Gene Lawrence began his grocery career on a bicycle. Back in the early 1960s, he delivered groceries to people’s homes when he worked for an independent grocer in Montgomery, Alabama.
About 1964, he went to work for Hudson-Thompson wholesale grocers there in Montgomery. He worked in produce, stocking and checking, and they trained him in what he refers to as “bookwork.”
In 1967, Lawrence and his father-in-law bought a store in Tallassee. That’s 50 years ago now. His father-in-law passed away several years ago, and the family legacy now is in the hands of Gene’s son, David. The Lawrences operate two Super Foods stores. Both are located in Tallassee, but they are in two different counties: Tallapoosa and Elmore.
Tallassee boasts a population of about 5,000 people, but the two stores draw grocery shoppers from the surrounding area east of Montgomery—from Wetumpka and Eclectic, up to Alexander City and Dadeville, and back around to Auburn and Tuskegee. Some shoppers drive as many as 30 miles to shop at the cost-plus stores. The pricing of goods at cost on the shelf and then adding 10 percent at the register helps Super Foods compete with Walmart.
“That’s our main competitor now,” Lawrence said.
At one time, there were about 30 independent grocers in the area. Lawrence is the last.
“Right now the only two left are the Walmart and myself,” Lawrence said. “We’re still here going. The Lord’s blessed us.”
What has kept Lawrence in business is flexibility and some fun, too. Over the years, shoppers have enjoyed S&H Green Stamps, a game called Cash and Flash, a bonus refund program and other promotions. Lawrence used to host a pancake supper at a previous location, but the local fire marshal was concerned about so many people gathering in the store.
“When it got to that point, we felt like we were probably doing more harm than good, so we cut those out just a few years ago,” Lawrence said. “We’ve done everything from the truckload meat sales on the parking lots, dances and concerts out on our parking lots, the moonlight madness sales and all that.”
The week The Shelby Report got hold of Lawrence, there were hot dog wagons on the parking lot.
“Enjoy it. That’s the thing to do,” Lawrence said. “You live with your customers. They know you. They go to your church and you’re part of the civic groups with them. We’ve served in a lot of different capacities, from serving as president of the chamber of commerce to sitting on the local development board.”
Right now, Lawrence is part of a community effort to save a theater that closed in the late 1960s. Movies will come back and the renovated facility also will be used for local programs, plays and more.
“You have to be a part of your community. Be it your churches, be it your civic organizations,” Lawrence said. “I’ve been with several of those, serving as president in some of the clubs. I’ve been secretary for some of the clubs. One, the Masonic Lodge, I was the secretary of that for almost 20 years.”
It is so necessary to serve the people and the community. The local grocer has got to be involved, according to Lawrence.
“That’s what makes success of a store, is being a part of everything,” he said. “I’m thankful for good, supportive customers. That friendship that grows between you and your custo
mers is just something that’s real important.”
Co-op model helps stores succeed
Lawrence praised Associated Grocers of the South for helping his stores succeed. He appreciates the co-op model.
“When we purchased the store in 1967, it was back when Hudson-Thompson owned the store and they started to franchise,” Lawrence said. “At that time you purchased your stuff through them, they had lease agreements and different things, which had you tied to them.”
But a co-op like Associated Grocers of the South gives grocers more flexibility. It also focuses on offering better prices for grocery shoppers.
“The pricing is one thing to make sure that you’re able to stay competitive,” Lawrence said. “You know if that helps because you’re part of that warehouse, you’re part owner of that warehouse. That way, you’re able to not only serve there—I serve on the board of Associated Grocers—but it gives a good price point for you at your store level to make sure you stay competitive with the ones around you.”
Trends and old fashioned service
Amazon has made purchasing everything from abacuses to zippers a cinch. Walmart is getting into that game too as the two retail giants do battle over online shoppers.
“The reality is the customer will buy stuff from them, there’s no question about that,” Lawrence said. “But there’s still a need for that local store, for someone to come in there and get a can of peas and not have to wait until tomorrow or whenever to get it.”
Lawrence’s stores also offer something Amazon and Walmart can’t put online.
“One of the things we pride ourselves is we still have the meat cutters. We cut our own meat here,” he said. “A lot of the bigger chains have gotten to where they’re actually bringing it in pre-cut and putting it into the case. I like the scenario where you’re looking at a good piece of meat right in front of you there.”
Lawrence will use what got him this far to keep his business alive and thriving for the next generation: flexibility. For example, many independents now offer curbside service and home delivery. That isn’t practical just yet for Super Foods. Lawrence said grocers he’s talked to say there is a limited number of people who actually use the service.
“But that might change over time,” Lawrence said. “Being an independent, you have that flexibility to move when you need to.”