Yolanda Frommelt looks for the English bouvier each morning, accompanying its owner on a coffee stop at Eddie's of Roland Park. Then she goes outside to meet the dog with a treat. If she's not up front in the supermarket, she said, "they'll page me and say, `Your friend's outside.'"
At Eddie's, a second-generation grocery business that prides itself on unique foods and white-glove service, no one finds the produce manager's morning routine unusual.
Shoppers, some of whom have frequented the Roland Avenue store for decades, and employees, some of whom have worked there just as long, often know each other's names and family histories. Employees greet customers at the door, help carry bags to cars and make deliveries. Regulars return again and again for that kind of service, for the prime meats, unusual produce and prepared dishes.
Many independent grocers have been swallowed up or driven out by larger chains that can outspend them on technology, training, advertising and store sites and, sometimes, undercut them on prices. The big chains don't need a family member to carry on the business. But Eddie's and others like it have thrived by finding a niche.
"The competition is diverse, and it's fierce, and the market has settled into a group of heavyweights," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Columbia-based trade journal Food World. "Consumers are less loyal than they were 10 years ago. If you don't have a significant point of difference, it's difficult to compete."
About one-third of the nation's 30,000 supermarkets classify themselves as independents, accounting for about $120 billion of the $450 billion in annual U.S. supermarket sales, the Food Marketing Institute says. They compete not only with one another but also with mass merchants, convenience stores and even bookstores and home supply stores, said Michael Sansolo, a senior vice president with FMI.
"The great challenge is how to make a statement to the consumer to go past another store and come to me," Sansolo said. "We have seen some independents rise to this challenge" by specializing, for instance, in health food, ethnic fare or more upscale offerings.
But their numbers have been shrinking. Independent chains, with 16 or fewer stores, accounted for 3.42 percent of food retailing in the mid-Atlantic last year, down from 7.13 percent 10 years ago and 8.04 percent 20 years ago, Food World says. In the Baltimore area, independents such as Super Pride, George's IGA, Valu Food and Festival Foods have closed their doors.
Sometimes, survival comes down to the availability of capital, "or how much [a grocery operator] wants to risk," Metzger said. Some independents, such as North Baltimore's Eddie's, Graul's and Harford County-based Klein's Super Markets, a family-run business with five stores, have prospered by knowing their customers and offering high levels of service, variety in perishables and a certain "comfort zone," Metzger said. They don't try to compete on price with the larger chains and discounters, he said. "There are virtually no more hangers-on, the attrition has happened," he said. "The good ones have excelled at capitalizing on their points of difference."
In today's crowded field of food retailers, independents can take advantage of what one supermarket expert sees as a backlash against "superstore" groceries.
"People don't want to shop in bowling alleys; they like smaller stores," said Philip Lempert, editor of supermarketguru.com, a consumer Web site. "The consumer wants a relationship with a store, to be visibly acknowledged, to walk up and down the aisle and find what they want."
The independent grocers, he said, "can react faster, can listen better to consumers, because [owners] are in the stores more and seeing on a direct basis what consumers are buying."
Nancy Cohen, Eddie's president and owner, has tried to run her two stores in much the same way as did her father, the late Victor Cohen, who started the grocery business that became Eddie's. He opened Victor's, a 6,000-square-foot grocery that sold prime meats and gourmet produce, in the Roland Park Shopping Center in 1944. In 1953, he opened Eddie's in a former A&P and Acme farther north on Roland Avenue, where it remains today, with Victor's meats now incorporated into it. Nancy Cohen, who joined the business in 1981, opened a second store, on North Charles Street, in 1992. Cohen's father died in 2000, but customers still stop her in the aisles to reminisce.
"His big thing was if a customer wants a pound, you give them a pound. You give them what they ask for," Cohen said.