This family owned and operated chain of retail outlets remains competitive by giving customers what they want: good prices with old-fashioned value. Conventional wisdom would say Pam Coy and her family’s 11 retail operations in rural Reedsburg and Baraboo, Wis. should be struggling just to stay in business. After all, three Super Walmarts have popped up within a 20-mile radius, and that’s seldom good news for local mom-and-pop stores.
But her family’s Viking Village businesses are thriving, even in a tough recession. These stores, including supermarkets, convenience stores, gas stations, a Laundromat, and others, have seen collective sales climb 8% annually in each of the past three years.
The accomplishment hasn’t come easily. Coy, 45, and her kin work at least six days a week. She and her 39-year-old brother, owner Brian Pierce, are constantly visiting stores. As general managers of all 11 stores, they review inventory, look for safety issues, and make sure all employees look neat in their uniforms. Even their father, 68-year-old owner Bill Pierce, will grab a broom or bag groceries when he’s needed.
Hard work, though, doesn’t tell the whole story. Savvy planning has also helped the enterprises prosper since the elder Pierce opened his first store in 1974. The family relies on a combination of old-fashioned customer service, innovative investments, and competitive prices to offer a shopping experience that always gives what Coy calls “the big-box stores” a run for their money.
“Customers say, ‘I know if I talk to you guys about something, you’ll look for it and try to get it for me. But I don’t know who I’d talk to at Walmart,’” Coy said. “You’ve got to capitalize on those things.”
Listening to customers is a virtue in every Viking Village store. It’s something new employees learn to do in a mandatory one-hour training session. Coy often leads these sessions herself. She teaches workers to take notes when customers ask for an unfamiliar item and to ask co-workers if the store might have it somewhere. If the store doesn’t stock it, managers just might order it and make a lot of people happy.
For example: hummingbird feeders. Customers couldn’t find them at competitors’ stores, but now they know where to go. “We sell a ton of them,” Coy said, “and it’s all because employees paid attention to what customers were seeking and not finding.”
Other old-fashioned merchant values haven’t gone out of style in Viking Village operations. Cleanliness is essential. Dress code matters, too. In the family’s two supermarkets, Viking Village Foods in Reedsburg and Viking Express Market in Baraboo, every employee wears a white shirt and tie.
When a customer needs a little extra help with heavy items, a bagger accompanies him or her to the car and loads groceries into the trunks. Customers appreciate such touches, Coy said, in part because they don’t find them elsewhere.
Of course, customers also insist on good value. An innovative store design has helped Viking Village enterprises deliver on this score. The family’s largest supermarket, housed in an 83,000-square-foot building, has aisles that are uncommonly wide at 18 feet. This allows room between the shelves to stack many of the best deals in the store—perhaps a case of juice one week or crackers another week.
At any given time, shoppers can find 80 to 100 items on sale in this “pallet buy” format. Prices on these items are especially competitive with those of any retailer in the area, Coy says, thanks in large measure to strong partnerships with vendors. “With these pallets, we give vendors space to display their products,” Coy said. “They really like that.”
As these businesses have succeeded, Coy and her family haven’t grown complacent. Instead, they’ve been diligent to reinvest. For instance, rewards earned through grocery store purchases can now be redeemed for discounts on fuel at two of the family’s three gasoline stations.
Making this possible required a substantial capital investment to install new gas pumps, for instance, and to set up the electronic technology. But Coy said this new incentive program accounts for much of the sales increase that she observed last year in grocery and gasoline categories.
Coy recognizes that competitors sometimes use rewards cards to track the spending habits of particular customers and then analyze reams of data for insights into what’s apt to sell briskly. But Coy’s family didn’t want to offend their customers by soliciting personal information in an age when people don’t appreciate such solicitation. Instead, they simply give away rewards cards with no questions asked.
“Sometimes all that information generated on reports is great, but you have to find the time to go through all that information, too,” Coy said. “A lot of times I’d rather be down there with the customers, hearing what they like and what they don’t like. You can often learn a lot more that way than from what you get off of a piece of paper.”
The family’s investment efforts often aim at improving the shopping experience. In one store, kids find a replica of a cow, complete with milkable udders. Kids also ride in a fleet of carriages designed with them in mind—that is, to look like fire engines. Even the self-scanning machines installed recently have delivered the benefit of becoming an attraction that gets young people into the store.
“One mom told me, ‘When I used to go shopping, everyone would sit on the couch like a couch potato and no one wanted to go with me,’” Coy said. “‘But now when I ask, they all jump up to go because they love those self checkouts. The kids love scanning the items. It just makes shopping a family event.’”
Looking ahead, Coy hopes to open another grocery store with a gas station in the area in the next few years. And nothing on the horizon suggests any big national retailer will dampen those dreams.
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