Business: Market Jitters

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

So Acme’s not doing enough to lure the people looking for 14 different types of cave-aged gruyère — or the ones looking for half-price Kraft Singles? Not necessarily. The Paoli store has bright, modern signage and a produce section with overflowing baskets of fruit; this is the “new” Acme that corporate calls the “Premium Fresh and Healthy” model. On our tour, Spires points out the dozens of types of cheeses, a grain bar and an olive bar — “You can actually have a party out of this thing,” she exclaims — sushi, and a new line of artisan pizza, just out of the oven.

“We just added a new Stockman & Dakota aged beef,” Spires says, “because people want to have these fabulous steaks they have out at steakhouses, and now they can cook them at home with that same quality.” She explains the store’s “4 for 15” promotion, started in May, which helps customers quickly grab what they need to make a dinner for four for under $15. Acme even has its own organic line, dubbed Wild Harvest.

Still, just because you change doesn’t mean people will know it. Sometimes the problem with being around for 119 years is that you’ve been around for 119 years. When I suggest to Spires that there are people out there who see Acme as old-fashioned, that her stores may not be competing with the big, shiny new stores like Wegmans, her back gets a little straighter, and her tone a bit more forceful.

“You know, big new shiny things come along,” she says. “Well, I’m going to have big new shiny things come along, too. I have new stores in the works. I have remodels in the works. We are not doing what we did 119 years ago.”

THE ANALYSTS ARE far from counting Acme — or Spires — out just yet. Even if they were, Spires probably wouldn’t care. She’ll keep focusing on feeding her customers, thank you very much.

“When I was little, they had a gentleman in the parking lot who wore a uniform, and he helped you put your bags in the car,” Spires remembers. “And as a little girl, I thought he was the most important person in that store because everybody knew him by name; he was helping everybody. So my first exposure to this supermarket business is that what’s important is people knowing you by name, talking to everybody, helping everybody.”

Spires’s life gives her an insider’s perspective on the history of Acme, but that doesn’t mean she’s stuck in the past. She talks about retooling Acme’s online shopping endeavor (they’ve switched from home delivery to in-store customer pickup), about sustainability (Acme opened the first LEED-certified supermarket in the region last year), and about a concept she tested while working in Texas years ago that allows customers to carry self-scan pricing guns with them through the store. “I can see us eventually being on the screen in your kitchen, where we keep automatic track of what you use,” Spires says, her eyes shining a bit as she thinks about what’s ahead.