Personal touch pays off in Cranberry Shop 'n Save

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

Jim and Jeff Sorbara are trying out ideas at their new Shop 'n Save in Cranberry that could show up later in some of their five other stores.

A sushi bar with a chef on duty all day, every day. A salad bar, the first for the father-and-son-owned group of Pittsburgh-area supermarkets. Bigger selections of prepared foods and more natural, organic and gluten-free items.

The store that opened in late April about a mile from busy Route 19 "keeps the business modernized," Jim Sorbara said. "We have to keep upgrading the stores as they get older, and this is a new store with a lot of new technology."

He once owned 10 Shop 'n Saves in the region, and sold all but one to giant grocery supplier and retailer Supervalu Inc. Five years ago, as his son joined the business, they bought four stores that had weakened under corporate ownership, and doubled their sales by emphasizing deli, baked goods, produce and service, he said.

The new store brings Shop 'n Save back to Cranberry after a six-year absence. It's an example, the Sorbaras say, of how an independently owned supermarket can carve out a customer base even as bigger rival Giant Eagle, mass merchandisers such as Wal-mart and Target, discount grocery and dollar store chains sell food and household products in the booming township. Cranberry's population has nearly doubled in the last two decades.

Shop 'n Save nowadays is a group of 73 independently owned stores in Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia. Supervalu supplies about 80 percent of the groceries, and works with the owners on issues such as marketing and store setup, said Bill Lipsky, the company's area sales director.

"Their family has done a nice job with their current stores," Lipsky said of the Sorbaras.

"The whole Shop 'n Save group of independent owners are wonderful promoters" who know their communities and thus can run stores with a local flair. In-store bakeries turn out cookies and cakes iced with local school colors, and even names and jersey numbers of high school sports stars, for example.

Jeff Sorbara pointed out suggestion forms in the Cranberry store. If the store gets a few requests for a product, a case can be brought in about a week later to see how it sells.

"Our relationship with the customer, with the community, is a lot stronger" than at corporate-owned stores, he said. "A lot of times I get personal calls, whether it's for certain items or for fundraising."

While there are fewer independent supermarket owners these days, those who run larger stores are better equipped to compete, said Suzanne Long, retail practice leader for consulting firm SSA & Co. Owners succeed or fail based on factors such as service, store cleanliness and speedy checkouts, she said, but they often have less say over varieties of products on their shelves.

Wegmans is an example of a very successful family-owned chain. And the Shop 'n Save brand's emphasis on low prices makes it better able to compete with big players such as Wal-mart than a store chain that keeps prices higher and runs specials. Grocers' overall profit margins are low -- 1 to 2 percent -- she said.

The personal touch can be vital, she said. "People recognize when their grocery store is no longer catering to them and their demographic," she said.

Three generations of the Sorbara family have sold groceries.

Vincent and Agnes Sorbara ran an Italian food store in Carnegie. Jim Sorbara bought his first store, a small Thorofare where he worked, in 1972 in Kennedy. His late brother, Joe, owned local Shop 'n Saves.

Jim Sorbara sold his stores as Minneapolis-based Supervalu bought up 20 local Shop 'n Saves in the late 1990s. He ran some corporate-owned stores, and bought a store in South Fayette. Sales have grown consistently, he said.

"Pittsburgh doesn't have a lot of selection for supermarkets," he said. "They need a little variety and competition. The one chain dominates everything, but we are doing fine."

The Sorbaras' busiest store is the one in South Fayette, which didn't interest Supervalu when it was buying up Shop 'n Saves, Jeff Sorbara said. The South Fayette store is in a mostly residential area, and the Sorbaras opted for a site outside Cranberry's main business district for their new store.

"It's a little more convenient for me," said Mary Jo Smith, who lives a couple blocks away. "It's a nice, clean store, everything is new and there are a lot of choices in produce. I like that."

Dairy products at the new store are behind glass doors instead of on open, refrigerated shelves. The closed cases with cool, light-emitting diode lights use 30 percent of the power that open cases consume, and products stay fresh longer, Jeff Sorbara said.

An upstairs food service and seating area overlooking the store runs daily lunch specials, such as a roast beef sandwich for $1.99. In addition to sushi and salads, the prepared foods and deli area carries a bigger variety of ready-to-go meal items, olives, imported cheeses and other items.

Supervalu sold a former Shop 'n Save in Cranberry to the Kuhn's chain in 2006. Customers are happy to have the brand back, Jeff Sorbara said, adding one customer brought in a spreadsheet comparing prices on about 200 items at several retailers. The store's prices were higher on some things, but its final tally on her list was the lowest, he said.

Some features at other Shop 'n Saves are absent in Cranberry, such as self-checkout lanes.

"We put them in our five other stores," Jeff Sorbara said, "but based on customer feedback, it didn't make sense." Customers struggling with the machines often need store employees' help, and that minimizes labor savings, he said.

The store has no bank or pharmacy, either, because a First Commonwealth branch and CVS drug store are in the same shopping complex.

The Cranberry store, like the Sorbaras' others, accepts local competitors' coupons. The Shop 'n Save group has a team that meets weekly to go over advertisements and pricing strategies, but the 28 owners can't seem to agree on a coupon policy, he said.

Jim Sorbara said he's gradually phasing himself out of daily operations. "Nowadays, I enjoy watching Jeffrey run the business," he said.

Additional Information:

A closer look

About Sorbara's Shop 'n Save stores:

Owners: Jim and Jeff Sorbara

New store: 1197 Freedom Road, Cranberry. About 200 employees. Open 6 a.m. to midnight daily.

Features: Full-service floral, dry cleaning, prepared foods area with sushi, salad and olive bars, mezzanine food service area with 120 seats, and conference room for community use.

Other stores: Shop 'n Saves in Bethel Park, Heidelberg, Kennedy, South Fayette and Wilkins.

Shop 'n Save group: 28 owners operate 73 stores in Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia. A Hill District store could open in November. Tom Jamieson owns the largest cluster, with 10 stores. The Sorbaras follow with six and the Duritsa family owns five Shop 'n Saves, plus two Foodland stores.

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