Founded in 1959, Hickman’s IGA is a Missouri chain of family owned, independent grocery stores that is carrying on the traditions of small-town grocers in the face of an ever-more-competitive marketplace. Headquartered in Mexico, Mo., the six-store company is just as proud of its focus on community as it was when it began operations 53 years ago.
Hickman’s IGA is part of the Independent Grocers Alliance, an organization founded in 1926 that helps independent grocers in the United States to remain strong despite growing competition. Hickman’s IGA is part of an IGA network of 5,000 independent grocers worldwide, as there are IGA stores in 46 states and more than 30 countries.
Among the benefits IGA provides to member stores is access to exclusive brands. IGA offers a number of branded products, ranging from ice cream and cheese to juice and sugar. Hickman’s IGA has been part of the alliance since it opened, and it joined a group of 50 Champaign, Ill.-based IGA stores several years ago to help enhance its buying power.
“Being a part of IGA helps us to focus on our communities so we can offer more and give back,” President Jim Hickman says.
Nothing But the Best
Being the best-possible grocery store is how Hickman’s IGA remains competitive in its small town environments. In addition to its Mexico flagship, the company has stores in Bowling Green, Paris, Perry, Vandalia and Winfield.
“Our stores face pretty typical competition, as Walmart is within reach of all of our locations,” Hickman says. “That is our major competitor, but we’ve seen more and more companies getting involved with grocery business in recent years. Pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens and dollar stores compete with us now.”
Hickman says the stores have long been known for the quality of their perishables, including meat, fruits and vegetables. To ensure high-quality products, the company maintains close ties with suppliers.
“Our major supplier is Super Valu,” Hickman says. “They’ve been our wholesale company since the early 1990s, and 60 percent of product comes through them.”
Freedom to Operate
At the store level, a certain degree of autonomy is required so that each store manager can make decisions that tailor the store to the needs of its community. The central office has some universal policies, but it gives a lot of flexibility to each store manager.
“All of our managers have been with us for a long time, and not having too much turnover in that area helps with continuity,” Hickman says.
The company also has fairly low turnover in its frontline staff. The impact of the recession has certainly played a role, but Hickman thinks that doing all hiring at the store level and providing leeway in how each store is run help Hickman’s IGA employees feel a sense of ownership and accountability for the company’s success.
Hickman’s IGA’s efforts to build ties to the small towns it serves extend to advertising and community involvement. The company participates in myriad activities with local chambers of commerce, charitable endeavors and schools.
“We also are growing online, as we have website where we post our weekly flyer,” Hickman says. “We also have an email club of people who receive weekly notices from us, and we’re just getting started with Facebook.”
The company’s six stores range in size from 10,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet. Hickman’s IGA constantly reviews its physical makeup to make sure the stores are fresh and modern, and invests in the latest technology to help the stores operate efficiently.
Hickman says he is fairly happy with the physical footprint of the company. A few years back, the company went through major remodeling projects on all locations. It also built its newest store – the 25,000-square-foot Winfield location – four years ago.
It has no immediate plans to expand its current footprint, but Hickman says the company always has its eyes open for growth opportunities. “Acquisition opportunities are few and far between right now,” he says. “But we certainly haven’t ruled it out, as we’ve had success with acquisition in the past.”
The main focus for Hickman’s IGA in the next few years will be to continue to adjust to an environment where more companies are getting involved in the grocery business. Walmart isn’t going anywhere, nor are the pharmacy and dollar store chains. But based on a successful history of adapting for more than 50 years, it is safe to say that Hickman’s IGA will continue to find ways to maintain and expand its niche in the small towns it calls home.
“There will be challenges in the next few years, as the recession and expansion of businesses selling food has changed the market,” he says. “But we understand that part of our business is keeping up with the competition and staying a step ahead.”