Sunday, July 07, 2002

Reading IGA becomes community center

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[photo] Steve Goessling started Friday Afternoon Grill-Outs in the parking lot of the Reading IGA to make the store an increasingly important part of the community.
(Mike Simons photos)
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        READING — Along with produce, meats and canned goods, Stephen Goessling stocks his grocery store with a generous supply of service and commitment. The owner of Reading IGA sees his role as one of stewardship.

        “I let the neighborhood feel that it's their store, and I'm just here to manage it. I'm like a trustee,” Mr. Goessling said.

        His dedication to retail excellence earned Mr. Goessling the title of International Retailer of the Year in 2002 from the IGA (Independent Grocers Alliance) network. The Reading store is one of only seven IGAs so honored, chosen from 4,400 in 41 countries, including 23 in Greater Cincinnati.

        Behind the counter since 1998, Mr. Goessling has taken the store from a three-star rating to a five-star rating — the company's highest. He has done so by balancing old-fashioned values with new technology.

        “I've surrounded myself with good people, and given them the tools to do their jobs properly,” he said.

[photo] Mr. Goessling replenishes the condiment line at the cookout.
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        Mr. Goessling, a CPA, learned the grocery business and the IGA ethos when he handled financial matters for several stores in Cincinnati. He was later promoted to head the multistore operation.

        When he bought the store, Mr. Goessling did a department-by-department assessment, looking at issues from food safety to merchandising to checkout procedures.

        “I saw a thousand things that were fixable,” he said, adding that the store lacked a disciplined approach and a consistent identity.

  His affiliation with the 4,400-store IGA network in 41 countries gives Stephen Goessling the combination of independence and support he wants.
  “The format affords you the opportunity to maintain your independence but have the company banner and visibility, and the advantages of their volume buying,” he said.
  That flexible approach has allowed Mr. Goessling to expand offerings in the deli and bakery department managed by his wife, Julie. Spurred by the popularity of Mrs. Goessling's homemade chili, the owner has begun adding other specialty items, such as well-done roast beef and a sirloin patty.
  “I'm on a mission to establish as many signature items as possible,” he said. “The strength of our smaller, independent grocery store comes from the quality of our perishable items such as the produce, fresh meats and deli items.”
  Building on the deli and bakery department's growing reputation, Mr. Goessling and his staff have launched a catering service.
  The Reading IGA also boasts “Can't Find It?” forms that encourage customers to request products they can't find on store shelves. And the store recently initiated once-a-week grocery delivery.
  The Reading IGA is at 9200 Reading Road. Phone, 733-4173.
        Mr. Goessling upgraded training and implemented an employee incentive program that allows staff to share in the store's success. Building on existing employees' experience, he cross-trained them to enhance their skills and brought in new workers to ensure a high level of customer service.

        “If we have more than two people standing in line, we will open another register,” Mr. Goessling said. “We've also extended our hours, and we stay open on holidays. If you're here for your community, you have to be open when they need you. All my major competitors are going to be open, and I don't want to give my customers a reason to shop anywhere else.

        “Winning over the customer is almost as important as winning over my employees. Employees have to be there to get the doors open. Good teams attract good players, and good employees tell their friends.”

        Physical improvements have included matters as broad as inventory display, and as specific as product dating and temperature monitoring for refrigerated units.

        “We've improved dramatically in those areas,” he said.

        Mr. Goessling also has brought in technology. The IGA now has scanners that allow customers to check prices. A surveillance camera system not only enables managers to keep tabs on operations, but it also provides a record that can be used in training and in solving problems. But so far, the owner has resisted installing automated self-checkout equipment.

        “It's not friendly, and it takes up too much space,” he said.

        Mr. Goessling more recently has focused on making the store an increasingly important part of the community. He donned a chef's apron and initiated Friday Afternoon Grill-Outs during warm months, serving sausages and hamburgers to customers in the store's parking lot. He helped found the Reading Retail Merchants' Association and is active with the chamber of commerce and Kiwanis.

        Said Mr. Goessling: “By plan, I have a staff here that allows me to go out into the community. I've got to take our message to the people.”

        “Reading people are loyal to Reading people,” said Linda Fitzgerald, head of the city's economic development department. “Steve Goessling is a man who hires Reading people, has invested in Reading people. You can make technological and plant improvements, but it's that friendly face that greets you as you walk in the store that makes you want to come back.”

        Management's attention to detail is reflected in the store's numbers, Mr. Goessling said.

        “Sales have continued to climb significantly,” he said. “We've enjoyed years of double-digit increases in a market that has seen flat sales. Our weekly customer count is up. Our average sale per customer is up, which means we're doing a better job of merchandising. Better promotional programs mean we get better treatment from vendors. Our vendor community has told me I've worked a miracle.”

        “It's sad but true that the neighborhood IGA is becoming a thing of the past,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “He has saved that icon for Reading, and he's trying to make it a regional destination as well. Mr. Goessling is a good businessman and a decent individual; that's a good combination for Reading.”

        “Steve has pride in his customers,” Thomas S. Haggai, chairman and CEO of the IGA network, said. He added that the Reading IGA is “not just a store, but a community center.”


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