This year, LeBlanc’s Food Stores, a small, grocery store chain outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will be investing in data-tracking software to better manage pricing and inventory at each of the company’s seven stores. For Randy LeBlanc, COO and 3rd generation co-owner of the chain, the new technology is the most significant way the industry has changed since his grandfather opened the first store.
“This is not a complicated business,” he explained. “I often say that I don’t work hard, I work often, because the most important part of this job is being in the stores. We’re incorporating technology like this software to free up my brother and I to do what we love to do, which is work on the floor.”
LeBlanc expects the software to be fully operational by June. The product comes from BR Data, a technology partner of LeBlanc’s Food Stores’ supplier, Associated Grocer. LeBlanc said the biggest change this software will bring is price optimization and price differentiation between locations. He is also hopeful that it will allow his buying team to make smarter decisions concerning not only what new products to bring in, but also what products need to be phased out of the stores.
The new software comes on the heels of seven straight years of expansion for the chain; between 2001 and 2008, LeBlanc’s Food Stores snapped up Winn-Dixie locations as the chain approached and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Today, LeBlanc said, their markets are comprised of independents pitted against Walmart.
“We’ve stayed true to my grandfathers’ philosophy for success: quality products, competitive prices, and great customer service. It’s fueled our success despite Walmart moving into the area,” said LeBlanc. “We aim to use new technology to continue meeting those goals.”
Excellent customer service, LeBlanc concedes, comes from excellent employees, which are unfortunately in short supply. He explained that, since hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, part-time employees are leaving to make quick money in construction. However, the company recently welcomed Brooke LeBlanc-Knight, LeBlanc’s eldest daughter, as the director of corporate communication, and she’s been implementing some novel ideas.
One is to pursue college students at local technical, community, or four-year schools and recent graduates as both part- and full-time employees. LeBlanc’s Food Stores recently implemented an internship program in which part-time student employees, in high school or college, spend the summer in an intensive, full-time position with on-the-job training. LeBlanc said that program, launched in 2005, shows the students what a career at the company would be like.
“We make a lot of first-time hires, teenagers with their first real job, which leaves us with a lot of training to do but with employees who haven’t developed any bad habits,” said LeBlanc. He explained that he is still personally involved in the hiring process because if his name is on the building, he is responsible for the performance of everyone inside.
Another new idea for LeBlanc’s Food Stores is a company newsletter, the first issue of which went out in July. The newsletter will highlight outstanding performance by individual employees, anniversaries with the company, new hires, and new products. The idea is to make everyone at each store feel part of a larger community.
“Attracting and retaining personnel has been and most likely will continue to be our biggest challenge, but now that we have more stores, it is easier to find opportunities for star employees when before, we’d lose them,” LeBlanc said.
In addition to providing excellent service in every store, LeBlanc’s Food Stores fills the unique needs of each community that hosts a location. For example, one town needed a hardware store, so the company franchised an Ace Hardware location at the store. In another town, a store franchised a Quizno’s restaurant to give customers a new place for subs and sandwiches.
LeBlanc’s Food Stores also integrates the latest trends of the grocery industry, like fresh sushi bars, which were installed in three locations last year. And although the company traditionally offers fried food at its delis, LeBlanc’s is moving away from that as its customers ask for healthier options.
This year, LeBlanc hopes to have a new, state-of-the-art Web site up and running. “That will make it much easier for us to get out weekly circulars into more homes, but the site will also have a section to highlight new products, a party center to help customers coordinate purchases for an event, and an online employment application option,” he said.
One investment you won’t find at any LeBlanc’s Food Stores locations is self-checkout machines, which LeBlanc says detract from the experience of buying food from a local grocer, adding, “My employees have names, my customers have names; I want to use them.”
“We might do that at some point in the future, but for us, this business is about serving people,” said LeBlanc. “My main complaint with the retail grocery industry is that the customers don’t demand enough; if they did, that would make us better retailers.”