By Lorrie Baumann
Ariane Daguin thinks that the way forward for brick-and-mortar grocers is to focus on selling their customers better food rather than more food. As the CEO of D’Artagnan, which distributes high-quality meat and poultry products to fine-dining restaurants as well as to grocers across the U.S., she has a bird’s eye view of how the American grocery business is evolving to try and meet the challenge of online grocers.
She notes that over the past decades since the end of World War II, grocers have been offering their customers more and more – more food, greater variety, year-round supplies of products once thought of as strictly seasonal. “You cannot have quality if you offer too many flavors of too many different products,” she said. “We have created a market for a lot of things we don’t need but that are pushed to us.”
The tide of consumerism inspired by modern marketing and the media’s obsession with what’s new and different has led inexorably to bigger stores and growing costs to operate those bigger stores. Those higher costs and the consumer expectations that caused them are now creating greater competitive burdens for brick-and-mortar grocers struggling to survive against online retailers. “The grocer has a big conundrum – which is the rent,” Daguin says. “It’s survival – they need to pay the rent. The problem is that it doesn’t work any more, because e-commerce has taken over. The consumer has so much more convenience and choice with e-commerce that the grocer has to really worry.”
Daguin suggests that the way to deal with this problem is to follow the lead of those successful grocers who now emphasize quality and who are creating a sensory and educational experience in their stores instead of just pushing volume. “To bring new clients in the store, you need to propose experiences that they cannot get online: true education from knowledgeable store employees, personalized custom fabricating, butchering and cooking in store, tastings…” she said.
Focusing on quality rather than variety is the approach she has taken in her own 33-year-old company. “What we did from the beginnings of D’Artagnan was to thrive towards excellence in all facets of the company, pushing farmers to very strict animal husbandry rules, slaughterhouses to process and butcher with more care, to stop bloating meats with water, controlling temperatures from loading docks to trucks to store … for one reason only – the quality of the product at the end,” she says.
D’Artagnan’s Green Circle chickens provide a handy example – they are raised free-range and fed a diet of actual vegetables, are certified-humane and air-chilled. They’re also antibiotic free. “We were the first ones, and we’re still pretty unique in that we demand that all animals be antibiotic free from birth,” Daguin says.
The chickens are processed in small slaughterhouses rather than in industrial-scale facilities, chilled with air rather than water and brought daily to a D’Artagnan warehouse in Georgia, Texas, Illinois or New Jersey. The air chilling reduces their weight, raising the cost per pound, but it means that there’s no dilution of flavor. “We get our deliveries from the chicken slaughterhouse every night,” Daguin says. “So every day, they get the one-day-old chickens. Nobody else can say that.”
From the warehouse, the chicken is put on a truck that has extra temperature controls to ensure that the chicken arrives at the market as fresh as possible, with the longest possible shelf life for the retailer. “We take this totally to the need of the retailer. They need the maximum shelf life for the products, and minimum quantities in each case,” Daguin says. “These are not corn flakes that fly off the shelves.”