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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023


By LARRY KANTER Senior Reporter In these days of multimillion-dollar supermarket mergers, when the big chains just keep getting bigger, shopping at Sparky’s Apple Market is like taking a step back in time. The La Crescenta grocer still makes home deliveries, free of charge. Shoppers are helped to their cars by teen-age clerks. Can’t find an item? Someone will take you to the right aisle and find it for you. If Sparky’s doesn’t have it, they will locate a distributor who does and have it on the shelf in a day or two. And all that extra attention won’t add a dime to your grocery bill, promises Jack Gregory, the store’s president. “We’re a specialty store without specialty store prices,” Gregory says. How can he do that? After all, hasn’t the spate of supermarket mergers driven by a desire to create economies of scale to keep costs down priced independent operators out of market? Not so, says Gregory. Sparky’s can compete, he insists, because while it may be independent, it is hardly alone. Instead, Sparky’s is part of the Apple Group of supermarkets, a loosely affiliated group of about 20 independently owned grocers from San Diego to Bakersfield. Developed five years ago by Certified Grocers of America, the giant Compton-based food wholesaler and distributor, the Apple Group gives independent markets like Sparky’s comparable purchasing muscle as the chains, allowing them to keep advertising and product costs down and remain competitive in a rapidly consolidating marketplace. Apple members pay the association $250 a week and agree to keep their stores up to certain standards. Other than that, they’re on their own. The store’s workers are non-union, and Gregory notes that Apple stores are not burdened by an unwieldy internal bureaucracy or the high overhead borne by the supermarket chains. As a result, he says, they can react more quickly to customers’ needs and provide an unusually high level of service. “It’s like having the best of both worlds,” Gregory says. A 46-year veteran of the grocery and produce business, Gregory purchased Sparky’s earlier this year. The market has been in the neighborhood in one form or another since the 1940s most recently as an independent grocery store that shut its doors after being unable to compete with the big Ralphs and Vons supermarkets on nearby Foothill Boulevard. After renovating the building, Gregory re-opened the place as Sparky’s Apple Market on May 1. The response so far has been enthusiastic. Sales, according to Gregory, are up from about $45,000 a week when the store opened to about $80,000 a week now, and the market is just reaching the break-even point. The number of employees has more than doubled, from 17 to 36. “I generally shop here,” says Marilyn Kula, a housewife who lives nearby, dropping a bottle of salad dressing into her cart. “There is always someone to help you and you never have to stand in line.” Adds Bill Klint, a retired aerospace engineer from Glendale: “You can get things here at prices you don’t see at the big markets. And the service is good. It seems like there are more employees to help you.” In fact, the only gripe shoppers seem to have is the market’s relatively limited selection. After all, the 17,000-square-foot grocery store can stock only a fraction of the products offered by a 60,000-square-foot supermarket. Gregory is fine tuning the store’s merchandise mix to make sure that shoppers can find most of what they need. But he says there are enough customers who are willing to forego some selection in favor of customer service, a value he says is fast being forgotten in the supermarket industry. “People feel under-appreciated and I think there is going to be a backlash,” says Gregory, who got his start in Danville, Va., where his parents owned three small markets that, in addition to selling groceries, cashed payroll checks and offered credit for workers at nearby textile mills. “There’s a niche now for a good neighborhood store, where we know the customers and they know us.” Gregory intends to open at least four similar stores over the next five years in other middle- to upper-income, family-oriented neighborhoods in Los Angeles. As a result of the recent merger between Albertson’s Inc. and American Stores Co., the parent of the Lucky supermarket chain, Gregory expects a number of stores to come onto the market. He recently hired Vinny Pershad, a longtime executive with Jon’s Marketplace, which has a record of successfully targeting ethnic niche markets in urban areas, to help expand the Sparky’s concept. “Most of the independent markets went into the inner city,” says Pershad. “In the suburbs, all you see are chains. We think we can go into those areas and offer people a different kind of store. We want to pamper them a little bit.”

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