This year was an extraordinary one for Region grocers, as chains expanded and upgraded stores in the Northwest Indiana market. Consumers happily responded to the attention on all levels.
In September there was the long-anticipated entrance of Whole Foods to the Northwest Indiana market. A crowd gathered outside for the opening of the Schererville store, just south of Main Street on Indianapolis Boulevard eager to check out the retailer's first “dog house,” cold-pressed juices, gelato flavors galore and a non-dairy case of refrigerated soy products.
But Whole Foods was not the only grocery store trying to exceed customer expectations.
Strack & Van Til invested $20 million in capital projects to spruce up its stores in what has become an exceedingly competitive sector. To stay relevant with consumers, the chain, which operates 38 stores in Northwest Indiana and Illinois, is putting a greater emphasis on fresh foods like hand-cut sushi, a seemingly endless salad bar, a wide variety of olives and cheeses, expanded gluten-free and vegan selections and aisles of new lighting and display cases.
Jeff Strack, vice president and chief marketing officer in charge of public relations and consumer relations, said, "Our business, like many in the supermarket industry, are challenged to find new ways to be relevant and find solutions for our customers who want fresh quality foods. Whether it’s standard products or meal solutions, consumers want more information about what they’re buying and where the product’s coming from. There is a growing appetite for more local products being sourced from nearby farms.
"We continue to see the health and wellness aspect and its important impact on consumers. Natural organic items grow at a much faster pacethan the rest of the store and we have to be able to meet that product mix," Strack said.
Strack & Van Til held a grand reopening of its flagship store on Indianapolis Boulevard, but the upgrades have been across the board in every Strack's store. In part, this is a reflection of the company's deep and strong ties to the communities of NWI.
"We realize we are successful because of customers and the communities," Strack said. "My grandfather and Mr. Van Til set an expectation of giving back to communities we serve through organizations and businesses. Our leadership teams are actively involved in numerous organizations and events."
Strack said the grocery chain has increased participation in community events in the last six months.
"We have a senior leadership position for community affairs," he explained. "It's one thing to write a check and it's another thing to be involved."
The company plans to continue raising the bar for every level of shopper in its Ultra and Town and Country stores as well. Selections of fresh, locally produced and organic foods will increase in all 38 stores in 2016. But, as Strack said, the company is very conscientious of being at the forefront of technology and security.
"The way people are purchasing products is going to continue to change. Twenty-five years ago, people paid by checks and we are on our way to being a cashless society," he explained. "The security of our technology is held to very high standards with PCI (data security) compliance. Stores, for shoppers' convenience, have to be able to use technology to help educate consumers on what product lines are available."
Mary Frances Bragiel, communications manager with Jewel-Osco, says that chain continues to remodel and expand all departments in an effort to offer the best value to customers. In November, the Jewel-Osco held three grand reopenings in Dyer, Crown Point and Chesterton, and in mid-December it will reintroduce its Munster store.
"Our meat department will offer meals in a minute, a take and bake program, and a Weekend Catch, which promotes our seafood sales," Braigel said.
Other highlights to appeal to a larger customer base include expansion of the guacamole and salsa sections, a larger section to highlight organic and fresh-cut produce, a juice bar, new bulk bakery display fixtures, a new salad bar and express check stands.
"In Chesterton, customers will have a Starbucks kiosk with outdoor seating," she added.
A rising demand for ALDI in the region is also fueling significant expansion over the next five years. ALDI joins several looking to freshen up its stores after Whole Foods entered the Northwest Indiana market, and plans to open 650 new stores across the country, with the chain currently operating 11 stores in Northwest Indiana.
"By the end of 2015, ALDI will be conducting a major expansion at Northwest Indiana stores," said Matt Thon, Valparaiso division vice president for ALDI. The chain reopened stores with a fresh look in Michigan City and Valparaiso in October and Schererville in November. "This growth will give ALDI the space to offer more fresh offerings," Thon said.
While price is an important draw for ALDI customers, Thon said the only way to attract and keep shoppers is to have quality products. "Many customers try ALDI for the price and come back for the quality," he said. In Northwest Indiana, ALDI sells locally grown produce — a trend customers want in their stores, Thon said.
"We've always had a strong demand for fresh, high-quality groceries," he said. "In Northwest Indiana ALDI stores, we offer nearly 100 varieties of fresh produce — including many organic items and USDA choice beef."
According to Strack, Strack & Van Til stores remain ready for anything. "When you're in this business you can't stand still, whether the competition is traditional or nontraditional."