Business: Market Jitters

Can former checkout girl Judy Spires keep Acme relevant in the age of Whole Foods and Walmart Supercenters?

In 1996, when most people were still shopping at traditional supermarket chains, those chains were getting 73 percent of the market share in this region, according to trade publication Food Trade News. With 28.4 percent of that, Acme was way out in front. Ten years later, traditional supermarkets’ share had slipped dramatically, down to 58 percent. Shoppers had been seduced by Walmart’s low-low-prices siren song. They were buying a gallon of milk on their way out of CVS. They picked up fresh fruit at Wawa during their regular morning coffee stop. Of that much-reduced 58 percent, Acme’s market share was down to just over 15 percent.

In 2009, you can forget measuring traditional supermarkets by themselves. The numbers that really count now are the ones that look at all the stores where you can buy food, because that’s how more of us are shopping — here and there, three or four times a week. At one end of the customer spectrum are relentless bargain-hunters; on the other are those with palates so picky, they’re willing to buy their favorite cookies at one place and the best cut of beef at another. Today, Acme has just 13.6 percent of that market.

It’s this downward slide that Judy Spires needs to stop. And for her, daughter of an Acme bread-truck driver, the first female president in Acme’s century-plus history, it’s more than just business.

“Somebody just gave me a recipe for these,” Spires says, picking up a package of pork ribs in the Paoli store. “As a matter of fact, my hairdresser. Said they taste just like P.F. Chang’s.” Even when she’s getting her hair cut, she’s talking about food. She visits a different Acme store each week, unannounced, to see what her customers are experiencing. On vacations to France and Italy, she checks out the supermarkets. “I don’t go to work. I go to life,” she says, mantra-like. “This business gives me energy, and through that, I’m able to energize this business and keep us moving forward.”

That mantra, that obvious passion for the business and for Acme, pretty much dictates that she rebuff any number that dares try to defeat her.

JUDY SPIRES WAS nervous on her first day of work at Acme. “I went to the store a very timid, shy, scared girl,” Spires says. “And by the end of the day, I was checking out customers on my own and loving it.” She worked there throughout college and loved it so much that though she majored in special education at La Salle, she decided not to look for a teaching job when she graduated. She pestered her store manager for an opportunity to make a career for herself there, and it paid off with a spot in the management training program. She still has the green interoffice memo that told her she was in. “There wasn’t a single woman in management,” Spires says, “but in my heart right then and there, I knew that one day I was going to be president of the company.”