When it comes to customers and their grocery stores, favorites no longer apply. Because of the wave of multi-state retailers, customers no longer see grocery stores as the friendly neighborhood location, despite the fact that some of them actually still are. The disconnection between customers and brands has created a competitive market in which grocery store operators know that every patron is fair game.
“Competition is very tough,” explains Justin Hiller, vice president and third-generation owner of Hiller’s Market. He has been in the family business for a number of years in several departments.
“Kroger’s is our No. 1 competition and they invest heavily in Michigan, and there are tons of other small independents that are well-run,” he says. “The increased competition has changed customer habits. There’s a lot less brand loyalty now so customers are more comfortable with shopping in multiple locations. Whereas baby boomers had their favorite grocery store, millennials and generation X or Y are comfortable with shopping five different stores to get specific items from each location.”
Hiller’s strategy is simply to have everything the customer needs, and that’s been its strategy since the Michigan-based full-service grocery chain entered the market in 1951.Justin Hiller’s grandfather, Sidney Hiller, was a butcher by trade and opened his first market in Berkeley, Mich. It remains the company’s oldest and smallest location and was followed by a second in Oak Park, Mich., and a third in West Bloomfield, Mich. When Jim Hiller, second-generation owner and Justin Hiller’s father stepped in, he set his sights on expanding the business. Today, Hiller’s operates seven Michigan-based grocery stores with an eighth location set to open in Lyon Township.
The 50,000-square-foot location will have all that customers expect at Hiller’s – a high-quality meat department with fresh hanging beef butchered fresh that morning, and a sea and stream department teeming with wild shrimp from the Gulf of New Mexico, New Brunswick salmon farmed in open waters, Maine scallops, whitefish, pickerel and trout from the Great Lakes.
Custom cakes, artisan breads, pies, muffins and baguettes will roll out freshly baked and the store will have a thorough selection of wine, beer and liquor appropriate for any occasion. But its newest store will also go beyond the traditional to become a social gathering place for the community.
“We have a full liquor license and there will be a small bar inside the store so customers can get a glass of wine and shop,” Justin Hiller explains. “We will have a demo kitchen for cooking demos, food pairing events and maybe even host some singles mixers and different types of foodie and beverage events.”
The store will also engage students, staff and faculty at the nearby high school with a heavy focus on prepared foods, grab-and-go and convenient packaged items. A salad bar, Mediterranean bar and olive bar will offer customers a convenient and healthy alternative to fast food.
As a smaller local chain competing against national names, Hiller’s has found success in giving customers something different, a concept that started with its founder. The first Hiller’s grocery store became known for its specialty items. If a customer went to a restaurant and ordered a unique item they couldn’t find anywhere else, Hiller’s would bring it in. Or if a certain food from a customer’s home country was a hard find, Hiller’s would import it.
It’s something the chain still does. A comprehensive Asian foods section caters to its large Japanese and Chinese customer base. Hiller’s also maintains a section of British foods for customers from the U.K. Justin Hiller explains that instead of making the customers fit into the aisles, Hiller’s expands its aisles to accommodate its customers.
“One of the reasons people come to Hiller’s is because we cater to lifestyles,” Justin Hiller explains. “We do a very good job of making the customer’s shopping experience easier. We tag the stores really well and ID items that are low-salt, made in Michigan, natural, organic, nut-free and gluten-free. All of those items have signage throughout the store so that customers can make better decisions about how to live those lifestyles. People like coming here because they can shop the tag.”
Another one of those lifestyles is the farm-to-table movement that Justin Hiller says is being led by the 25-to-32-year-olds of the world and beginning to reach over and under that age group. After listening to medical and media professionals spread information about the woes of processed food, Hiller’s market is seeing customers seek more wholesome lifestyles. In a way, however, those customers are simply catching up to Hiller’s, which has always focused on bringing in high-quality foods from known sources.
“Customers really want to know the life of that product prior to it arriving at Hiller’s,” Justin Hiller explains. “We have always bought local and in the 60-plus years we’ve been around, we have never been in a meat recall, which is pretty impressive. We know our product because we picked it that morning and because we buy product from farmer’s markets. We really understand the origin of our products.”