The war of independents

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Harvest Market, Champaign, Illinois

Every month brings the news that another much-loved independent retailer has pulled down the shutters for the final time.

Only the other day I noticed that a small card shop a short walk from our office had put a sign up in the window.

“I am so sorry that we are having to close down,” the note began. “You will be aware that retail businesses on the high street have been suffering for some time.”

It went on to say that after 38 years of trading the business was just not viable anymore thanks to changing consumer habits.

In the US this new retail reality is nowhere more apparent than in the grocery sector.

For decades a hugely diverse range of fiercely independent regional supermarket groups thrived in different States across America.

But many are now in severe distress as customers choose big box stores like Walmart or the Amazon-owned Whole Foods, or opt for new home delivery options like Blue Apron or Amazon Fresh.

No one would blame a fairly small Illinois-based supermarket chain like Niemann Foods for giving up.

Established in 1917, the company has 100 stores across four states and is run by the founder’s grandson, Rich Niemann Jr.

And Niemann decided he was not going to go down without a fight.

Niemann contacted a design practice in Los Angeles called Shook Kelley and asked for their help in reimagining what a supermarket could be.

If they could not compete with the likes of Walmart on price, and if they could not compete with Amazon on home delivery, where could they compete? Where was the gap in the market? How could neighbourhood stores not only survive but thrive?

The result of their collaboration is a place called Harvest Market, which can be found south of downtown Champaign, Illinois.

“Harvest Market is the anti-Amazon. It’s designed to excel at what e-commerce can’t do: convene people over the mouth-watering appeal of prize ingredients and freshly prepared food,” a recent article about the venture explained.

“Something magical happens when you engage customers this way. Behaviour changes in visible, quantifiable ways. People move differently. They browse differently. And they buy differently.”

Kevin Kelley, co-founder of Shook Kelley

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post.

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