Supermarket chief takes on competitors with positive thinking The Basic instinct

May 04, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

*TC So here's this middle-aged woman, minding her own business and doing her Monday morning grocery shopping when this well-dressed man bounds up to her and booms: "Good morning. Tell me, how much are bananas at Basics?"

For a second the woman looks puzzled, like she's wondering whether it's safe to talk with this guy. But he smiles his best game-show host smile, and she smiles back and trills, "29 cents!"

The dapper-looking man beams. "There, didn't I tell you?" he tells a visitor. At rival Giant, bananas are 59 cents a pound, the man and his visitor both know.

John Ryder, president and chief executive officer of Basics Food Centers, is making a point -- one of a never-ending stream of points he makes as he caroms around the store. And when Mr. Ryder counts up the points, the result is always the same: Basics is "simply the best."

It's far from the biggest, however. Last June, Food World, a Columbia-based trade publication, ranked the Basics chain as the No. 3 supermarket chain in the Baltimore metropolitan area with a 6.07 percent share of the market, representing $197 million in fiscal 1991 sales at 15 stores. That left it behind No. 2 SuperFresh's 7.30 percent share ($237 million) and about a light-year behind Giant Food's leading 29.11 percent ($946 million).

Since then, Basics has opened another Baltimore store and remodeled several others, bringing its total to 24 stores, including eight in the Washington suburbs. This year, Mr. Ryder promises that his chain, a division of Super Rite Corp. of Harrisburg, Pa., will vault into second place on the strength of "double-digit, compounded" sales growth.

Jeff Metzger, Food World's publisher, agrees that Basics is likely to move up when new ratings are published next month.

So what does Mr. Ryder do for an encore? His answer is as quick as it is brash: No. 1, of course. And he throws back his head and laughs.

As well he might. No one perceives Basics as even a remote threat to Giant's supremacy. It's highly unlikely that Giant Chairman Israel Cohen loses sleep over John Ryder.

But the Giant boss is constantly on Mr. Ryder's mind. When he talks about Giant, he doesn't refer to "it" or "they" -- it's always "he."

For instance, there's the matter of baby seats in shopping carts. "I had 'em before Giant," Mr. Ryder boasts. "He saw them in my shops and put them in his." Giant, which says it has been looking for the right baby seat since October 1990, denies that account.

Apart from his competitive drive, Mr. Ryder, who has headed Basics for about two years, is a man who flat-out loves to sell. Some people were born with register-tape ink in their blood, and he's one of them. His father was a supervisor in a supermarket, and young John started his retail career at 13.

"Retail is detail" could well be his mantra.

And forget about reaching him at the office. More often than not, a call to him will be patched through to the car phone that is his business lifeline.

His 1989 Cadillac's odometer registered 88,580 miles one day early last month. At his pace of 15 to 20 stores a week, it should be well over 90,000 today.

Those relentless road trips keep him in touch with employees and vendors. He seems to know them all by name -- not only employees but the delivery people who tend to the displays.

"It keeps my nose in the business and I can find out everything that's happening," Mr. Ryder says. "There aren't any registers in the office."

When Mr. Ryder sweeps through a grocery store, he's like the Energizer Bunny loaded with caffeine -- noting a flaw here, greeting an employee there, buttonholing a customer by the frozen foods.

"When he comes into a store, we put roller skates on," says Bart Dorn, manager of Basics' Middlesex store.

And all the while he's promoting -- his company, his employees, his ideas, himself.

If he weren't so obviously having fun, it could be grating, but Mr. Ryder's pride is sincere. When he points out the little ideas he got from a customer and put in his stores -- such as the easily detached produce bags that do away with cumbersome rollers -- he's as excited as a 7-year-old boy going to his first Orioles game.

"He gives you that kind of smothering approach," says Mr. Metzger, the Food World publisher. "He's not doing it to smoke you."

A tour of Basics' new-format stores is a revelation.

Mr. Ryder boasts that "Basics is not basic any more." And it's true. Except in certain specialty areas such as seafood, its product selection is comparable to Giant's and sometimes even more extensive. For instance, a spot check of the Basics on Liberty Road and the nearby Giant on Milford Mill Road found Basics ahead in the mustard count by 35 to 29.

Basics' once-dingy look is now a thing of the past.

The stores are bright, and the chain's use of color in displays of produce and other products may be the best in this market. Above all, the stores look clean.

"They used to have more funny smells," Mr. Metzger says. "They've cleaned that up."

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