In 2016, Reynolds Foodliner converted its store in the southeast Georgia town of Hazlehurst to the Piggly Wiggly Country Fresh banner. As part of the Country Fresh part of the name, the store features expanded fresh departments like meat, produce and deli/bakery.
“We have had a tremendous amount of success in that store,” notes Tom Coogle. “It’s up 40 percent. We’re real excited about that.”
Coogle is VP of Reynolds Foodliner, a company based in Oglethorpe, Georgia, that his dad, Tommy, founded back in 1976 (Tommy is president). So the year the Hazlehurst store was redesigned marked the company’s 40 years in business, and sales rose by 40 percent. What an achievement, and what a way to celebrate.
“It amazed me; I did not expect that kind of a jump,” Coogle says. “You feel like, ‘hey, we’re going to go in and put these things in place and it’s really going to help the store, but we’re looking for 10, 12, 15 percent increases, which is a lot. But 40? It really has blown the doors off of it. We just couldn’t be more excited about that store and its future.”
The biggest expansion is in deli at the Piggly Wiggly Country Fresh, he said.
Large smokers are used to prepare a full range of smoked meat products and other custom items “that are on the smoker all the time,” Coogle said.
The smoked meats are treated like regular inventory items instead of just for lunch or dinner. The store wants people to know “we have this for you at all times,” he said. “So we’re doing a lot of cold-packing those items and getting them ready for grab-and-go to reheat. They’re also on hot tables throughout the store.”
Design-wise, the store has new flooring as well as new lighting and other fixtures that reduce energy use, Tom says.
But, he acknowledges, “A lot of independents are still scared to put LED lights up and maybe put down a laminate floor to reduce your slip-and-falls or take action that some of the bigger guys take.”
He encourages them to allow technology into their stores; it’s actually a good thing.
Other innovation pays off, too
Reynolds Foodliner operates five stores in central and south Georgia—Adel, Oglethorpe, McRae and Valdosta in addition to Hazlehurst.
The Hazlehurst store isn’t the only one where it has diversified its offerings to increase sales.
They decided to put an Ace Hardware inside their Piggly Wiggly cost-plus store in Adel.
“We were struggling with that store and looking for another way to turn some sales, and we put an 8,000-s.f. hardware space in and it has been phenomenal,” Coogle says.
The company was one of the early adopters of the idea of putting a hardware store inside (or adjacent to) a grocery store. Coogle says there were maybe 10 Ace Hardwares in grocery stores when they opened their store; today there are about 125 Ace Hardware stores-within-the-grocery store locations. Reynolds is unusual in that it rings both grocery and hardware through the front end. He had to put his foot down that he was not going to have two different systems, letting it be known that he was willing to walk away from the project if he was forced to do so. He’s glad it worked out.
Putting in hardware has “worked great; people love the store,” he says. “To date, and I hate to say it, I think our hardware side is more successful than the grocery side is in that town. Maybe we’re better hardware guys than we are grocery guys,” he jokes. “Actually, it was a need we filled. It’s just a mainstay now in the town.”
He adds that it’s a “real-deal hardware store” that does a lot of paint and plumbing business with contractors.
In addition to buying their building supplies, they often shop the grocery side as well.
“The marriage of that has been cool because the industrial customer who comes in to get some nuts and bolts and plumbing supplies is now also stopping in and doing things like buying turkeys for their employees, picking up this or that, asking us to do a meal for them, that kind of thing. It’s really a great marriage.”
The company’s newest store—also a cost-plus format—is in Valdosta (open since June 2016), and it also features hardware. Its partner is True Value, so the store is referred to as Piggly Wiggly True Value. Like the Adel store, it has been “very successful,” Tom says.
The company’s other two stores, in Oglethorpe and McRae, are traditional grocery stores, he added.
Refreshes to continue
Reynolds Foodliner has begun a conversion at its Oglethorpe store, its home store, but instead of tackling the project all at once, it will be done more piecemeal, Coogle says.
The Adel store also is in line, this year or next, to get a “fresh” remodel.
While the company has historically backfilled space (only the original store was built from the ground up), “I don’t think that’s our future at all,” Coogle says. “As a matter of fact, we don’t plan to go forward with backfilling space anymore. Whereas 10 years ago you could really go into a building that was in pretty good shape—maybe a Winn-Dixie that got left behind or something—today those opportunities aren’t available.”
