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An interview with CFIG's new chair, Scott Mitchell

The independent Alberta grocer talks about the grocery association, consolidation and music in his store

Scott Mitchell, the incoming chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, runs a big store in a small town. Market Street Vulcan is more than 24,500 sq. ft., serving a trade area of around 6,000 people.

Mitchell has owned a grocery store in Vulcan for 25 years. But his family’s retail history in town dates back to 1942, when his grandfather opened a pharmacy. Canadian Grocer spoke to Mitchell about the CFIG, the grocery industry, satisfying customers and music.

What can we expect at CFIG over the next year?

There’s a ton of energy right now with CFIG. The doors of change are wide open. We have embraced a new leader and we’re going to redefine our mandate. As independent grocers, we have a grassroots view of the world that is unprecedented.

READ: An interview with Tom Barlow at CFIG

We have lots of things to offer not just our members but also the industry, the supply chain, the media. We need strong communication with government, and I think you’ll see us put more resources behind that. We’re looking at building alliances with other associations and redefining our shows.

There are also some really cool things we can do for our members on education, research, best practices and industry information where could go to a web portal and download timely information. It’s an exciting time to be part of CFIG.

What major issues are independents facing now?

There are the ongoing issues such as credit- and debit-card fees. Environmental issues and stewardship are also ongoing ones. The other major issue is the amalgamation occurring; the concentration of food retailing in Canada. That’s a big one facing this industry–how it deals with it properly and how it maintains what’s good for the consumer. We have a voice and we need to be heard.

Is the consolidation taking place in the Canadian grocery sector now good or bad for independent grocers?

Speaking as a one-store operator in Western Canada, I’d say no. It’s not a good thing for consumers. I don’t think it’s a good thing for the supply chain. There has to be some big questions asked of government: What’s your vision of the future of these amalgamations? Where do you think this is going? At what point do you say, “That’s not good for the country?” Those are things we need to have a voice in, and CFIG will.

Tell me about the Alberta floods this summer. Your store was close to that.

We were one of three communities offering respite to the people of High River affected by the floods. Imagine in 10 minutes, literally, 13,000 people were displaced. They left town with the clothes on their backs, they had no shelter and no food.

READ: A grocer's guide to dealing with disasters

We helped out with food for emergency workers and we did four breakfasts and three barbecues over a week to feed people from High River. We tried the best we could to embrace people in a safe and caring environment so they could get some relief.

It’s not anything that other independent grocers don’t do across this country. When there’s an accident, when a house burns down, when a child is sick, independent grocers step up to the plate. During the flood I had my customers coming in asking, “How can I help?” They would come in the store and help me put my product away when delivery trucks came to the store. It was the greatest sense of community you can imagine.

Eight years ago you built a big new store. Any advice for other grocers who are expanding their businesses?

Do your homework and get good advice. Our wholesaler, The Grocery People, helped a lot. We also used the great people at King Design for our new look. Go to the people who are going to give you the best advice. You have to filter all of that advice but get it and look at what else is out there.

Did you tour other stores to get ideas?

We did. TGP took us on a really interesting tour of Seattle stores, and we’ve done them in the past in Vancouver. Those tours are great for independent grocers. It cultivates so many ideas and you come home with such energy.

In Seattle we saw a lot of gathering places in stores and so we put a fireplace area in our store where people can get together. Outside we now have a courtyard in our greenhouse where we can launch local products and hold events. We had a small sausage company, Meadow Creek Sausage, do a barbecue to launch their product.

Tell me about the concerts you hold in your store?

We try to do one concert a month, from May to October, in the greenhouse courtyard. They’ve become quite popular. It’s part of the experience in a small community. Live music is tough to come by sometimes.

We have a local musician and artist named Steve Coffey who helps me arrange bands and we had a musician, Alistair Christl, and his trio out of Toronto, who came through here a couple of months ago and did a greenhouse concert.

READ: Meet the godfather of ethnic grocery in Canada

In August we had V Pulse, an under-18, high-school band perform for a fundraiser for the band program at our high school. We had a big barbecue. Our business has to be fun. That’s why we embrace these greenhouse concerts.

How has your job changed since you got into this business?

I used to spend a lot more time squeezing tomatoes . Today, the paperwork flow is tremendous. I’m an independent, so if someone has to negotiate with a banker, or with an energy company or with a wholesaler, it’s me. I can’t push it off to anybody else.

That’s why I said earlier that if we can make it easier for independents with a portal where they can get best-practice models, scheduling, period-end reporting, contribution reports, some of their financial stuff, their programming, their planograms, their sets with some of these major companies, it would help keep their stores on a level that’s on par with best practices.

The easier we can make it, it’s less time spent up in our offices and more time on the floor selling, because that’s what we do. We sell. We service people. That’s the industry we’re in. We’re not in the bookkeeping business. So we have to find smarter ways to do that.

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