As a working mother of three children ages 7 to 11, Laura Shapira Karet is always thinking about breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
Away from the family, she still thinks about exactly the same things.
That’s when she gets to the office and works as the chief executive officer of Giant Eagle Inc., which is trying aggressively to change some shopping habits of consumers in Northeast Ohio.
Karet answered questions about herself and her company in a rare, exclusive interview with the Beacon Journal. The occasion was the opening in Solon of what the company calls its Market District store concept, an upscale design that tries to offer something for shoppers of every type.
Karet says the Pittsburgh-based company makes decisions while keeping in mind how busy customers are and how valuable their time is.
At a Market District, people can watch a demonstration from a store chef, then get the ingredients for that recipe in nearby display cases. Or they can pick up already chopped vegetables or simply make the store a destination point by eating a freshly cooked meal right there.
Karet says the Market District concept builds on the traditional grocery business where shoppers take home prepared foods from a deli or fill a cart with items to make meals at home from scratch.
All the while, the consumer is building up loyalty rewards with the grocer’s gasoline program called Fuel Perks. Customers get money off a gasoline purchase at a Giant Eagle GetGo station for every $50 they spend at the store.
With sales last year of $9.9 billion, Giant Eagle is a big company. But away from her job, Karet said she and her family are no different from others.
“I happen to have an unbelievably supportive husband. He actually enjoys packing lunches and he’s great at it. He likes to get up and make breakfast for the kids. There’s no traditional thing that says the mom gets up and does the mom stuff,” said Karet, 44, during her visit to the Market District store in Solon.
Moving forward with its expansion plans, Giant Eagle followed up the Solon opening — its first in Northeast Ohio — with an announcement just a few days later that a Market District would become part of the Cuyahoga Falls’ Portage Crossing development.
With the Cuyahoga Falls announcement, the company will have nine Market District outlets, including one planned for Strongsville. The others are in Columbus and Pittsburgh.
“Anyone who is trying to juggle kids, work, any sort of community activity — it doesn’t matter whether you’re a mom or not a mom, you’ve got a lot to deal with. If I do represent one thing versus a previous generation, [it’s] trying to juggle a lot of stuff. I know people are busy and getting dinner on the table is a struggle and getting healthy things on the table is a struggle,” she said.
Karet said Giant Eagle’s approach is meeting a wide variety of consumers’ dietary needs as well as demonstrating its awareness of various health issues.
Giant Eagle is in the midst of what Karet calls an aggressive growth strategy for many formats:
• That includes Market District stores, described as a food-lover’s destination combined with a traditional grocery store.
• Giant Eagle supermarkets.
• GetGo stations.
• Valu King/Good Cents Grocery + More, the company’s low-cost concept.
• Giant Eagle Express, smaller neighborhood stores.
The privately owned company was founded in 1931 by five families. Though its base is Pittsburgh, Giant Eagle actually has more stores in Ohio than in Pennsylvania. There are 121 supermarkets in Ohio, 104 supermarkets in Pennsylvania, 95 fuel and convenience stores in Ohio and 88 in Pennsylvania.
In the Akron region, Giant Eagle operates 30 stores, including three in Medina County, four in Portage County, 10 in Stark County and 13 in Summit County.
Ohio “is a very important market — the whole Northeast Ohio market and Akron in particular,” said Karet, the eldest of the fourth-generation of the founding five families. All five families have representatives on the company’s board of directors, with many of the families having members throughout the company. Karet succeeded her father, David Shapira (who is executive chairman), as CEO in 2011.
Karet did not join the family business right away. She held marketing positions at Sara Lee from 1997 to 2000, including director of branded marketing for the bakery division, and also served in several brand management roles at Procter & Gamble from 1990 to 1997. She joined Giant Eagle in 2000 as vice president of marketing.
Under Karet, the company has become innovative, said Meg Major, chief content editor for Progressive Grocer, a national industry trade publication.
“There are more eco-friendly stores and the sheer expansion of the Market District format is tied closely to that transitional phase where David had departed and Laura came into her own,” said Major, who is based in Pittsburgh and is familiar with Giant Eagle stores. “She’s definitely been an integral part in the successes the company has seen.”
Major said Karet and Giant Eagle are well-respected in the industry. Karet was named twice among Progressive Grocer’s Top Women in Grocery list, in 2007 and 2010, and the company is ranked 15th among the top 50 grocers in the country based on revenues.
“Giant Eagle is from our perch certainly a definite leader in the industry without a doubt,” Major said. “The multi-format nature of their stores is becoming quite significant to their operating strategy in terms of not just having a one-size-fits-all store model.”
Giant Eagle has also become an industry leader in rewards programs with Fuel Perks, said Major.
Tying fuel rewards to groceries has become a trend for many supermarkets, and the loyalty becomes even stronger when gas price are higher, said Jim Hertel, managing partner of Willard Bishop, a food retail consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill.
“The reality is if you can get people and change a $25 order to a $35 order, there’s incremental margin to be made there,” he said.
Giant Eagle’s GetGo fuel has become a multibillion-dollar business for the retailer, the company said.
Offering discounted fuel is one more way to get consumer loyalty at a time when grocers are competing not only with other traditional grocery stores, but Walmart, Dollar General, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, said Gene Gerke, president of Gerke & Associates, a Missouri-based food management consulting firm.
“Bringing the same old approach to the business today, in my mind makes you doomed to fail. You have to be able to evolve,” Karet said. “We can’t predict the future. You have to figure out what’s right in front of you and do something about it.”
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3688 or email@example.com