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By Barbara Grondin Francella
Located in a 100-year-old Mediterranean-style building, Parker's Market Urban Gourmet store stocks more than 5,000 standard and specialty food products, ranging from expensive olive oils and balsamic vinegars to imported cheese, and serves up freshly made breads, desserts and meals-to-go 24 hours a day.
From daily specials like roasted red pepper and Gouda soup to more common fare such as turkey and dressing, Parker's Market has a reputation for quality prepared foods. Plus, more than 10,000 other impulse and convenience items -- beer, wine, cigarettes, candy and snacks, flowers, greeting cards, pet foods, milk, eggs, paper goods, and more -- are sold. Supron gasoline is pumped from three one-sided dispensers.
The 6,000-square-foot store is also the second-largest wine retailer in Savannah, Ga., and rings up annual sales equal to those of a thriving small supermarket. "It is hugely successful," admitted Parker Companies' CEO Greg Parker. "But the reality is there is no brilliance to how it evolved."
Having lived in downtown Savannah for 30 years, Parker wanted a food store like this in his neighborhood. "I found the location and went to several people and asked them to do it. I couldn't talk anyone into doing it, so did it myself."
Parker's Market, designed by Parker and his wife Kelley, who serves as a buyer and does the majority of the store's merchandising, opened in February 1999, when "home meal replacement" was an industry buzzword. At the time, few retailers that launched extensive prepared foods programs succeeded.
"When we first opened it, we made a lot of mistakes." Parker said. "For instance, we had 15 feet of fruits and vegetables. We don't have that anymore. But what we did different from other stores like ours, such as Fresh Market, is make almost all of the prepared foods in the store. We don't use prepackaged food and display it to look like ours."
Most of the baked goods are also prepared in the store. Three full-time bakers work overnight to stock the store, which supplements that line with products from local bakeries and "other assorted talented purveyors," Parker said. "Our manager's daughter makes most our cakes and pies."
The offer is diverse -- from curry chicken salad in the cold case to new potatoes stuffed with asiago cheese and Southern favorites such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese in the hot case. "Most of the dishes are made from recipes found by Kelley, or from family and friends' favorites or served by restaurants or other gourmet or organic retailers," he said. "When I visit stores that offer meal replacement like Wegmans or Whole Foods, I ask them what their best sellers are."
The 24-hour-a-day store has 35 employees. "If you did an MPSI [Market Planning Solutions Inc.] study, you'd never be able to project our sales," he said. "We don't have the parking and other things that usually predict success."
Parker says he hasn't a clue to whether there's a difference between the Parker's Market customer and the typical Parker's Convenience Store patron. "If you come in at lunch [at Parker's Market], there will be 20 people in line, from the cab driver and secretary and construction worker, to the business guy and wealthy socialite. We also see a lot of students and some tourists. Our success as a company is about diversity. We do not have one customer segment we try to satisfy."
The success of Parker's Market has generated many requests to franchise the concept, which Parker has resisted. "The fear was we didn't have the technology in place to have good control over the inventory and we didn't want to embark on franchising a concept with 16,000 SKUs without that technology."
But even with the technology in place to track and analyze sales, the concept may not be ideal for easily replicating in other places, he said.
"It's tough to have chefs preparing so many quality products," Parker noted. "I'm in the store every day talking about what is going in the food cases. Why this? Why not that? Do we have the right type of flowers for this time of year? Should we be selling hydrangeas now? The lilies don't have a good shelf life. Or the muffins aren't big enough. It's not formulaic."
Another Parker's Market, to be built on the south side of Savannah, was in the works until Parker's management team "had an intervention with me," he said, noting the company had already spent six figures on design and planning the 8,000-square-foot store.
"It was on a fantastic piece of land," Parker said. "It was a beautifully designed store. We tried to be thoughtful on predictors of success -- traffic count, demographics of the neighborhood, density of the population, income level, visibility, egress and ingress. We had done an MPSI study and we did a demographic study of our own and, holy moly, I was surprised to see the income level wasn't what it needed to be and it was such a bedroom community, we'd have little walk-in lunch traffic.
"We decided not to go forward."
Still, the retailer plans to open a couple more Parker's Markets. "We need to be in Charleston and Hilton Head," he said, a smile in his voice and a clear vision of the stores in his head.
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