Founded in Mount Pleasant, Mich., in 1977 by Richard Woodrick, Ric’s Food Center has expanded by acquisitions to four locations. Now, under the management of President Andy Woodrick, the founder’s son, Ric’s has built a new location from scratch in Rockford, Mich.

The new store retains the aspects of Ric’s Food Center that have kept the business healthy for more than 35 years. “We have full perishables, a full bakery, a deli, a quality meat department and a quality produce department,” Woodrick says. “So it was really an aesthetic difference that we were able to achieve. It’s a very attractive store. It presents itself fairly high-end in the presentation, whereas our other stores were existing facilities.”

The stores Ric’s acquired have typical 11-foot dropped ceilings. “In the new store, they’re 20-foot open ceilings,” Woodrick explains. “We have a stained concrete floor that’s very attractive and a very nice decor package that we put in there. So we were able to achieve a different feel and look in the store.”

Woodrick characterizes all Ric’s Food Centers as featuring a high level of customer service. “We have friendly employees that are knowledgeable about the business and give the customer a comfortable atmosphere to shop in,” he says. “That’s true of all our stores, not just the new store.”

The stores Ric’s acquired – in Hemlock, Interlochen and Ithaca, Mich. – were ones whose owners wanted to leave the grocery business. “We’ve been able to turn that around,” Woodrick declares. “In every case, they were distressed operations. We were able to identify as we looked at them why possibly they were distressed and were able to go in and change the store. It’s a slow process when you do that. You’re in for a few years of improving sales and improving margins.”

Presenting a Fresh Image

Ric’s made as many changes in the acquired stores as were feasible. “In every case, we would change the department layout in the stores,” Woodrick recalls. “We moved bread to the early part of the shopping pattern to try to present a fresh image. We didn’t have the layout in the stores to accommodate an early produce department, which is very typical these days. These are just older, conventional stores, and we obviously had budgets.”

With limited budgets, Woodrick says Ric’s made some simple changes that nonetheless signaled to shoppers that the stores were under new management that cared about their shopping experience. “We would put as much fresh produce early in the shopping pattern as we could,” he recalls. “We removed shelving and fixtures to expand produce and make those departments as large as possible.”

Ric’s provides intensive customer service training for all employees to foster the friendly atmosphere for which the chain is known, but some of the employees acquired from the previous companies might have been responsible in part for their declines. “Almost all the time, there were big problems with the employee base,” Woodrick concedes. “We have very little turnover today, but as we acquired these existing operations, there was turnover that occurred during the first years.”

 Nevertheless, the commitment Ric’s made to its acquired food centers eventually prevailed. “We were successful in all those areas, and so the customer responded,” Woodrick concludes.

Most Valuable Asset

Woodrick attributes the stores’ success to his employees. “There’s no question about it that the associates we have in our stores are the reason for our success,” he emphasizes. “With that as the base, we’ve been successful in providing very good meat departments and being strong in our markets, but without the service and the people, you’re unable to do that.”

Ric’s Food Center relies so much on employees and customer service that the bottle return areas are staffed by people instead of machines. Like many states, Michigan returns 10 cents customers paid at purchase for every returned bottle of carbonated beverages. “Just about every supermarket jumped into these reverse vending machines, where the customer comes in and puts their bottles and cans into the machine and gets a receipt for it,” Woodrick remembers. “We stayed away from those. We decided to maintain manual return of returnable containers.”

A counter was built in the back of Ric’s stores that employees staffed for customers to return bottles and cans. “They were trying to reduce labor costs with these machines, and we saw that as an advantage to have another point of contact of the customer with a person,” Woodrick emphasizes. “Every point of contact we can have with a customer is giving us an opportunity to make a good impression. We take back and return far more containers than we sell in all our stores.”

The state of Michigan shares some of the revenue it generates from returned bottles with participating stores. But even though this does not cover Ric’s costs of running the return counters, Woodrick chalks the expense up to customer service.

Promotional Events

Another factor in the success of Ric’s Food Center is its promotional campaigns, such as A Taste of Ric’s, which customers enjoy.

“We invite our vendors to participate with us and set up demonstration booths around the store,” Woodrick explains. “We may have 20 to 30 of them set up. That’s gone over very well. The vendors put a big effort into it; they see it is paying off for them, so we get great participation in that event.”

A Taste of Ric’s is held three times annually, with the largest one at Christmastime. The stores also hold a “secret” sale on a different day each month. “We put out six or eight of our strongest items,” Woodrick explains. “We’ll announce those in our ad, so it’s kind of a wink-wink thing. It’s not a total secret, but then we make this as festive of an atmosphere as we can. It gives us a great lift. We track sales the day before, the day of and the day after the sale, and we look at those days from a year ago. The secret sale days provide some very strong sales lift.”

Other promotional events include carriage rides, petting zoos and madrigal singers for the holidays. “We try to have as much entertainment and activity as we can muster up for the customers,” Woodrick notes.

Relying on Affiliated Foods Midwest for delivery to his stores in central Michigan – several of which are up to 100 miles from each other – Woodrick thinks the stores’ locations aid their success, too. “Our locations are central to the marketplaces that we serve, so they’re very convenient,” he says.