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Indie Closeup: A Stroke of Luck in Northern Indiana

Independent retailer out to solve convenience-store desert dilemma
lucky mart
Photograph courtesy of Lucky Mart

The “food desert” dilemma that dogs many areas is well known: too few stores to meet the needs of an options-starved community. Depending on the geography, a convenience-store desert exists as well.

It’s a less-often discussed but very real dilemma, one that Lafayette, Ind.-based independent retailer Ripam Singh, co-owner of the new Lucky Mart store, is eager to solve. This is a mission fueled by consensus-building—as well as having key advocates positioned in the right place at the right time.

On the first topic, Singh seeks advice everywhere. From customers that help him establish a running list of new products to add to the planogram to taking basic, selective advice from teachers at Lafayette high school, who also are Lucky Mart customers.

It was also a stroke of luck, too, that Singh’s neighbor works for the local Lafayette TV station, which led to a news feature spotlighting Lucky Mart, which provided crucial exposure to the fledgling business, which went live in mid-June.

Lucky … and Good

A first-time retailer with career roots in residential real estate, Singh saw the dearth of retail convenience and fuel options on the south side of Lafayette, located about 60 miles north of Indianapolis.

He left his real estate job to begin a new career journey in retailing to provide a viable shopping option for the community. Singh first listened to local friends when some encouraged him to consider acquiring a former retail property that had been shuttered for more than a year.

In 2022, he and his father-in-law, Maninter Pal Singh, embarked on the acquisition plan, which took a protracted amount of time before the location opened. The 1,600-sq. ft. Lucky Mart derives its name from “the luck of the Irish,” he says, with the University of Notre Dame located about 100 miles north.

Luck on Their Side

Over almost three months in business, Singh saw his sales double from first month to second and added another 15% in sales during the third month. One part of the secret sauce: outstanding counsel from Core-Mark Holding/Eby-Brown (both part of Performance Food Group), his prime wholesale-distributor. “My reps held my hand throughout these first few months to establish the gold standard of successful merchandising,” said Singh.

Singh is an all-around listener and consensus-builder. In addition to his wholesaler, he regularly taps customers for advice on products to stock, keeping a running list of foods, beverages and other in-store ancillary products they want most. “These are products that many have had to drive up to eight miles to buy in the past. One of the first products I heard they really wanted were certain types of chips and bubble gum,” he said.

Within two miles, south Lafayette has about 4,000 homes in what Singh calls “a pretty dense area. The high school has about 1,500 students.”

Singh explained his strategy in a Q&A:

Q: Talk about the lack of c-store retail in the south end of Lafayette, and what the store’s debut has meant?

A: People were excited that they could get their gallon of milk and not drive up to eight miles for it. When we opened, we asked, ‘what do you think we should keep—from candy and bread to all drinks and what was the preferred size of milk. We keep a running list of items to add or eliminate. We are also fortunate to have a fresh doughnut shop nearby that does direct store delivery.

Q: Describe the property you acquired and the long process endured to open Lucky Mart?

A: The structure was built in the 1960s. Prior to that it had been a water softener company, dog groomer, music studio, restaurant and pizza parlor. It had a lot of former ‘lives.’ There is not a lot of commercial business here. Mainly residents, agricultural and two schools. We purchased the property in May 2022, hired an architect to design the blueprint, and thought it would all be a two- to three-month process. But we had multiple back and forth meetings with both the county and state on matters like zoning variance OK, easement right of way. Eventually, the holidays came and meetings had to be postponed to the end of Jan. 2023. We finally received variance approval in mid-February.

Q: What kind of heavy lifting did you have to do to whip the property into shape?

A:We had to do a complete tear-down to the studs—ceiling, floors, air conditioning unit, the wiring and plumbing were in poor shape—now, everything in the building is brand new. Nobody had updated the structure but just tacked on layers of flooring. We upgraded the interior, painted and laid white tile flooring. It really looks like a house from the outside.

Q: What are some of the most popular items you’re currently selling inside?

A: We never realized how important a fountain program could be but it’s a priority, a hot seller. From the cold vault, Coke is the category captain for sure, as we sell twice as much of these items as anything. We have a very low-maintenance foodservice program, with one convection oven and ventless pizza warmer. There is no ‘kitchen’ as we do more of a ‘heat and eat.’ Customers who come for pizza or chicken asked if we could put a few tables outside to eat on-site, and we accommodated them.

Q: What are you looking to add to the overall offer in the future?

A: We are looking to upgrade our overall foodservice program, starting with pizza, and also launching a delivery service. On the first one, we want a more expansive foodservice program and are working with the wholesaler on making the program more sophisticated to have a more ‘from-scratch’ food, but with just one or two easy steps to prepare.

People are asking for propane tank service and are currently waiting to get this going. We’re working with Mighty Flame, Clyde, New York, but there have been huge delays. We need a propane tank cage delivered, but can’t get one. The supplier can’t spare a driver to work this route. It’s been frustrating.

No fuel is sold here, and we would have to run through a lot of red tape to install pumps and tanks. It would involve more trips before the local zoning board. But it’s a need—the community wants fuel, as the nearest gas stations [Marathon and ARCO] are miles away in either direction.

Q: What’s the best part of the investment to this point?

A:It has to be how happy we’ve made people, and the excitement we’ve seen. People can come and find what they’re looking for—and these things matter. In three months, I probably have gotten to know half the community. I want Lucky Mart to be a place where people want to be—not have to be.”

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