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Outstanding Multi-store: Barons Market, Poway, Calif.

Setting your stores apart is a tough business.

“We really had to be very forward thinking in this industry,” says Rachel Shemirani, VP of marketing for the seven-store Barons Market, based in Poway, Calif. “The grocery industry, especially in Southern California, is just so competitive. For us, what makes us stand out is our customer experience. We put a lot of time, energy [into] creating a really exciting and engaging — we call it taste-bud-tempting — customer experience.”

Barons’ customer experience begins with the way the stores, which range from 15,000 to 18,000 square feet — the sweet spot is about 16,000 to 17,000 square feet, notes Shemirani — are arranged so that shoppers have a 10-minute shopping experience.

“People are busier than ever,” she points out. “They love food, they love to shop, but they hate food shopping. It was a real challenge for us to create an experience where they love coming to Barons.”

Part of that is to make sure the selection of products is competitively priced through careful sourcing, and to keep the prices in range with the rest of the market. The product selection also is finely honed, down to about 9,000 SKUs, which helps create a satisfying shopping experience by eliminating some of the choice.

To ensure that the products in the store are the best of what’s available, Barons gathers about 30 managers and buyers to participate in a taste team meeting. About 80 to 120 products are tasted every week to select the best items — about five to 10 items usually make the cut — and if the product is in a category already offered in the store, the potential new item is tested against what’s already on the shelf to ensure that customers are always getting the best product available in the category.

“It’s like a big family Thanksgiving dinner where we eat everything, and then we talk about it,” Shemirani explains. “We get very passionate sometimes.”

Products are evaluated on taste, ingredients — Barons looks for clean labels — packaging and price.

Shemirani explains: “We always ask, ‘How much would you pay for this?’ and also, ‘Would you buy this product again?’ Because you might like something and think, ‘Okay, that was fine and that was fancy, but would I ever buy this again?’”

For new products, the stores automatically begin demoing — demo stations are operated for eight hours a day in the store.

“That’s the best way for someone to learn about the products, is to go in, taste it, but also talk about it with our demo staff,” she notes.

Further, the stores are always looking to add new features to improve the shopping experience; this has included olive oil and balsamic vinegar bars that were put in as novelties, but have ended up providing steady sales that doubled over the holidays, and cookie bars that offer a variety of locally made cookies by the pound. Next year, Barons is looking to add hot-food bars.

Produce is one department that the stores really are known for. Many of the products are sourced from local farms that the grocer buys from directly.

“That’s money-saving; we save on transportation costs because it’s right down the street,” Shemirani says. “Most of these local farms, even though they’re not USDA organic, are pesticide-free and also have great quality.”

Part of the produce program is what she calls “the ugliest. We have the ugliest oranges, but they are so sweet and so good. We have some ugly watermelons, too. We like the uglier, the better. They’re not made with pesticides. We’re pretty proud of our ugly oranges and ugly watermelons.”

An extension of the in-store customer experience is the community at large, which each Barons Market does its best to support. The grocer is opening a new store later this year, and when a location opens, Barons goes into the surrounding area to find out what’s important to that neighborhood, because it’s different in each one.

“Anything we can do to partner with them to help raise money for their organizations,” Shemirani says, “that’s something that’s really important for us.” 

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