I have known Mark and Veronica A’Court for many years and if you read The Leader you have probably seen a monthly wine column I write for them and their business, Fresh Choice Nelson.
This column however isn’t about promoting their business; it is about the people behind the business, the A’Courts, and the changes they have witnessed in the supermarket industry over the 20 years they been owners.
The supermarket is where we all do the vast majority of our shopping and my work with the A’Courts over the last few years has given me an insight into the effort that goes into running such a large operation and the planning needed to make sure you can buy everything you need when you need it.
When they bought a share of the Fresh Choice Nelson supermarket it was the newest and biggest food store in the city; there was New World in the Montgomery car park where Number 1 Shoes is now and a Super Value store in Hardy St that was closed with the building becoming home to Smiths City when the first of the big supermarkets opened.
The Countdown on St Vincent Street was followed quickly by a Big Fresh Supermarket next to the Library in Halifax St and in recent times by a large New World store in Vanguard St meaning Fresh Choice in Collingwood St went from being the newest and biggest to the oldest and smallest in a few years.
They now own all of the business but how does a small family owned supermarket compete with the big boys?
To answer that you don’t need to look very far past the people at the helm. The A’Courts are passionate about the industry and delivering great service; this is reflected in the effort they put in to make sure the store can compete in a very crowded market.
I have regular chats with Mark A’Court about wine but last week I asked him how they haven’t just stayed in business but have thrived in the face of huge competition for your dollar.
“A key for us is having a big focus on local and organic products, we are really proud to stock over 300 locally produced products and were the first supermarket anywhere to stock Proper Crisps, Pic’s Peanut Butter and Chia drink not to mention producers like the Wangapeka Dairy Company who have some of the best cheese and milk products available.
Mark lists other local names whose products they stock. Producers like the Ferretti family who supply fresh organic vegetables, Tasman Bay Herbs, Pestells supply “beautiful bacon products”, Heck’s German Smallgoods supply “some of the very best sausages and cured meats you will find anywhere” and Milk Drop’s mozzerella is one of the store’s biggest selling specialty cheeses.
“We may have supported them when they started but they are all very important suppliers to us along with all the wine and beer producers in the region,” Mark says.
If you are a regular shopper in their store you will already know they have a large range of organic products. They have been selling certified organic products for over 10 years and are in the process of further enhancing the range and improving their competitiveness.
“We are now buying our organic beef direct from the farm so we can absolutely guarantee the provenance of the product from the farm to shelf. Organic meat is now about 10 per cent of all meat sales,” Mark says.
“The price between organics and conventionally grown food used to be quite big but now pricing is getting much closer.”
The A’Courts run a truly family business. Veronica and Mark run the store with three generations of the family — Veronica’s father always has a welcoming smile for customers and their four children have all been involved in the day-to-day running of the business. While a couple have moved on to other things two are still heavily involved in the store management.
The emphasis on family also extends to the community.
Mark says as a family with deep local roots, they had a real connection to the community and loved supporting it. The store sponsored local organisations to the tune of about $10,000 a year, and supported the Food for Families project, donating fresh food leftovers from the produce department and bakery.
When we talked about the challenges they have faced and changes in the industry a few things really lit up the conversation. Firstly, costs — for a small business it is extremely expensive to keep the store looking fresh and the shelves full of stock. Just imagine your weekly shopping bill and then think about how much stock they have to have so you have lots of choices; it is quite daunting when you think about it.
The second thing A’Court got really animated about was the huge change they have seen in the industry generally. There was a lot more competition, not just from other supermarkets but also from multiple specialty food stores, farmers’ markets and on-line purchasing.
Added to the competition was Nelson’s relatively small population, and modest growth.
“We put a lot of effort into retaining loyal customers, making sure we have everything they want so they don’t need to go anywhere else, it is all about improving our offerings to retain our business and hopefully attract new customers too,” he says.
Another challenge was while costs like energy and labour were rising, prices for everyday shopping items were actually the same or lower than they were several years ago. Shopping bills may be higher because people were choosing to buy higher-value specialty items but basic items were actually falling in price.
“The customer is now well read, well travelled, well You Tubed and with cooking shows on TV the challenge for us is keeping up to date with all the new things people want,” Mark says. “It takes time to get new products into the system before it hits the shelves and we are putting between 20 and 40 new products on the shelves every week, especially in the liquor section.”
He says staff make about 9000 changes each week to things like pricing for promotions that come and go, new stock, changed stock and so on. The store carries about 22,000 different products “so we have to change something on about 40 per cent of our stock each week”.
And the future? Mark says it lies in some sort of online offering. “Still unsure exactly what that will be but we recognise the need to do it and we will use social media even more to engage with our customers using The Grocer brand that reflects me and my personality.”