected that trend--and even drove it in many cases.

Independent grocers also have been on the front line in "green" or environmental retailing. Before the concept of selling reusable grocery bags for example even entered the minds of most chain supermarket operators, thousands of independent grocery stores across the USA already were offering the bags for sale in their stores.

The list of firsts for independents goes on and on. Most importantly though, independent grocers in the U.S. continue to thrive because they understand the power of local marketing, superior customer service and being a part of the communities in which they operate.

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