Pete’s beats the rest on the race to fresh

September 19, 2012  |  Uyen Vu for Profit  |  Comments

Many Canadians know Pete Luckett for his regular segments on CBC’s Midday program, in which he instructed viewers on how to shop for the best food. In the Maritimes, however, where Luckett makes his home, the charismatic Englishman is best known as the owner of Pete’s (formerly Pete’s Frootique), a small chain of specialty grocery stores with three locations in Nova Scotia. In business since 1979, Luckett has been able to go head-to-head with the big grocery store chains and create a regional brand that today is synonymous with quality.

“You have to spin a lot of plates, and spin them all well, to satisfy your customer in the grocery business,” says Luckett.

For serious “foodies,” or anyone looking for a different food-shopping experience, Pete’s stands for fresh produce, the finest meats and cheeses, and top-notch service with a smile. Company CEO Dianne Hamilton describes Pete’s as a celebration of food—”like Pete himself.”

Rob Gerlsbeck, editor of the trade publication Canadian Grocer, says Pete’s was ahead of its time with its strong focus on selling the freshest produce. “A supermarket differentiates itself from its competitors with its fresh section,” says Gerlsbeck. “It starts with fruit and vegetables, but it extends to meat, it extends to cheeses. That’s how Pete’s sets itself apart.”

Being fresher than the rest helped Pete’s establish a solid reputation for quality early on that persists today, but the big grocery chains also are now focused on fresh. Pete’s maintains its edge by stocking items the regular grocery stores don’t carry. Says Gerlsbeck: “The merchandising in an independent store, versus the chain stores, is one of its key competitive advantages.”

Pete’s also combines a focus on fresh with above-average merchandising, says Gerlsbeck. The sumptuous produce displays at Pete’s are set up with care, suggesting each fruit and vegetable has been carefully handled. The circular layout takes customers from one “boutique” to the next, past a gift-basket shop, a gourmet butcher shop and a “Best of Britain” product area, evoking the quaint charm of the market in Nottingham where Luckett first learned the grocery trade. “When you walk into a Pete’s store, you know you’re in a totally different grocery shopping environment,” says Gerlsbeck.

The goal at Pete’s, explains Hamilton, is to get people to talk about their shopping experience after they leave.

When Luckett was the hands-on manager, he often would walk the store, cutting open fruits and vegetables and enticing customers to try a sample. In recent years, however, Luckett has stepped away from the day-to-day running of the business to spend more time at his farm and vineyard, which supplies fresh produce and wine to his stores. In Luckett’s absence, the challenge for Pete’s has been to replicate his ability to connect with customers.

Pete’s does that, says Hamilton, by hiring individuals who share the same interests in things like fine food and cooking as the customers they serve. And hiring people with outgoing personalities—like Pete himself—helps maintain the store’s reputation for friendly customer service.

Luckett still makes regular visits to his stores, even taking time to instruct employees on the proper way to display produce. “I’m still in regular contact with the key players,” says Luckett. “But it’s having confidence in the team that’s allowed me to do what I’m doing and feel like the boat is going in the right direction.”

This story originally appeared in Profit, and is part of its Retail Report: Stores You’ll Adore package.

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