Smaller Getting Bigger

Entrepreneur opens "convenience/grocery/gas" store in Charlotte, N.C., area

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Oral surgeon and real estate developer Matthew Johnson has opened Johnson Family Markets, a 6,000-square-foot natural foods market, convenience store and full-service gas station earlier this month off Interstate 77, Exit 33, in Mooresville, N.C., reported The Charlotte Observer.

In doing so, he is getting onboard a national trend driven by large and often multinational players toward smaller-format "convenience/grocery" stores like Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, Wal-Mart's Marketside, Safeway's The Market and Jewel-Osco's Urban [image-nocss] Fresh, all of which have announced plans for similar compact stores.

And the future retail landscape will be filled with an increasing number of small-store food concepts as retailers strive to capture the attention of busy consumers, TNS Retail Forward said in s separate press statement. Recently released TNS Retail Forward ShopperScape survey results indicated that shoppers are ready and willing to shop the new breed of small food concepts.

"The combination of small size and a fresh, prepared foods emphasis is a compelling offer for the time-pressed shopper," said Jennifer Halterman, senior consultant with TNS Retail Forward and author of the recently published Retail Perspectives report entitled Small Stores, Big Trend. "The small-store trend, which more players are beginning to explore, is part of an ongoing evolution in the retail food sector and we expect more players to throw their hats into the ring."

Columbus, Ohio-based TNS Retail Forward's ShopperScape research indicates that two-thirds of shoppers would definitely or probably shop a small food concept that places emphasis on convenience and fresh, prepared foods. The small-store food concept attracts shoppers in various shopping modes from fill-in/quick replenishment and immediate consumption to grab-and-go.

"The jury is still out on whether small-format food stores will meet shopper expectations and company return on investment objectives going forward," Halterman said. "Food retailers considering a small-store strategy must monitor and analyze shopper needs, attitudes and expectations well in advance of launch. They should also seek input from consumer goods manufacturer partners and pay close attention to local area demographics and cultural differences."

Johnson, 42, said he has always wanted a healthy c-store, "kind of like a smaller version of Trader Joe's, with the ability to get gas." So he built it himself a development designed to evoke the open-air shopping centers he had enjoyed while serving with the Army in Germany, said the report. Although the concept is new to the Charlotte, N.C., region, with his new store, Johnson is following in the small-store footprint of Tesco, Wal-Mart, Safeway and Jewel-Osco.

"I'm a hyper person," Johnson told the newspaper. "I like getting in, getting what I want and getting out."

By that measure, the report said, even stores such as Trader Joe's are too large. "Our whole thing is 'conveniently organic'," Johnson added. "I want [customers] to feel like just because you're stopping at a convenience store doesn't mean you can't get something [of good] quality."

To win customers, of course, a retailer first has to lure them inside, which is partially why Johnson's storeunlikethe store concepts of itscorporate-ownedcousinsalso offers Shell gasoline with full service at no extra charge. The hope, Johnson said, is that the service will allow someone to go inside and check out the store. Though it does entail higher labor costs, he said, he believes it will even out by bringing in greater volume and engendering loyalty.

"So many people are trying to make a profit off gas," he said. "I just offer it as an added convenience. It's the same as offering a restroom. It allows a person to stop."

The store is full of contrasts, stocking soda and "regional, organic and biodynamic" wine, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Penguin Natural Foods Porcini Risotto, 24-oz. tall boy cans of Natural Light and bottles of New Grist Sorghum Beer and other microbrews. Recycled paper products and natural cleaners are within feet of the cigarette counter. So far, assistant manager Bella Hux said, organic meatsincluding ostrich and buffalohave sold well. Canned goods have not caught on as quickly. A salad bar is coming soon.