May 28th 2014

A Dauntless Independent in a Small Town

Scott Mitchell Article. front pageView the original article in the Western Grocer Magazine March/April 2014

The career of Scott Mitchell, the new chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, is inspiring for those in the grocery business.

The success of his community store, Market Street Vulcan, offers persuasive evidence that you don’t have to be situated in a large urban centre to achieve success as an independent retail entrepreneur. As some of his colleagues in the industry have stated, Mitchell “runs a
large store in a small town.”Mitchell proudly recounts his family’s multi-generational
history in the retail trade. His grandfather came to southern Alberta from Toronto in the 1920s. With the predominance of agriculture in the region it was natural that he would first be attracted to the ranching profession, but his credentials as a pharmacist soon presented him with other opportunities. By the early 1940s Mitchell’s grandfather had established a successful pharmacy in the small town of Vulcan. An influx of airmen would have facilitated the growth of the little pharmacy, providing additional customers to help it flourish. During the Second World War a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base, RCAF Station Vulcan, was located a few kilometres southwest of the town. Progressing with the times and with the community of Vulcan, the family drugstore business was expanded in the 1970s and then again in 1988. However, it was the third expansion in 2005 that was the most significant
and that saw the construction of the 24,500 sq. ft. Market Street Vulcan. According to Mitchell it took about 15 years for him to acquire enough land for such a major endeavour.

“I think at that time we wanted to show people in the community that just becauseyou live in a rural setting doesn’t mean you can’t have nice things as well,” he explains. “We wanted to share our success with the community and our commitment was to build a very appealing store in a community that deserved a nice store.”Mitchell recalls that his ambitious project required a lot of homework, and he was diligent enough to seek sound advice from others in the industry. His wholesaler, The Grocery People (TGP), were instrumental in the launch of Market Street Vulcan and Mitchell has had a partnership with them ever since. During Market Street’s formative period, TGP arranged for Mitchell and his team to tour some stores in Seattle. Such industry tours are typically beneficial for independent grocers in the sense that they provide motivation and new ideas. “In Seattle we saw a lot of gathering places in stores, and so we put a fireplace area in our store where people can get together,” expounds Mitchell.

“Outside, we now have a courtyard in our greenhouse where we can launch local
products and hold events.”Mitchell chose King Design, an innovative multi-disciplinary design consultancy to assist him with creating the appropriate look for his retail business.
His goal was to own one of Canada’s most well designed and visually impressive small town supermarkets. Today, Market Street Vulcan customers enjoy the kind of shopping esthetics usually experienced only in larger urban centres. With 50 to 55 employees, Market Street Vulcan is one of the town’s largest employers and a solid anchor in the community.
Meanwhile, shoppers have the advantage of a small town staff that is genuinely committed to them and prepared to help them meet their day-to-day needs.

When disastrous floods occurred in southern Alberta last June, Vulcan was one of three communities offering assistance to the residents of High River. “We embraced them and provided respite for many people who were displaced, our hospital took in patients,” Mitchell recalls. Mitchell and his staff at Market Street Vulcan were indispensible during the tragedy. They handed out food, set up donations bins for clothes, liaised with government officials and held barbecues for evacuees billeted in Vulcan’s homes and schools. “It’s not anything that other independent grocers don’t do across the country, he insists. “When there’s an accident, when a house burns down, when a child is sick, independent grocers step up to the plate.” As chair of the CFIG, Mitchell emphasizes the numerous choices and the flexibility that independents enjoy in regard to what they can do inside their stores. Independents can also make more unique contributions within their communities and are highly individualized in areas such as human resources and marketing plans. “Independents are quicker to adapt to situations within communities, we’re more frontline,” he stresses. “I think we’re more grassroots, we understand the subtleties of the Canadian economy better than corporations do.”

Mitchell affirms that one of the biggest challenges for independents is the ever-increasing tendency toward convergence within the grocery industry. “Canadians
have to ask themselves what they want to see for their grandchildren. Do they want vibrant independent communities that have an independent flavour and that can respond to their local needs? Do they want a grassroots initiative or do they want a corporate environment? Once you have a landscape like that you’ve lost your flexibility, you’ve lost your vitality,”
worries Mitchell. One unique advantage that Market Street will continue to capitalize on is
Vulcan’s thriving tourism industry. The town’s name has generated worldwide attention—in the Star Trek television and feature film series it’s the home planet of Mr. Spock and
his fellow Vulcans. It’s not every day you see a tourist information centre shaped like a spaceship, unless of course you are in Vulcan, Alberta. The town of approximately 1,800 hosts an annual community wide Star Trek convention known as Spock Days. This gathering
regularly attracts hundreds of Star Trek fans from around the world. Beyond their Star Trek connection, the town’s administrators and business owners take technology, science and innovation seriously. “You can have cutting edge technology in a small rural community,”
Mitchell argues. The Town of Vulcan wants to set a benchmark as the hub of development
for the county and area. They’re determined to move forward with numerous
ideas and innovations. Demonstrating that they are idealistic and progressive,
community leaders recently introduced a blueprint to become the most technologically
advanced town in Canada.