ONLINE COLUMN: Independent Standouts

Six years ago, I began researching a book I planned to write about the best, most successful independent retailers in America. As I traveled around the country visiting stores, I asked shoppers and other retailers which stores they thought were the best. As you can imagine, I heard about a lot of stores. But three food stores more than any others repeatedly got the highest praise. They were Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio; A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Zabar’s in New York.

When I first visited Jungle Jim’s, I was completely blown away by the sheer depth and variety of the merchandise selection. On that initial visit, the store was something of a mess, as it was in the middle of a remodeling and expansion project. I learned later that adding on to the store was something that had been done with some frequency over the years.

I’ve been to Jungle Jim’s several times since the latest remodel and expansion, and am always impressed with its size, selection, and innovative ideas used to capture customers’ attention and earn their loyalty. At its current 300,000 square feet, the store is big -- really big. For anyone who’s ever visited Jungle Jim’s, one of the things that stands out most is the amazing variety of foods one can buy, including meats and produce from around the world and the widest selection of packaged foods one can imagine.

Jungle Jim’s also has the best visual features I’ve seen anywhere short of a theme park. Full-size jungle animals stand in a watering hole outside the store, a race car hangs above the entrance, a large boat is docked in the fish department, a full-size fire truck sits on top of the hot sauce display, and other vehicles, including a rickshaw, bicycle and bumper cars, add interest to the various departments. The massive selection of foods from around the world and larger-than-life visual delights make this store a true destination.

The second food store I discovered in my quest to find America’s best independent stores was A Southern Season. If there’s a more elegant, beautifully designed food store anywhere, I haven’t found it. From its humble beginnings as a 600-square-foot coffee roastery, A Southern Season has grown into a full-line gourmet food store with its own kitchens, cooking school, and a massive selection of fine wines and great coffees.

I’ve always enjoyed visiting food stores where sampling adds to the experience. A Southern Season offers samples throughout the store every day. The samples available include several coffees and wines, and various kinds of foods. On my visit, the mushroom soup I tasted was delicious. While I enjoy some kinds of candy, I suspect a true chocolate lover would go crazy wandering around and tasting from the vast selection of fine chocolates offered.

Like many savvy retailers A Southern Season has embraced a multi-channel approach to serving customers who live in other parts of the country. It jam-packs its Web site and catalogs with assorted gift baskets, food selections, and a nice variety of products exclusive to North Carolina and the South.

The third remarkable food store I found was Zabar’s in New York. In the nation’s largest city, you can be sure lots of excellent food stores exist. But none are quite like Zabar’s. With its long history of serving the needs of New Yorkers, Zabar’s provides a truly wonderful, only-in-New York experience. On each of my visits, the store has been absolutely packed with customers choosing from the carefully selected meats, coffees, packaged foods, baked goods and more. In a store with so much customer traffic, the Zabar’s staff quickly, efficiently and knowledgably serves its shoppers.

One of my favorite departments at Zabar’s is the housewares department, located on the second floor. While not large in area or spread out like one might find in a department store, Zabar’s offers a comprehensive selection of small appliances and gadgets sure to satisfy anyone in need of such things.

Zabar’s online offerings allow transplanted New Yorkers to get a taste of home. In fact, one of the things New Yorkers say they miss most when they move away is Zabar’s. And tourists who fall in love with Zabar’s can continue the relationship through the expansive Web site and catalog.

These are just three of the stores profiled in my new book, “Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America.” Whether you’re a retailer or supplier, I think you will enjoy reading this book. And if you find yourself anywhere near any of these stores, you’ll certainly want to take the time to visit.

George Whalin is the president and CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Retail Management Consultants. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read more about “Retail Superstars” at
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