Independents maintain strong niche in Michigan

11/15/2012 04:32:00 PM
Jim Offner

Michigan boasts plenty of retail grocery chains, including Meijer Inc. and Spartan Stores Inc., both of which are based in Grand Rapids. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has a major presence, as does Kroger Co.

That’s the level of competition Ken Courts finds himself battling.

It’s a fight he says he can, in many respects, win.

Courts owns Ken’s Fruit Market Inc., a Grand Rapids-based company that opened its second store in the city this year.

 

Filling a local niche

Ken’s has found a strong niche in fresh and local produce, said Courts, who has been running grocery stores in Michigan for decades.

“I’ve been doing this all my life and over the last 10 years, or even five years, it seems like people have taken more of a liking to homegrown than ever before,” he said.

That plays to his stores’ strengths, Courts said.

“Even though chains do it, they just can’t do it like a smaller outfit can,” Courts said.

He cites tomatoes as an example of one of his stores’ advantages.

“The tomatoes they buy, even though they’re homegrown, they’re a different variety that maybe packs and ships better but doesn’t taste as good,” he said.

A smaller-scale buyer can procure smaller-volume, better-tasting product from local growers, Courts said.

Courts said he also fights misperceptions that his produce is priced higher than product found in chain stores.

“We take the attitude that we’ve actually got to be cheaper than what the big guys are,” he said.

Working with smaller-scale local growers provides an ability to react quickly and pounce on high-quality product that bigger stores might pass by, Courts said.

“You learn to who you can work with and who you can’t,” he said.

 

Part of a growing trend

Courts, who ran a store in Ionia, Mich., for years before selling it to his partner, launched his first Grand Rapids store two years ago. He has been in the grocery business for 40 years and said he uses that experience to advantage, particularly in tough economic times.

“When people are tight on money, they’re looking for the best deal, so I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and it seems like every time the economy gets tight, it seems like we do a little better,” he said.

Courts counts himself among a number of independent retailers who are flourishing in Michigan.

It’s a trend that’s gaining momentum, he said.

“I think it’s growing compared to what it was, 30 or 40 years ago, when people kind of made a switch to big-box stores,” he said.

Shoppers wanted to go in that direction at that time, but they’re coming back now, because they want to support local businesses, Courts said.

Courts opened his newest store in the spring, in an old Spartan store.

There was some irony in that purchase, he said.

“Spartan bought a bunch of independents and so Spartan owns a lot of those stores,” he said.

Courts said he plans to open four or five stores around Grand Rapids, although he isn’t sure of the timeframe.

“I actually didn’t plan on getting into the second one as quick as I did, but the opportunity came up,” he said.

He said he believes the stores will succeed, as long as they follow the formula that has worked for the first two stores.



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