May 2017 Store of the Month: Unlimited Express
Where can you get fresh produce, fried chicken, craft beer and a fishing license?
For folks in the East Texas community of Grapeland, finding all of that meant driving many miles and stopping at more than one location. That is, until they got a Brookshire Brothers Express store in their town.
This 16,000-square-foot store is compact yet chock full of everything local shoppers want most — many of the things you’d find in a much larger grocery store.
The Express format is just one of the ways Lufkin, Texas-based Brookshire Brothers has addressed the specific needs of the communities it serves.
“The inspiration for this store concept has its roots in the small-store formats that we have operated for the last 20 years,” says John Alston, who ascended to president and CEO of the employee-owned retailer in May after a stint as its COO. “It’s long been a mission of ours to serve the small communities in our operating area. To this end, we have developed several formats through the years tailored to meet the unique needs of these communities. Our Grapeland store is our latest interpretation of this solution.”
Brookshire Brothers made sure it was delivering exactly what this rural Houston County community, a two-hour drive southeast of Dallas, wanted when carefully planning how to allot the limited space within the store.
“We have a fundamental belief that it’s our mandate to design and select unique item assortments that our customers want,” Alston asserts. “As word circulated in Grapeland that we were going to build a store there, we had numerous requests to include a pharmacy. In fact, a stack of hundreds of letters was personally delivered to me reiterating that request. We listened, included a pharmacy in the design, and it’s off to a great start.”
The full-service pharmacy, the first for an Express store, features a drive-up window as well as an immunization room and a LifeClinic self-service health station.
Customers needing to do more than just pick up a prescription are greeted outside the store by a selection of locally made wooden outdoor furniture for sale, as well as deer feeders for hunting season.
Just inside the front entrance is a display aimed at outdoor cooks, with charcoal, grills and coolers merchandised alongside corn, potatoes, onions and lemons. A little further in, there are fishing tackle and hunting license applications.
The market includes a compact produce section featuring fresh-cut fruit and vegetables, case-ready meats cut and wrapped on site, deli and prepared foods, craft beers, and core grocery items, with many local products showcased in all departments.
Alston describes the store as a “blend of two formats” — grocery and convenience store, with key features of each to best serve local needs. For example, there’s an emphasis on beverages, particularly coffee. Also, the front end features a c-store-type set, with beverages and tobacco products clustered around the checkstands.
“During the week, it’ll lean toward convenience,” Alston explains. “We get a good lunch representation. Evenings, people are looking for easy meal solutions. It varies a lot by day and time.”
Another strength is prepared foods, with a deli offering sandwiches and hot foods such as Brookshire Brothers’ “famous” fried chicken, along with daily lunch specials, as well as a full breakfast served daily until 10:30 a.m.
“We do a lot of fresh prepared here,” Alston says. “We make our own salads and sandwiches, with an emphasis on fresh.” (On the day of PG’s visit, chicken enchiladas were the day’s special — and quite delicious.)
But the fried chicken — hand-battered and double-breaded — is a particular point of pride. “It’s not uncommon on a Sunday to get 300-piece orders,” Alston says.
Cut fruit is prepared in house for grab-and-go items. And though there’s no full-service butcher shop, meat sold here is cut at the store. “We have a butcher on premises,” Alston notes. “Our meat department is a signature strength of our company, and we wanted to stay true to that.”
The store’s meat case also includes local items like sausage by Renfro in Lufkin, where the retailer has its headquarters, as well as value-added meats made with the locally popular TexJay seasoning. Store-brand smoked sausage carries the 1921 brand, honoring the year Brookshire Brothers was founded.
Additionally, craft beer is “a growing category for us,” according to Luke Gustafson, director of retail operations. “We’re having a lot of success with that in the Express format.”
“We make sure to carry product specific region,” notes Alston. “We looked at customer movement overall and picked the best of the best, and continually review the performance.”
All of the products are showcased amid a motif designed by an Austin, Texas-based agency that developed a new branding image for Brookshire Brothers’ larger stores; Alston says that image has translated well to the Express stores. “We were able to take that down for the smaller format, an industrial, vintage feel,” he says of the store’s rustic graphic treatments.
To be sure, the community’s needs are foremost on the minds of the team at Brookshire Brothers, in part stemming from the company’s employee ownership and local ties to the area.
Case in point: Billy Harrington, manager of the Grapeland store, is a 21-year company veteran who grew up 8 miles from this store, started as a bagger at age 16 and has worked at stores in several towns throughout East Texas. According to Sally Alvis, senior director of marketing and public relations, “He was the natural choice to run this store.”
For Harrington, it’s all about the “family feel formed on family and community. I really appreciate that.” In fact, the retailer’s latest TV spots feature employees telling their stories of working in the community, centered on the theme of “shopping with someone you know.”
Alston adds: “It’s common to have people with 20, 30, 40, even 50 years with us. The employee ownership really plays into it. If we’re successful, it benefits all of us.”
Brookshire Brothers isn’t shy about its community outreach, especially in this rural food desert that’s home to many impoverished families. The retailer offers Brown Bags of Hope, sacks of grocery staples that shoppers can purchase to be distributed to those in need. Local police often carry the bags in their cars to hand out along their beats as needed, Harrington notes.
In addition, the retailer provides bags of school supplies and toiletries for distribution at local schools. “Customers purchase these bags, but we make sure they get to the pantries, the churches, the school counselors,” Alvis says. ‘We give our customers the vehicle to do good things.”
Outpouring of Support
Brookshire Brothers evaluates its formats to monitor how shoppers are responding to the individualized item assortments of each store. So far, the retailer feels that its Express stores give it a competitive edge.
“Our category managers monitor overall category and specific item movement to ensure that the right variety has been selected for each particular location,” Alston explains. “We feel that for the niche markets we serve, this format is positioned well as a viable alternative to traditional convenience and limited-variety discount operators.”
As such, the format is an important part of the company’s diverse offerings. “We view our Express format as a complement to our overall growth plan,” Alston says. “As we expand our geographic footprint as a whole, the Express format, and the flexibility it provides, gives us the ability to meet the needs of the evolving Texas and Louisiana market areas.”
The Grapeland project has been warmly embraced from the start. “The community put up their own sign on the property,” to announce the store’s arrival, Alvis recounts. “Before we had the groundbreaking, someone came out and mowed. I think the whole town came out” for the ceremony, and one person even brought a cake.
“The most rewarding part of our project in Grapeland to this point has been the outpouring of support we have received since we announced our plans to build,” Alston says. “We’ve received a great response from the community, and we’re very pleased with our results.”