Family-owned Zagara's renovates to meet new competition and modernize

John Zagara in front of the store's new bulk food dispensers. Photo by Alastair Pearson.

Zagara’s Marketplace has undergone a sweeping makeover to modernize its facilities and improve customer service.

Sleek new freezer cases line the frozen food department, filled with tandoori chicken, ground bison and glistening loaves of rye bread. The towering mounds of fruit are gone, replaced by strategically located produce displays designed to entice the customer toward a vast new bulk foods section.

The message behind the new peanut butter grinders and dispensers full of quinoa and other grains is that Zagara’s remains confident in the Heights community.

Zagara’s has served the Heights for 77 years, and to John Zagara, president of Zagara’s Marketplace since 1996, the new Walmart Supercenter that opened at Oakwood Commons on Oct. 16 is just one more grocery store in town.                      

Over the last two years, Zagara directed a $350,000 renovation program. He believes that Zagara’s high standards can overcome chains like Walmart.

“Their variety is worse, their quality is worse, the only thing that is better is the perceived price,” he said.

Zagara said that his family-owned store has a diverse core group of Heights customers whose tastes span the spectrum of what grocery stores can provide. He said he doesn’t think the new Supercenter will attract his customers, who he expects to be curious about Walmart’s low prices, but disappointed with what they find there.

“People who want the shopping experience that Walmart provides could find that,” Zagara said. “Our goal is to continue to merchandise to our customers.”

Kathleen Greenberg, a Cleveland Heights resident and Zagara’s shopper for 35 years, appreciates the changes. “To me, there’s a dramatic expansion in the type of products he’s carrying,” Greenberg said. “So much of what I’m buying is different.”

Greenberg likes the bulk quinoa, and the expanded Amy’s Kitchen frozen food line. She lauds the Nature’s Oven flaxseed breads in the gleaming new freezer aisles.

“The bottom line is, I want [Zagara’s] to survive as a business,” she said. “Just the fact that they’re here and employ people in the neighborhood.”

Zagara said that his store, built around a model that emphasizes customer service, targets a “multi-segmented” demographic.

“We get a little bit of everything. It’s really more of a melting pot store than it is a homogenous store,” said Zagara. “For me, it’s always been about flavor and how well the food is processed to create flavors people will find interesting.”

The last three years of planning and two years of restructuring had three goals: improve customer access to products, replace the frozen foods department, and install the new bulk foods department.

Zagara added new products in specialty sectors, such as wheat-free and vegetarian goods. Variety is the crux of the Zagara’s model, evidenced by the wide array of jellies and craft sodas fighting for shelf space, neon-colored iced tea next to Victorian rose lemonade.

Zagara purchased 50 new mini-shopping carts, and introduced a rewards program called ZMPreferred that offers customers discounts on household goods. Every $2 in purchases equals one program point, and one recent offer gave members who had accumulated 150 points the option to buy up to a dozen cartons of eggs for 38 cents per dozen, for a savings of $1.47 per carton.

A U.S. Bank—which Zagara hails as the “number one bank in the country” for in-store locations—has occupied the wall opposite the checkout lanes since 2012. Zagara aims to accommodate as many of his customers’ needs as possible, from finance to custom orders. If a customer submits a request for a special product, he will get the item on the shelves as quickly as possible.

So far, Zagara is unsure about Walmart’s impact on his store, and said it could take two to three months for the effects to become clear.

The struggle between Zagara’s and Walmart, between big and small, family-owned and corporate, is one with hefty advantages for the larger chains: economies of scale, union-busting power, the ability to take short-term losses. But Zagara feels that his approach is validated by his customers.

“How do I take care of the customer who’s standing in front of me?” Zagara said. “You cannot compete with Walmart on price. It’s silly even to try. We have enough business right here around us to keep us happy for many years to come.”

Alastair Pearson

Alastair Pearson, a Cleveland Heights resident, is a student at Saint Ignatius, where he edits the school newspaper and literary magazine. He is a contributor to the Observer.

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Volume 7, Issue 1, Posted 10:19 AM, 01.03.2014