by Mary Margaret Stewart / staff writer
KJ’s Markets began in 2006. One location at a time, the grocer has built 18 stores in Georgia and South Carolina. Operating in two states, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been easier with the help of the Georgia Food Industry Association and the Carolinas Food Industry Council.
“We work very closely with the GFIA and the CFIC to stay abreast of all these rule changes, from how many people can be in the store at one time, to masks – you name it,” said Philip Payment, SVP of center store, e-commerce and special projects. “They’ve been very, very helpful…we were able to, by working with them, keep up and maintain the compliance.”
KJ’s recently started rolling out click-and-collect in its stores, as well as new technology – from scales to front-end systems – in all areas. The grocer is currently testing it in Augusta.
Implementing e-commerce has perhaps been smoother for KJ’s than some other independents thanks to its ownership structure.
Family-owned W. Lee Flowers and Co., previous wholesaler and operator of KJ’s Markets, was purchased in 2019 by Alex Lee, another family-owned company. One of Alex Lee’s retailers, Lowes Foods, is the sister company of KJ’s now, and they’ve been in the e-commerce business for 20 years.
“Lowes saw significant increases in e-commerce sales during the pandemic,” Payment said. “With their expertise…we’ve been able to ramp up e-commerce much quicker and get to a good working model for the consumer because of their expertise.”
E-commerce wasn’t the only area that KJ’s has grown during the pandemic, with guidance from Alex Lee and GFIA.
“The whole Alex Lee organization worked together to help everybody maintain safety, maintain supply of product to the stores and customers, take care of the communities that we serve, and then utilize resources across the whole organization,” Payment said.
“The teams worked together to not only maintain service during this time, but to also grow…since September, we’ve taken over 16 former BI-LO locations…in addition to taking care of our stores for the pandemic…as of Dec. 11, we doubled our KJ’s Markets this year.
“And the relationship that we have with GFIA, and what they’ve helped us with – assisted us with acquiring licenses and permits for these new stores…we really appreciate the partnership…we give them credit for representing our industry and representing the retailer, whether it’s a big group or an independent. They do a great job.”
Between the expertise KJ’s has gleaned from Alex Lee, GFIA and CFIC, Payment thinks that they’re ready for the future.
“I believe the industry is better prepared for the next wave that we may see this winter,” he said. “There still be a strain on certain items that just can’t be manufactured fast enough to meet the significant spikes in demand, but retailers and manufacturers are being more proactive in managing inventory than we all did last spring.
“The holidays have been strong. There have been smaller gatherings, but still an emphasis on eating at home and being with family.”