Wray Brown opened his first grocery store in Yakima. In 1973, nearly two decades later, his son opened a second and roughly 10 years after that, a third. The stores were originally part of the Thriftway chain, but the name was changed to Wray’s Food and Drug in 2004.

Chris Brown, Wray’s grandson, grew up within the store. “My father was 13 when my grandfather opened the first store,” said Chris, president and CEO of Wray’s. “He began sorting bottles and bagging groceries and worked his way up the chain. 

“I did the same thing,” he continued. “I never considered doing anything else.” Immediately upon graduating from high school, Chris enrolled in the food marketing program at Western Michigan University where he earned a BA. 

Today, Chris is in charge of operations at Wray’s, and according to him, the company just began catering to specific customer populations in the last decade. The customer base at the Chalet location is primarily white, wealthy, and middle-aged to elderly. 

The population of customers who frequent the Wray’s in Meadowbrook consists of young, working class families. Wray’s third location, in Southgate, serves a primarily Hispanic customer base. 

Because each store serves a specific demographic, Chris and his team have to pay close attention to customers’ preferences. For example, he sells a wider selection of steak at the Chalet location and a wider selection of hamburger at the Meadowbrook store. And although customers at the Southgate location prefer select beef to choice, such isn’t the case at the other two locations. According to Chris, the meat and grocery departments are where the biggest differences can be seen.

“The average customer at the Southgate location eats hominy,” Chris said. “He also likes to buy masa and make his own tortillas. But this isn’t the case at the other two locations, and we have to pay attention to that when we’re stocking our stores.”

Stocking the stores isn’t the only issue Chris and his team encounter when trying to balance different customer bases; marketing is a constant challenge. The three Wray’s locations share a common weekly ad, so the flyer has to speak to a broad demographic. 

To connect with customers on a more personal level, Chris and his team partner with local radio stations and newspapers. One week, they might promote themselves through a contest where customers can win tickets to a local concert. If the tickets are for a Latin artist, promotion would be heaviest at the Southgate store. For a country music act, Chris and his team would target the Meadowbrook location.   

At its Southgate location, Wray’s prints Spanish advertisements. In the Chalet area, Chris and his team partner with a local newspaper that produces a magazine called From House to Home in which they emphasize Wray’s wine department.

“It’s important to know the neighborhood your store is in and cater to its individual needs,” Chris said. “But you still need to have continuity between your stores. Customers need to be able to recognize the store from afar, and their expectations need to be met once they’re inside.”

Pulling ahead

In the Yakima area, there are 19 grocery stores, so standing out above the rest is a difficult task. To attract and retain customers, Wray’s focuses on providing them with a number of services they don’t receive at other stores. 

Rather than simply being a mail drop for the post office, Wray’s has a postal substation in two of its three stores where customers can pay utility bills, send mail, and wire money orders, among other things. The company is also licensed to accommodate customers who want to renew their license plates. These services are not available in every grocery store, and they help set Wray’s apart from its competition.

In addition to an array of services, Chris and his team strive to provide their customers with personalized face-to-face service. “The type of customer service a young Hispanic man wants is typically very different from the type of customer service a 75-year-old white man wants,” Chris said. “This isn’t always the case, but, generally, it’s an adjustment we’ve had to make.”

In 2007, Chris and his team renovated all three stores, investing in new décor, creating new signage, and re-painting the interiors. The team also bought new POS systems for each store, which helps employees get customers through the check-out lines quicker. 

“The renovations are important because they gave us an updated look and improved our efficiency,” Chris said. “With the state of today’s economy, people are spending less than they have in past years, so retaining our customers is vital.”

According to Chris, in the past six months, the customer count at Wray’s has dropped while the average sales-per-customer has risen. This translates to fewer but bigger supermarket trips. 

“Customers are switching from steak to hamburger and from national brands to private labels,” Chris said. “We saw a considerable amount of price increases earlier this year, but the fuel prices are dropping now, so we’re hoping to see relief toward the beginning of 2009. I am confident that prices will drop soon, and I expect the customer count and average sales-per-customer to regulate when that happens.”

When the economy stabilizes, Chris and his team would like to open a fourth store, although they don’t have any concrete plans in the books. Recently, the city gave Walmart a building permit for a second location, and the new store is being constructed just down the road from one of the Wray’s locations. 

“We would like to expand,” Chris said. “If the right opportunity arises, I’ll jump at it, but we have to be careful, especially in this economy.”