This West Virginia grocery store has only 13 stores, but its warehouse operation allows it to compete with much bigger chains. The 13-store Foodfair Markets grocery chain has one advantage that gives it a leg up over other smaller independent grocery store chains. By operating its own warehouse, the chain is able to serve its own stores as well as other independent grocery stores in the Huntington, W. Va. tri-state area.

“When you are buying direct, you can dictate what is going to be in the ads and the discount pricing on the shelves based on your buying opportunities,” said Tim Forth, owner and president. “With the warehouse, buying direct allows us to put products on the shelves at lower prices.”

Foodfair began in Barboursville, W. Va. in 1967 with the purchase of a 4,000-square-foot small-town grocery store. Since that initial purchase, the chain has grown as opportunity has arisen, with the major growth spurt coming after operation of the wholesale warehouse began in 1988.

“What was happening with a lot of the independent retailers was that the next generation did not want to take them over and run them,” Forth said. As the chain has grown, the size of the stores has grown as well.

“Our average store size is about 25,000 square feet,” said Forth. Although the stores are in smaller Appalachian communities, they still face competition from larger retailers like Kroger and Walmart.

In addition to the chain having its own wholesale warehouse, Forth said Foodfair has one other big advantage over its larger competition. “We pride ourselves on our quality perishables; that is where we start and stop,” he said. “You can buy a can of green beans anywhere, but your meat, produce, deli, and bakery is where you put your personal stamp on things.”

Many customers also appreciate shopping in well-stocked, smaller stores. “You don’t have to walk a half-mile to get your shopping done,” said Forth. “Customers can walk in and get the variety they need in a quick and easy environment. Most people still like to shop in a convenient, local, hometown business where they can walk in the door and someone says hello and asks if they can help.”

A tried and true approach

“We’re still pretty basic with what we do with advertising,” said Forth. “We do the traditional weekly flyer where we try to get total market penetration. In some places we use the local newspaper, and in some places we use a direct mail shopper; it all depends on the market.”

Although the Foodfair stores tend to be smaller than the giant chain stores, Forth said the company is constantly looking to update and make the most of the space it has. “We have two store remodels in the plans for this summer, and we’re working on plans to rebuild our Barboursville store. It will be our largest store at 40,000 square feet, and we’re hoping to break ground this summer.”

One of the major goals of any store remodel or rebuild is to increase energy efficiency. “We’re always looking to have a smaller energy footprint, not for global warming so much as for the economic side of it,” Forth said. “A lot of these stores we’ve taken over are older, family-run stores where energy efficiency was not a top priority. A lot of those stores were just pure energy hogs, so we went in there and gutted their cooling equipment.”

The new parallel rack refrigeration units are more energy efficient and have saved the company money. “In one of the older independent stores, we cut the kilowatt hours by 27% just by improving the lighting and the refrigeration,” Forth said. 

Forth said the company will continue to look at adding new stores to the chain. “We’re constantly looking at areas 75 to 100 miles from Huntington, W. Va. for any potential sites,” he said.

Room for employees to grow

When it comes to finding store managers, the first people the company looks at are its current employees. “The inside people always get the first look, whether it’s for a store management or department management position,” Forth said. “All our department managers have goals to achieve, from profit and productivity to distribution. If those managers have assistants who look like they can take over that position or take a position when we build a new store, they always get the first look.”

By being loyal to its hardworking employees, the employees are loyal to the company. “We seldom lose full-time employees,” Forth said.

In addition to fostering a good relationship with its employees, Foodfair fosters strong ties to the communities it serves. “We try to keep a local presence in all our communities,” Forth said. “We try to help the churches, schools, and little league teams, and we try to keep our civic activities targeted to the communities we are in.”

One of the company’s biggest community activities is its annual participation in Cancer Day. During the day, each stores donates 5% of the day’s sales to the local chapter of the American Cancer Society.

The tradition dates back over 40 years, and in addition to the store sales, customers who make a personal donation to the cause have an opportunity to win a prize. Forth said the stores typically raise about $25,000 per year for the American Cancer Society.