Meet the Low-Key, Low-Cost Grocery Chain Being Called ‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’

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Joe Jaszewski / The Idaho Statesman / AP

Customers bag their own groceries at checkout counters at WinCo Foods on Fairview Avenue in Boise, Idaho, on July 1, 2013

Retail analysts say the world’s biggest retailer has reason to fear a small grocery chain that’s based in Idaho and boasts a business model that allows it to undercut Walmart on prices.

So about that eye-catching Walmart quote. Those are the words of Burt Flickinger III, a widely respected supermarket-retailing-industry expert who works for the Strategic Resource Group. Flickinger was quoted in a recent Idaho Statesman story about WinCo, a chain of roughly 100 supermarkets in the western U.S., based in Boise, Idaho.

“WinCo arguably may be the best retailer in the western U.S.,” Flickinger says while touring a WinCo store. “WinCo is really unstoppable at this point,” he goes on. “They’re Walmart’s worst nightmare.”

Flickinger isn’t the only industry insider discussing WinCo and Walmart in the same breath. “While many supermarkets strive to keep within a few percentage points of Walmart stores’ prices, WinCo Foods often undersells the massive discount chain,” the industry publication Supermarket News explained last spring.

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How does WinCo manage to undercut Walmart on prices? And why should the world’s largest retailer have any reason to fear a small regional grocery chain that most Americans have never heard of?

First off, the reason you probably haven’t heard of WinCo is partly that at this point its stores are limited to a handful of states in the West. But WinCo is a little-known player also because the company is a privately held enterprise that seems to take its privacy seriously, preferring a low-key, low-profile approach — which is extremely rare in a world of retailers boisterously begging for shoppers’ attention.

Simply put, WinCo “communicates low prices by delivering low prices,” Jon Hauptman, a partner at Willard Bishop, a retail-consulting firm, told Supermarket News. “WinCo doesn’t do much to communicate price and value. It convinces shoppers of value based on the shopping experience, rather than relying on smoke and mirrors to convince them.”

As for how WinCo can deliver such low prices, the Statesman story details the company’s history and business model. It all began, interestingly enough, when two Idaho businessmen opened a warehouse-type discount store with a name that could have been pulled from a movie slyly spoofing Walmart. Waremart, it was called. The company became employee-owned in 1985, and changed its name to WinCo (short for Winning Company) in 1999.

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Prices are kept low through a variety of strategies, the main one being that it often cuts out distributors and other middlemen and buys many goods directly from farms and factories. WinCo also trims costs by not accepting credit cards and by asking customers to bag their own groceries. Similar to warehouse membership stores like Sam’s Club and Costco, and also to successful discount grocers with small stores like Trader Joe’s and Aldi, WinCo stores are organized and minimalist, without many frills, and without the tremendous variety of merchandise that’s become standard at most supermarkets. “Everything is neat and clean, but basic,” Hauptman told Supermarket News. “Though the stores are very large, with a lot of categories, they lack depth or breadth of variety.”

While all these factors help WinCo compete with Walmart on price, what really might scare the world’s largest retailer is how WinCo treats its employees. In sharp contrast to Walmart, which regularly comes under fire for practices like understaffing stores to keep costs down and hiring tons of temporary workers as a means to avoid paying full-time workers benefits, WinCo has a reputation for doing right by employees. It provides health benefits to all staffers who work at least 24 hours per week. The company also has a pension, with employees getting an amount equal to 20% of their annual salary put in a plan that’s paid for by WinCo; a company spokesperson told the Idaho Statesman that more than 400 nonexecutive workers (cashiers, produce clerks and such) currently have pensions worth over $1 million apiece.

Generally speaking, shoppers tolerate Walmart’s empty shelves and subpar customer service because the prices are so good. The fact that another retailer — even a small regional one — is able to compete and sometimes beat Walmart on prices, while also operating well-organized stores staffed by workers who enjoy their jobs, like their employer and genuinely want the company to be successful? Well, that’s got to alarm the world’s biggest retailer, if not keep executives up at night.

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While WinCo does keep its business quiet, we do know one thing: the company is in the process of expanding to new states, with two locations opening in north Texas next year, for example. Flickinger anticipates rapid growth in the near future, with WinCo doubling in size every five to seven years going forward.

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