GROCERY: International Foods: World's fair

At Jungle Jim's International Market, owner Jim Bonaminio and his 350 associates make shopping for groceries seem literally like a day at the park -- a massive international theme park, at that. The store's even got an on-site monorail.

What began as a small roadside produce stand has evolved into a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction in the Buckeye State, featuring entertainment and animation, food from around the world, and just plain fun. But the store, now occupying a whopping 300,000-square-foot site in Fairfield, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, is also serious about merchandising, with a broad, unparalleled assortment -- an estimated $7 million worth of inventory -- that can accommodate customers looking for anything from a gallon of milk to a pound of ready-to-grill rattlesnake.

The amusement starts outside, with lifelike giraffes and other jungle creatures in the parking lot. Inside, a candy-apple-red full-size vintage fire truck is suspended above 1,000 varieties of hot sauce. Within minutes, it becomes clear that Jungle Jim's isn't just in the business of selling groceries.

A native of Lorain, Ohio, Bonaminio became an entrepreneur at an early age: While most other 10-year old boys in the neighborhood were going to Little League games, Bonaminio was washing cars owned by busy executives.

After attending college, Bonaminio went into direct sales, saturating his local market with handmade chenille pillows and a variety of purses sold out of the back of a used bread truck. He entered the food business in 1971, opening a roadside produce stand to which locals flocked to buy homegrown fruits and vegetables.

Outgrowing the stand within four years, he bought an adjacent tract of land where he built and operated a small produce market. This was the official beginning of Jungle Jim's International Market, and Bonaminio's legendary food industry career.

King of the Jungle

Supplied by Minneapolis-based Supervalu and nearly 1,000 direct store delivery (DSD) vendors, his Jungle Jim's International Market stocks approximately 120,000 items, and generates sales that far exceed $1 million dollars per week.

Offering products from more than 60 countries, along with 800 brands of beer, over 1,400 types of meats and cheeses -- and, yes, the full line of Campbell's Soups -- makes variety a huge draw for the store. But Bonaminio and his team of empowered associates put into practice every day the philosophy that it's not always what you sell, but how you sell it, that keeps customers coming back.

"It's about making shopping fun and turning the market into a place where people can linger, socialize for as long as they want, and have a great time," notes Bonaminio.

He adds: "Our store is continually changing and evolving. This fall, for example, we'll celebrate the opening of 'Oscar's,' a new 25,000-square-foot event center that can accommodate nearly 800 people." (He named the new facility after his late father, whose middle name was Oscar.)

Jungle Jim's will host a number of high-profile events to launch its opening, including appearances by chef Emeril Lagasse and other famous foodies.

As its name suggests, Jungle Jim's International Market makes an art of sourcing and merchandising a wide variety of ethnic foods, an effort extending to every section of the store. International specialty foods -- also including natural and organic products -- represent 15 percent of total store sales.

The challenge of keeping the initiative fresh rests in the hands of Tom Hann, international foods manager and a member of the Jungle Jim's team since 1992.

"So many factors affect our ability to secure products, including the weather, transportation, country-of-origin labeling regulations on imported items, and more," he notes. "Additionally, bilingual mandates on nutrition and ingredient labels, along with dating on products, play a major role."

Persistence and commitment ultimately win out. Another key is to stay current and flexible to respond to changing trends. Hann notes that the best-selling categories for international foods at Jungle Jim's right now are Hispanic, Italian, and Asian. The company is also experiencing high growth specifically with Indian foods, he says.

Tracing the source

As an obvious aid to its sourcing strategies, the talent pool at Jungle Jim's also includes Ed Carroll, HR and operations manager, who prior to joining Bonaminio's team worked as a sales representative for Romeoville, Ill.-based Kehe Food Distributors, Inc. and was a regional counselor for Supervalu.

Carroll lays out a detailed attack plan for grocers wishing to operate more effective international departments:

--Determine if you have a specific ethnic customer base.

--Secure a reliable company to supply you with international goods. The supplier should provide resources in the areas of product knowledge, setup, and servicing/maintaining the department.

--Refine the procurement process once the department has been established. Based on a retailer's sales volume of their items, some vendors provide for direct buys, which allows for more competitive pricing (up to 25 percent) at retail.

--Constantly ask customers what they would like to see added to their favorite ethnic department.

--Work with your wholesaler to organize focus groups and telemarketing projects. Ask customers what the store can do to make life better for them.

--Understand that adding a large variety of specialty/ethnic foods that command higher retails can make your customers perceive your store as being higher-priced.

--Spend a few days each year walking the streets of Chicago or New York to determine what vendors are selling to various ethnic groups.

--In general, expect an overall gross profit margin of 30 percent for international food departments.

--Demo programs are key. "They taste, they buy," says Carroll, whose in-store demo staff organizes over 20 demos per week.

--Evaluate movement reports: Carroll reports that Jungle Jim's analyzes movement reports at least every 13 weeks. Once a year all zero-movement items are eliminated.

Another secret to Jungle Jim's is being as diverse as its customers. Says Carroll, a Native American: "Having on staff associates who speak different languages, especially Spanish, is a great asset."

Labor figures prominently into Jungle Jim's cost structure, adds Carroll. He says that Jungle Jim's schedules on average 11,000 labor hours per week, and labor costs represent approximately 12.5 percent of total store sales. Total store shrink, on the other hand, is estimated at 1.5 percent to 2 percent.

Bonaminio can more often than not be found where most of those labor hours are being spent, on the selling floor. His office has a door that leads to a small deck, from which he has a bird's-eye view of the floor and the many customers roaming the departments, having fun and spending money.

"Retailing can be a lot like fishing," he says. "Some retailers just sit there waiting for the fish to bite -- or, in other words, for their doors to open. That's just not me. I want to be a hunter. I want to go after the people."
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