When shoppers make decisions about where to buy groceries, they are confronted with different options, even in rural areas. For a small, independent operation like County Fair Food Stores to prosper against the competition, there needs to be a compelling competitive difference. According to Vice President of Operations Jim Stewart, County Fair Food Stores has staked its past, present and future on providing better service than the rest.

“We have weekly manager meetings and regular total store meetings to convey the importance of the service message,” Stewart says. “We have carry-out service, and we walk people to where items are when they have questions. We custom-cut meats, and we try to get products in based on requests from our customers. Those are the things that make us different as far as service is concerned.”

County Fair Food Stores traces its existence back to 1940 and the creation of Jim’s Foods by James and Myrtle Clarke. Today, the company’s founding family owns and operates 15 food stores in Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Iowa. There are three full-service County Fair Food Stores in South Dakota and one in Minnesota. The company also has a food and fuel convenience location in Mitchell, S.D. In all, County Fair Food Stores employs around 350 associates.

Enhanced Experience

During the past decade, County Fair Food Stores has regularly looked for different ways to expand and improve the company’s footprint. In 2003, it expanded its flagship location in Mitchell, S.D., to 38,000 square feet and added a fourth County Fair Food Store to its portfolio in Marshall, Minn. In 2006, County Fair Food Stores added the County Fair Food and Fuel location in Mitchell. Improvements to the company and its stores continue today.

In fact, the company announced an extensive expansion and renovation to the store and County Fair Plaza in Mitchell. The project includes renovations to the exterior storefront, the entire plaza and within the County Fair Food Stor. The company will also improve the facility’s energy efficiency while increasing the store’s square footage. These moves will allow the company to expand product options and services, and bring in additional associates.

Last August, the company announced that Lewis Drug would be part of the remodeling effort and begin providing pharmacy services at County Fair, including drive-thru service. Established in 1942, Lewis Drug has 33 stores throughout South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

In January, County Fair also revealed that Caribou Coffee would join County Fair in Mitchell. Caribou Coffee is a 21-year-old Minneapolis-based company that has almost 500 company-owned locations in 16 states and the District of Columbia, as well as several international locations.

“We’re giving the Mitchell store a modern look that includes attractive landscaping in the parking lot, adding the pharmacy, a cheese island, fresh fish, and doubling the size of the deli space,” Stewart says. “We’re gaining 11,000 square feet, so the store will grow to 49,000 square feet.”

Not all of County Fair’s improvement plans are focused on the Mitchell store. The company plans to build a replacement facility for its store in Dell Rapids, S.D.

Above and Beyond

In addition to in-store service, County Fair Food Stores has several other strengths that help it compete successfully. One is the company’s connection to the Affiliated Foods Midwest retailers’ cooperative. Stewart says Affiliated Foods Midwest runs an attractive temporary price reduction program on many top-selling items that allows County Fair Food Stores to bring in competitive items at competitive prices, at the right times of the year and for extended time periods.

“That helps create a low-price image for us,” Stewart says. “We are aggressive on price, and we run an aggressive advertising program. We check prices against competitors to be sure we’re competitively priced. And we try to manage our expenses, understanding that each town is a little different, while focusing on what we can control.”

County Fair Food Stores also works to weave itself into the fabric of the communities it calls home. Ownership and management sit on various community boards and are involved in many different fundraising efforts. Some of the organizations County Fair Food Stores supports include United Way, Grocer’s Fight Cancer and Junior Achievement. It also sponsors youth sports and contributes to scholarships for young County Fair associates.

Although the company doesn’t have any current plans to expand its number of locations, all options are on the table when it comes to future expansion opportunities. Right now, County Fair Food Stores is focused on getting its current store improvement projects wrapped up. Those investments should provide the company with plenty of opportunities for growth in the years ahead.

The most important element is to drive growth while maintaining the ability to make local decisions that are tailored to each individual community. Stewart believes this flexibility gives County Fair Food Stores an advantage over the large, corporate stores. The company must always be aware of what its competition is doing in terms of pricing and product selection. It must also reward employees for performance to help build camaraderie.

“We empower our management team to take their departments out for dinner or hand out gift cards when the stores do well and their people go extra mile,” Stewart says. “They do the work and should be rewarded.”

In the end, it is the people and service that define the identity of County Fair Food Stores. They are what keep shoppers coming back time and time again. As long as County fair Food Stores continues to embrace its independence, the company will continue to compete well against the big boys.

“We believe in independence, community involvement and quality of service,” Stewart says. “Service is the highlight of our operation and our competitive advantage. We have many long-term associates, we bring in high-quality products and we believe in clean stores and friendly service. Those are the attributes that help us stand out.”