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The independents: Longo's Anthony Longo

In a new Q&A series, we talk to indie leaders about resilience, evolving consumers and standing out from the crowd
Longo's president and CEO Anthony Longo.

Independent grocers might not have all of the advantages of the national giants, but through their connection to community, relationships with customers, and staying focused on what makes them special, they compete with the big chains on their own terms.

Canadian Grocer recently caught up with five indie grocers from across the country: Darrell Jones of Save-On-Foods, Gary Sorenson of Georgia Main Food Group, Giancarlo Trimarchi of Vince’s Market, Anthony Longo of Longo’s and Sylvie Senay of Avril Supermarché Santé. We will be featuring these Q&As in our newsletter over the coming weeks.

First up is Longo's president and CEO Anthony Longo. Read on for edited excerpts of our interview.

Starting out as a small fruit market in Toronto, opened in 1956 by Italian immigrant brothers Joe, Tommy and Gus Longo, Longo’s has since grown to a network of 36 stores in Ontario. Still a family affair, the current president and CEO is Anthony Longo (son of Tommy). Here we chat with him about the importance of a level playing field for independents, bringing the joy back to food, and why grocers need to be agile and ready to pivot, pandemic or not.

Longo’s has been around since 1956. Why does it have such staying power?
We’ve stayed true to who we are and what we stand for all these years. We’ve consistently delivered against our quality service and value promise to consumers. And then I’d say, most importantly, we’ve evolved our offering over time to meet consumer needs. Our purpose is to fuel happier, healthier lives, and we’ve kept that in the forefront of what we do. So we make sure we do that with our team members, our guests and our supplier partners, too.

What’s the core business philosophy of Longo’s?
We did a bunch of work a number of years ago to really capture what our “DNA” is ... and it really came down to “treating you like family.” That’s really our culture, the essence of who we are.

What are some challenges for independents right now?
Industry structure disadvantages independents, in my opinion, and there are a couple of key things that jump out. One is that there’s been so much consolidation. The top five or six retailers in the country really dictate terms around suppliers, minimum shipments and those sorts of things ... so sometimes we’re at a disadvantage in trying to buy competitively in the marketplace. I think an industry code of conduct is required. And the other big one is credit card fees are a major cost now for independents. We know credit card fees are much higher for independents, so we’re fighting hard through CFIG and the Small Business Coalition to try to get government to reduce them. We can compete with big chains any day of the week, but we need a level playing field to do so.

And then I'd say, if I could switch over to COVID-related challenges … we have to continue to keep our teams safe and our customers safe; those are all significant operating challenges, absolutely. And there are costs associated with the PPE and having fewer people in the store. There's a whole series of things that are happening there. But I'd say, as we think about when we come out of this in the next six to 12 months, what does the future of the store look like? What's the role of e-commerce? It's interesting that as all this has unfolded since March, I've been really proud of the independents that I see out there who really quickly launched curbside pickup, in-store pick and all that. They were just phenomenal in terms of how quickly they innovated. And of course, I'm proud of my own team because we doubled our capacity at Grocery Gateway almost overnight—it took us a few weeks, but we did it very quickly. If someone would have said to me we need you to double your capacity in a span of two or three weeks, I would've told them they were crazy. And yet our team did it. I'm really proud of what they did, for sure.

How do you keep up with changing consumer demands? And how have they been changing recently, in your view?
We try to keep a close eye on what consumers are looking for. We have a consumer insights panel, so that's one way we do that. It's really about listening to consumers, serving consumers on a regular basis through the panel, listening to our store managers in terms of what they're hearing, and just really keeping on top of the trends. The whole movement around vegetarianism and veganism, that's been the hot one for the last few years and I think we're doing a great job of staying on top of that, and providing those kinds of products to consumers.

In terms of how consumer demands are changing, health is clearly, through the pandemic, jumping to number one in terms of people wanting to ensure that they're going into a healthy, safe environment, but also in terms of boosting their own immune systems—eating healthier because of what they bought at the grocery store. And then, at the beginning I think people found it fun to be cooking at home, three meals a day, seven days a week, but I think people eventually got a bit tired of it. So we're starting to see meal solutions pick up again—but not meal solutions in the form of salad bars and all that, because those are all closed now … but I'd say helping people with recipes or trying new things. And then I'd say, right now, given that we're heading into a recession—if we're not already in one—value is starting to become more important to consumers as well, in terms of getting good value for their money.

What issues keep you up at night?
There are two big things. The first is the emotional toll this pandemic has taken on our team. It’s been tough because while brought out the best in some people, it’s also brought out the worst in some people. Thankfully, it’s been a very, very small minority of people that it has brought the worst out in, in terms of how our team gets treated—and we’re not going to put up with consumers who belittle our team, or harass them in any way at all. have the authority to ask people to leave the store, but it’s been difficult to hear some of the stories that they’ve had to deal with. I worry about their mental health and the emotional toll. The second thing, of course, is the second wave . Is it going to come? When? How bad is it going to be? I think we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

What currently excites you most about the grocery business?
What’s really exciting is that people have found their kitchens again. We really see a big opportunity in bringing joy back to food … and also helping people with their meal solutions. I think that’s really exciting because you can only make so many meals until you say, “OK, I need a little break from this.” So helping them with meal solutions, new ideas, making it easy for kids to play a role in the kitchen—really just bringing the joy back.

How can independents best tackle a changing retail landscape?
Always do the right thing for the long term. You can’t be shortsighted to try and chase profit and sales for today; it’s about what does my business look like five years from now? What’s the reputation that I’m building? Because as independent grocers in our communities, we live and work in those communities, so our reputation is everything. You want to do the right thing, always.

And you have to be agile. I get really proud of how everyone pivoted when this pandemic hit; but it’s the same thing in non-pandemic times, you have to pivot. If veganism and vegetarianism are becoming more and more popular, we’ve got to do more in that area; or health and wellness is more important, we have to focus on that. Or if people are becoming more value-conscious, how do we provide better value? It really depends on where the consumers are, but it’s just continuing to be innovative, and continuing to be the best at understanding your customers.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s September-October 2020 issue.

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