Highland Park Market invests in technology and data analytics as e-commerce sales increase

Over the years, Highland Park Market has remained competitive by evolving into a specialty independent grocer, expanding into food services and ready meals, and adapting to other trends like staying open on Sundays and extending daily store opening hours.

But a few years ago, competitive pressures led the chain to dig deeper into its business model and evaluate new strategies to drive sales, said Tim M. Devanney, co-president of Highland Park Market.

Last year, thanks to a deal pending before the pandemic, the market sold its store in Suffield, the franchise’s worst-performing outpost, which now includes three locations in Manchester, Glastonbury and Farmington.

The chain has also reinvested and remodeled its stores in Manchester and Glastonbury, reducing certain food categories like pet food. Nobody wants to carry a 150-pound bag of dog food from a store when it can be easily delivered through online sites like Chewy.com, he said.

Being an independent grocer has become an advantage during the pandemic, Devanney said. Although Highland Park Market experienced supply chain issues early on, like most grocers, it was able to adapt by bypassing traditional grocer suppliers through ongoing relationships with numerous food service providers, who had excess inventory because restaurants were closed.

As a result, the chain was able to supply customers with hard-to-find items, from meats and paper goods to flour.

“We knew we had to release the product,” he said.

Like its industrial sector, Highland Park has seen its revenues increase; the activity increased by 20% in 2020 and the growth has not stopped.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Devanney said.

As independent grocers have seen increased sales since the pandemic began, Devanney said he’s been hearing more confidence from owners about their businesses. Independents who thought it was time to get out and sell are reconsidering, he said.

Before the pandemic, independent grocers nationwide were losing ground, with their market share declining in 44% of U.S. counties between 2005 and 2015, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study. Chain stores dominate sales in most parts of the United States, according to the study.

Soft chain, labor disruption

As Highland Park Market continues to reinvest its higher revenues into improving its operations, the pandemic has been “a disaster”, Devanney said, in terms of labor shortages. The chain has 350 employees, 115 of whom are full-time, and like many companies, experiences a high turnover rate in a tight job market.

“We are constantly interviewing because we know we are going to need people,” he said.

Nationwide, food retailers have hired hundreds of thousands of new workers to handle increased demand for food and other durable goods that has stretched their stores, warehouses and supply chains, Wayne said. Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association.

“As companies adjust their strategies to weather each virus surge, most are already scrambling to modify their work patterns to avoid similar challenges in the future,” Pesce said.

Highland Park, Devanney said, has installed new online technology to handle a huge increase, particularly at the Manchester site, in e-commerce and phone orders as curbside and door-to-door delivery services ramp up continue.

“Before the pandemic, if we had 10 orders a day, it would be heavy. During the pandemic, 100 phone orders a day have become the average,” he said.

While Highland Park has won new customers, the goal now is to keep them, he said. A customer loyalty program was introduced late last year, which proved more valuable given the rise in inflation. Online data analysis also allows the company to identify shopping trends by zip code.

“We’re seeing a lot of price changes across the board and we want to show people why they should stay with us, that we can help you work through that food bill that’s going up every month,” he said.

Pesce said independent grocers will need to continue to adapt to the new normal, which includes inflation, the ongoing supply chain and labor disruptions and adapt to new consumer buying patterns and behaviors. , including their preference for online shopping.

“Leveraging innovation and technology to reach customers and meet that demand will be critical,” Pesce said.