He says the stores will likely be smaller format (10,000-12,000-s.f.), fresh-focused stores, since that’s where the growth is.
Reynolds took a look at scan data to see what was moving and what wasn’t. As a result, they’ve cut out “thousands of center store items,” Coogle said.
The flour and cornmeal sections that used to take up 16 feet; they were cut to eight feet, and that may still be too much, he added.
“It’s not necessarily a situation where we’ve been priced out of the business or that there’s a Walmart there; it’s that that item has phased out and people are just not shopping that center store; they’re buying other things.
“We’re going to fit into the future; we’re not going to be dinosaurs.”
He says there are areas in the southern half of Georgia (below Macon) that “have some under-serviced areas where a lot of that would make sense, and it’s definitely something we’re interested in pursuing, and we’re actively pursuing. People are moving out of these towns because they don’t have the amenities they want.”
Coogle does not sugarcoat the realities for independent grocers out in the marketplace, but remains upbeat.
“I’d say in the last five years, quite a few independents, the wind’s just been taken out of them. All of us have tried everything from super-low cost formats and everything else, and the truth is, we’ve blamed ourselves, but the market has changed. Even the leaders in innovation and efficiency are now struggling with same-store sales. What it is is people are looking for different product. I personally think that the independent outlook is not as bleak as people think. You put these guys against the wall and they innovate and they do it quickly.”
Pharmacy Student Tommy Coogle Gets on the Retail Path…and Stays
Tommy Coogle was 19 years old and in pharmacy school when his father called him to let him know there was a general merchandise store in downtown Oglethorpe that was for sale and asked if his son wanted to buy that store.
Tom Coogle, Tommy’s son, relates what happened next.
“Dad thought, ‘Yeah, I could buy the store and it could help me get through school.’ So he buys the store and ends up focusing on the store, which was doing quite well. And then he took the notion that Oglethorpe, Georgia, could use a supermarket. So he went out and borrowed the money and built his first supermarket.”
The store opened in 1976 and had lots and lots of customers, so he went home and told his wife, “We’re going to be rich!” That feeling lasted until about the end of the month, when the bills started coming due.
He went home and told his wife, “Honey, I don’t think we’re going to make it.”
But they did make it, by keeping a tight rein on costs. It was five years before he was able to open a second store. Today, the company, Reynolds Foodliner, has grown to five stores, operated by Tommy as president and Tom as VP. And they are planning to continue growing.
Tom tells The Shelby Report that his dad credits education, through what is now the Georgia Food Industry Association (GFIA), with helping him succeed.
“Continuing ed that was sponsored by the Georgia Grocers Association, now GFIA, he really has always credited those opportunities with teaching him how to be a grocer,” said Tom, who joined his dad in the business in 2001. “He learned it the hard way and did very well.”
Tommy, “a quiet guy who doesn’t like the limelight,” his son says, is a staunch, behind-the-scenes advocate of GFIA and has invested time and energy in helping build up the association.
Like a lot of kids who grew up with parents in the grocery business, Tom tried his hand at other businesses—selling life insurance and vacuum cleaners for about a year—before realizing he wanted to be a grocer.
His wanting to come back into the fold was not met with unbridled enthusiasm.
“I called my dad and told him I wanted to come back into the grocery business. He said I could do that, but I wasn’t going to do it with him and he hung the phone up on me,” Tom says, laughing about it now. “I called the store manager in Oglethorpe and asked him for a job, and he said, ‘I can’t think of anybody better to hire.’ He had a dairy and frozen food manager job open, so he hired me. He gets on the phone and says, ‘Tommy, I hired Tom to do dairy and frozen down here.’ My dad said, ‘Well, he’s your damn problem then.’ Many years later we have become partners, so it’s been good.”
Tommy Coogle today is semi-retired, still coming to the office but nearing the time when he won’t have to worry about making payroll or getting angry when the property taxes come due every year, Tom says.
“I hope he keeps showing up to the office until he can’t walk out the door—that’s my goal for him—but in the very near future he will get on the other side of having to worry about business stuff.”
Of the many things he picked up from his dad, he “taught me to love the people who work for us,” Tom says. “That’s more important than anything else. I think that’s what the independent grocer world brings to this industry more than anything else—sometimes we do things for our people at our own peril. In this world we’re in right now, a little bit of humanity is refreshing. It’s something the independent grocer does. They’re going to look after that cashier, and if Grandma dies, you can go to the funeral.”