Positive marketing in a tough economy

May 15, 2011
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It’s been difficult for companies to see marketing strategies that work during these troubled economic times, especially for retailers. As we move forward, I am optimistic about the turnaround in the economy for our country, our state and West Michigan.

There are signs that a modest improvement is at hand. While unemployment for Michigan stands at 11 percent, that number locally has fallen to approximately 9.4 percent. Nationally, unemployment has dropped to 8.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Grand Valley State University career fair in October 2010 drew 131 employers seeking interns and full-timers. Paul Davidson reported in USA Today that Zeeland’s Gentex Corp. hired 100 engineers and used that as an example of Michigan’s recovery. Brian Long of GVSU reported in the Grand Rapids Business Journal last month that “the local economy appears to have stabilized at a moderate rate.”

A positive attitude by the public is crucial to any turnaround. As thousands of people attended ArtPrize in downtown Grand Rapids, I could not have been more proud of our great city. The artwork was fantastic, but it was the backdrop of the city that showed the promise of a bright future. The marketing of many new buildings, the Medical Mile, the renovation of I-196 through the city, the expansion and growth of Grand Rapids Community College and GVSU, and the many cultural opportunities offered are going to attract many more new jobs.

Taking all of these changes into account, who are the retailers that are changing their marketing strategies to meet the 21st century?

One example that stands out is Spartan Stores Inc., based in Byron Township. The company boasts nearly 100 supermarkets throughout Michigan under the banners of Family Fare, Felpausch, Glen’s, VG’s, D&W Fresh Market and Glen’s Fresh Market. It also serves 375 independent grocery stores in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Spartan was founded in 1917 and has evolved into a business that competes in a number of industries: grocery retail, gasoline retailers, drug stores and pharmacies, foods, food wholesalers, distributors and retail.

Why Spartan Stores? It has reduced hundreds of prices throughout stores to remain competitive and to help Michigan consumers, at the expense of its bottom line. Reduced prices and sale items are a great customer value without the upfront fees charged by big-box companies. Spartan has placed great emphasis on promoting quality private label goods as part of its competitive advantage. These items are not available at the big-box stores like Sam’s or Costco. The company has well-known brands that include its own private label Spartan Stores brand, Valu Time, Top Care and Full Circle.

The demographic shifts, particularly trends in population and age, working women, race and ethnicity, household size and level of disposable income, have driven demand and changes in the way a business operates. Spartan has made the necessary changes quite successfully by offering a good product mix, efficient operations and specialization in various products. Spartan also is a leader in the grocery wholesaler business, distributing 43,000 food and general merchandise items.

Spartan is a homegrown company that has hired hundreds of Michigan workers. Sure, Aldi and Wal-Mart hire Michigan workers, but think where your consumer dollars are going once their employees are paid: out of state and out of the country. Shopping dollars spent at a Spartan store stay in Michigan to help the state’s economy.

One of Spartan’s best marketing ploys was its “Michigan’s Best” campaign. The initial program, in 2009, promoted 2,400 products grown or produced by 42 businesses and farms in Michigan and emphasized that buying Michigan-made products is a simple and healthy way to boost the state’s economy. In 2010, the program offered more than 3,000 Michigan items.

Alan Hartline, Spartan’s executive vice president of merchandising and marketing, said, “The Michigan’s Best program supports our state, our manufacturers, our farmers, our neighbors and our families simply by choosing Michigan-made products. Buying local helps keep Michigan residents employed. It also benefits communities by boosting the local and state economy by creating more jobs. Plus, buying fresh fruits and vegetables picked within hours of being on the shelf is a healthier option. Local products also have lower food miles, meaning they are shipped shorter distances, which requires less gas and is better for the environment. This is a win-win situation for our farmers and Michigan business as we are promoting local and keeping dollars in the community.”

I was very impressed with Spartan’s full-page, color ads that had a picture of the item next to the Michigan’s Best label with the grower’s or manufacturer’s name. Shown were peaches from Gold Coast Farms in Fennville, cantaloupes by Stahl Farm & Greenhouse of Petersburg, green beans from Sunnybrook Farms in Berrien Springs, potatoes from Talaga Farms of Essexville, gladiolas from Great Lakes Glads, and celery from Eding Farms of Hamilton. The Michigan’s Best campaign earned Spartan an advertising award from the National Grocers Association, reaffirming the company’s strategy.

Sen. Mark Jansen from Michigan’s 28th District noted: “I very much appreciate our major local job provider, Spartan Stores, at a time when we are losing jobs in this state. Spartan continues to demonstrate its commitment to the Michigan consumers in many ways, such as Michigan’s Best campaign.”

Now Walmart wants to expand purchases from small farmers, according to The Wall Street Journal. It will be interesting to see how successful that venture is, given Walmart’s reputation for squeezing vendors down to little or no profits. There are more than 54,000 farms in Michigan, owned and worked by families and hired workers. They must make a profit to survive. Spartan provides these farmers an opportunity to sell their produce at a sound and ethical value. The strength of America’s agriculture economy provides us with an income advantage over the rest of the world. Farmers have helped the U.S. become strong and stay strong. They provide us with the highest-quality food and fiber, and help lay the foundation for a new energy economy. Last year, Michigan was ranked second among the 50 states in exports through the first seven months. Exports from Michigan surged 16 percent in January. Experts see the prospects for international trade for 2011 to be lower; however, Michigan’s exporting companies posted gains
in selling abroad.

In addition to Michigan farmers, Spartan promotes and sells many other manufactured products on a daily basis. To name just a few: Aunt Millie’s Bread, Cole’s, Country Fresh, Heinz, Keebler, Kellogg, Lay’s, Pioneer Sugar and Vlasic. Spartan also ships many of Michigan products to customers in other states, which helps promote the Michigan export business. Spartan partners with the Michigan manufacturers and workers to promote and sell Michigan.

How can we help grow the economy? Buy and trade here in Michigan at companies like Spartan Stores. When we help our own, we are helping reduce the unemployment numbers that affect the entire nation. The Michigan Department of Agriculture agrees, emphasizing if each family in Michigan started spending $10 per week on Michigan products, we would keep more than $37 million in Michigan each week. This is positive marketing in a tough economy.

Maria Landon is an affiliate professor at Grand Valley State University.

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