By Lorrie Baumann
A visit to one of the Southern Season stores in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; or Raleigh, North Carolina; isn’t just a grocery shopping trip; it’s something like a quest for the specialty foods, the wines or beers and the kitchen gadgets and skills in using them that can elevate dinner into a celebration of life. Also, it’s fun. The four-store chain will celebrate its 40th anniversary this fall, says President and COO Dave Herman.
He’s been running the operation for a little more than a year after a 35-year career as an executive for a variety of companies that make or sell high-end products, including a stint as Vice President of Retail for Lenox and one at DANSK. This is his first foray into specialty food retailing, and the only real downside is that he’s having to spend more time at the gym, he says.
Southern Season is often described as a culinary mecca or a food-lover’s paradise. Three of the stores are each roughly 50,000 square feet displaying about 80,000 SKUs of specialty groceries, kitchenware, prepared foods and deli, floral, candy, coffee and tea, small electrics and tabletop items. There are 4,000 kitchen gadgets, 5,000 wines, more than 1,000 craft beers and 500 cheeses. The smallest and newest store, located in the Cameron Village shopping center in Raleigh, is called A Taste of Southern Season, and the 3,000-square foot store offers a curated selection of specialty food, wine and beer, often to customers who’d been driving the 26 miles to the Chapel Hill store.
“Our customers cut across the spectrum. If we have a wine festival or we celebrate wine, we get a more mature audience. When we celebrated beer, the audience skewed a lot younger. Candy goes across the board,” says Herman. “The spectrum of customers is very wide. It depends on what that person’s individual passion is…. There are people who are very, very passionate about their cheese. There are people who are passionate only about blue cheese.”
Catering to those passions has made each of the three larger stores a destination for shoppers who bring their friends and come to hang out in the store for a few hours at a time, sampling tea or coffee or a locally-made barbecue sauce, indulging in an ice cream cone from the old-fashioned soda fountain, having lunch at the in-store restaurant, taking a class at the cooking school or planning an event with a menu supplied by each store’s special events coordinator “We give a lot of small vendors a chance to start. It could be someone who was an investor on Wall Street and who decided to quit and make his grandmother’s jam,” Herman says. “That’s when the magic happens – when people walk through the doors, and they meet these vendors, and they learn the stories of these products.”
Providing that entertaining shopping experience for customers is one of the three legs of the triangle that make Southern Season what it is, according to Herman. The other two legs of the triangle are the stores’ dominant assortments of products and the customer service skills and passion of the stores’ sales associates.
The stores’ product assortment varies by location, with each of the three large stores incorporating 10,000 products made in its home state. Each department manager in those three stores has a say in exactly what the product assortment for his or her department will be, especially with respect to locally-made products. “Each department manager in each store has the ability to tailor the assortment and localize it. You’re trying to be a big company, but you never want to lose the fact that the department managers speak to people every day,” Herman says. “They want to do something; let them try it. Customers come in and ask for the department managers because they trust their opinions, but no one’s ever asked for me.”
Excellent customer service is a natural outcome of hiring sales associates who love the products and love to help customers, Herman says. “They come with a born passion for the product, and they probably learned to be nice from their parents. They get to share the products they love,” he says. “They come to us with a passion for cheese or a love of wine. I don’t think we can take a lot of credit for that….. We have a sales team that’s exceptionally passionate about what they sell. They love these products, and I think that our levels of service, our passion comes across. They’re telling incredible stories behind these products. Our story is the stories: the stories of our sales associates, the stories of our vendors.”