‘We want people to be able to come in and escape all the pressures of life in general’
The Shelby Report of the Southeast caught up with Tim Lowe, head of retail for Alex Lee and president of Lowes Foods, during the recent FMI Midwinter Executive Conference in Orlando, Florida.
Lowe provided an update on Lowes Foods and KJ’s Market IGA. North Carolina-based Lowes has 81 stores serving the Carolinas and Virginia, while KJ’s operates 32 markets in South Carolina and Georgia.
He said the company is “reinventing the brand” at KJ’s and is focused on keeping it “very unique and differentiated” and not trying to create a mini version of Lowes.
“We’re going to create a very strong brand that works in more of our rural marketplaces and that is as differentiated as Lowes is in the markets we serve,” Lowe said. “It’ll be a different set of offerings.”
The company is finishing up the initial brand work and will start to remodel the first store in March or April.
Lowe said the goal is to bring the community back to the table. At KJ’s IGA, the aim is to “create smiles” and provide a place of “escape.”
The communities served by KJ’s are meat-centric, and Lowe said the company will be “leaning very heavily into differentiation around our meat side of the business.” It also will be focusing on prepared food offerings, as in some of the communities KJ’s serves it often is one of a few – if not the only – options for hot food.
“[We want to] give a better, healthier alternative for hot meal occasions,” he said.
New concept store
In February 2022, Lowes Foods opened its smaller-format, new concept store in Huntersville, North Carolina. According to Lowe, the intention with the Huntersville store was to take a small concept and “lean into it in a differentiated way.”
He said the store has a heavy focus on prepared food. It offers cook-to-order options, and its menu has a variety of foods, including a breakfast salad topped with a fried egg, chicken and waffles and various bowls – “basically, most anything you can think about from the fresh prepared side.”
A mezzanine offers seating overlooking the store. Live entertainment also is featured there, along with planned events such as floral arranging classes and beer and wine tastings.
The entrance to the store leads with the bakery, instead of produce, which is on the opposite side. Lowe described the bakery as “absolutely phenomenal,” adding that the aroma from the baked goods “hits you in the face” when entering the store. After the bakery, customers enter the prepared foods area, then the Smokehouse and deli.
The Beer Den features local craft beers by the glass or in growlers to go. There also are areas for wine and coffee. The store has a full assortment of fresh throughout, said Lowe, adding that the center store has a “fantastic variety.”
The 29,000-square-foot store also offers a frictionless experience, where customers can order online or place orders and pay for various offerings from one location. Although a smaller format with a smaller number of SKUs available, Lowe said customers can “do a full shop” at the store.
It was designed to be a community hub and to offer customers entertainment.
“Our goal at Lowes is to be an entertainment company that intersects with people around food. Notice I didn’t say around grocery, but around food,” said Lowe, emphasizing the importance of the prepared food aspect. “We want people to be able to come in and escape all the pressures of life in general.”
When thinking about the consumer, Lowe said the company realizes that “everybody’s pretty much time starved. And everybody needs to buy groceries. So why not be able to go through and intersect?”
Couples can come in for a date night at the store. They can sit down and eat, drink beer or wine and hang out.
“They do the grocery shopping and head home – two birds with one stone,” Lowe said. “We even have different kinds of what I call miniature tribes of people that come and meet on a regular basis at our store. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The Huntersville store is “a bit of a lab environment,” where the company can test and learn. Lowe said it is important, company-wide, to keep the value proposition for the consumer “right” in this inflationary environment. “We want to put the consumer first.”
Lowes Foods also wants to allow its customers to get back to experiences, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For us, our brain is built on experiences,” Lowe said. “For two-and-a-half years, we had to lock all that down because we weren’t allowed to do it, for all good reasons. Now, it’s rejuvenated.”
To focus on providing experiences for its customers, the company has hired thousands of “hosts” to help with that process. Since many of them have never experienced the Lowes brand, the company has launched a three-pillared objective.
One pillar is “selling culture,” which Lowe said is really about teaching the basic fundamentals of how to sell, the proper way to do samplings and the proper way to have experiences in the store, such as beer and wine pairings or a floral arrangement class.
“It’s bringing the experiential element back, but it’s also personal interaction…we want to give good, friendly service with a great experience.”
The second pillar is removing friction, which he described as “anything that gets in the way of the consumer being able to achieve what they want to achieve when they’re in our store.”
The third pillar is basic operational excellence, “which is our SOP processes,” Lowe said. “All this is tied together. Because if you have great foundational SOP processes, then that enables so much more to occur. If I have a great shopping experience in your store, but I get to your register and your operational process is broken at your register, it doesn’t matter how great things were in the store.”
The company is constantly challenging itself. “We know we have work to do. We’ve come a long way on our journey, but we have a long way to go,” Lowe said.
It also is focused on creating a great work environment for employees. “That’s one that will always be a priority for me…if you’re not focused on creating a great environment for your folks to work in, then how are they going to create a great environment for your communities to shop in?”