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Every good retailer knows that they need to keep customers happy and returning to grow a successful business. Laura Malisani of Gary and Leo's Fresh Foods IGA understands that it takes more to be successful than shoppers and products—she says you must build relationships by investing in your employees, community, businesses, and IGA family.
"We view our business as being like a triangle," Malisani explains. "You have to have a strong business that can support its employees and provide competitive and fresh products that your customers want. All three of those things are hugely important to have a successful grocery store." If you take care of your customers, your employees, and your business, she says, each of those components balance another for a successful business.
Gary and Leo’s is a second-generation grocer, founded by Gary Leland and Leo Job and now run by Gary’s daughter, Laura Malisani, her husband John Malisani, and Leo’s son Tracy Job.
Gary and Leo's is a second-generation independent retailer, taken over from Gary by his daughter, Laura and her husband John Malisani, and from Leo by his son Tracy Job. The three of them work as a team, having learned how to run the business successfully from their fathers (and father-in-law, in John's case) by leveraging the national presence of IGA and coupling it with a local knowledge of what's happening in town. They merge IGA's National Digital Ad with hometown touches, like highlighting a local play, to communicate the best of both worlds to customers. "I love to try to make all of these things work together and be interconnected," Malisani says. "We have the ability to do that as independent grocers in a way that is so much more sincere and connected than Walmart would be able to do or an Albertsons."
New department managers at Gary and Leo’s prepared a Christmas Eve breakfast for the crew.
That sincerity has been especially important since a Walmart opened near the Havre, Montana location in 2005. Competing with a big box store could be detrimental to an independent grocer, but Malisani chooses to focus on what sets them apart.
"We concentrate on the areas that we can do well…that they don't tend to execute as well," she elaborates. That means investing in their strengths. "We're looking at fresh, we're looking at local products, very well-trained staff that's personable and customer service oriented." She lists their carryout offerings, convenience, and homemade foods as just a few of their many amenities that a big box store lacks.
Another amenity that the Gary and Leo's stores have is the investment the Malisanis and Job put into their employees. Malisani says they focus on cultivating strong, reliable employees who are confident and ready to help customers.
"We encourage our employees to take pride in the work they do," she says, explaining that they often focus on teaching employees soft skills that build confidence. One program, John and Tracy's new Back to Basics initiative, urges employees to step up to the intercom and tell customers what fresh items they just prepared. In the perishables department, a shopper might hear, "This is Mason. Our hamburgers are ground three times a day fresh. I just put another batch out," Malisani shares. That effort builds the employee's confidence while reminding customers of the store's fresh meat, which results in an increase in sales.
Laura Malisani having fun while learning new technology at an IGA event with husband and Gary and Leo’s partner John Malisani and Dissmore’s IGA’s Archie McGregor.
Malisani ensures the employees stay educated on best practices by taking IGA Coca-Cola Institute courses, and working with her wholesaler for additional training opportunities. With a group of managers approaching retirement soon (thanks to 30+ years with the company!), Malisani's team has hired seconds in these departments who are taking Supervalu’s 26-week, online manager classes. By taking these classes as a group, Malisani says they are cultivating important relationships with each other during the collaborative learning sessions.
When Shelley Fisher retired as bakery manager, she passed the cake server to Kathy Osakoda, her second for the last three years.
She says the Institute courses also help employees learn more about what's in the store and how they can sell items to shoppers. For example, this fall some employees took the course on the different types of apples, then offered samples, sharing their new knowledge with shoppers in-store and on the store Facebook pages.
Helping employees educate shoppers has been a priority for Malisani lately. With so much information available online, Malisani says it has become difficult for her shoppers to wade through it and make choices that best suit their lifestyles and goals. "Everything that would have been a simple decision—'Should I have kale or arugula or spinach; which is the best for me?'—People aren't always getting that it's the variety and what's right for each person might be different," she explains. That's where the educated employees come in—they can help shoppers make choices that are best for each individual, offering a personal touch.
Margaret Howard poses next to the thank you banner for the Hometown Hunger initiative.
"You don't go into a grocery store unless you're there to care for yourself or for someone you love," Malisani says. That understanding radiates through the business, from the scratch bakery offering unique, handmade items for customers looking for a treat to their new partnership with a local man growing hydroponic lettuce just a few miles down the road. The care Malisani and the Gary and Leo's team put into the store and the food make shoppers feel respected and appreciated. She's a true independent retailer who knows that the value of the grocery business goes beyond selling food.