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Part 2: Meijer Retailer of the Year Profile


Meijer’s continued strategic expansion, most recently into Wisconsin, and job creation in its financially struggling home state, particularly in downtown Detroit, have given the regional retailer ample platforms on which to grow and learn. So, too, has its ongoing investment in the natural and organic segment, underscored by its stake in the rapidly expanding Fresh Thyme upstart, which is quickly catching fire as a one-to-watch specialty-format grocer.

While there’s no direct connection between Meijer and Fresh Thyme, the established retailer’s major stake in the healthy-lifestyle chain is a natural extension of its studied journey toward continued retail enlightenment, notes Hank. “We are completely separate businesses, with completely separate operations. We see our role as part of an organic experiment to learn, but not to smother, to gain knowledge, but not to stifle creativity.”

In addition to cross-pollinating its retail brain trust with new platforms on which to strategize and stretch, Meijer seeks the most impactful ways to build meaningful connections with stakeholders in the communities where its stores are located.

With an average 450 team members per store, the retailer gets behind community activities while assisting nonprofit organizations through corporate and store donations. In addition to creating strong relationships, the chain offers countless volunteer hours, and abundant financial support, to a host of organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Junior Achievement, the American Red Cross, Children’s Miracle Network, March of Dimes and the American Cancer Society, to name just a few.

Meijer’s support for a wide variety of nonprofits is also evidenced by its donating more than 6 percent of net profit to charity each year and sponsoring hundreds of community events that its customers hold dear.

The hallmark of its grass-roots outreach efforts is its Simply Give program, which since November 2008, has helped neighborhood food pantries keep their shelves stocked. The company’s signature hunger relief program has generated more than $16 million, thanks to the continued generosity and support of Meijer customers, team members and food pantry partners committed to helping feed hungry families. The 2015 spring campaign was the most successful in the program’s history: Customer donations, combined with a contribution from Meijer, pushed the total to more than $1.7 million.

No mention of Meijer’s role in bettering the communities it serves would be complete without a mention of The Meijer Foundation, which was established in 1993 as the Michigan Botanic Garden Foundation. Formed with the single purpose of providing an endowment fund to support the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, including the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden, the foundation now also supports other local recreational causes and charitable efforts. Its legacy is felt most profoundly, however, in Meijer’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., where the 132-acre botanic garden and outdoor sculpture park serve as a first-rate venue for local residents and visitors to further their appreciation of the natural environment and the lively arts.

Intelligent Expansion

“Dynamic and measured” is how Hank describes his company’s growth strategy, “carefully thinking out, market by market, how to continue our expansion.”

Symancyk elaborates: “It really is a customer-first strategy that leads us into whatever our next investment will be. There’s no master plan. We really are looking at how to serve each community that we have the opportunity to be in — one community at a time, one customer at a time.”

If the axiom “slow and steady wins the race” is true, then Meijer appears well poised for victory, especially in its approach to finally entering the Wisconsin market. Preceded by a distribution center just north of the Illinois state line, the retailer opened four stores in suburban Milwaukee this past summer, and has more on the way.

Until this year, geography and its impact on supply chain operations kept Meijer away from America’s Dairyland. “The closest major metropolitan area to where we are, here in Grand Rapids, is Milwaukee; we just have this little lake in between,” Hank says. “We rely on supply chain for the freshest product, so we had to work our way around the lake to get there. Wisconsin has a lot of similarities to Michigan: a lot of medium-sized cities, and a combination of manufacturing and agriculture that makes us feel right at home. Lake Michigan is the only reason we weren’t there a generation ago.”

Despite being confronted with an unusual problem during the Wisconsin grand openings — it was accused of violating Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act, a Depression-era statute meant to prevent retailers from selling goods below cost and undercutting small businesses (which as it turns out, worked in Meijer’s price-impact favor) — Meijer’s four newest stores have been very well received.

“We’ve had the opportunity to build a relationship in that community long before we opened our stores, which I think has probably helped us to think about each store differently,” Symancyk says. “I’m proud of what our team has done, and very grateful that the community has been so welcoming to us.”

The expansion also offered Meijer the opportunity to work more closely with Wisconsin-based suppliers that had already been providing product to the retailer for many years.

“We have a lot of longstanding relationships in terms of being a customer to so many of these great companies,” Symancyk affirms. “The opportunity to actually be able to reciprocate is something that I don’t know that we fully appreciated before we came in. We didn’t necessarily think about what it might mean to some of our partners for them to be able to actually shop our stores.”

Frank Guglielmi, Meijer’s senior director of communications, cites great feedback on social media from transplanted Michiganders now living in Wisconsin, as well as Wisconsinites who shop at Meijer while vacationing in Michigan.

Meijer plans further expansion in Wisconsin, “both building our presence in Milwaukee and also looking at sites in Green Bay and other, smaller cities in the north, down to the Illinois border,” Hank says. “We’re very active in expanding in Wisconsin.” Completely content with its semi-compact six-state footprint, he attests: “We don’t have any grandiose national expansion plans. We will continue to build out between the Appalachians and the Rockies and continue to expand in the heart of the country.”

This is the second in a five-part series on PG's Retailer of the Year profile story on Meijer.

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