Ray's Apple Market of Manhattan

By Ashley Dunkak and Bethany Sanderson

Anita Nittler can usually spot new shoppers at the 6th Street location of Ray's Apple Market in Manhattan, Kan. For this store manager, the giveaway is a person's reaction to the customer service and friendly atmosphere.

"A lot of times nowadays, people just pass each other, don't make any contact with each other," Nittler said, "and I think I still startle some people down here sometimes because they get to coming up and down the aisle and I'll just, 'Hi, how are you today? Can I help you find something?' Sometimes they're not used to that."

Since its founding in 1965, Ray's has expanded from a one-aisle store in Seneca, Kan., to six additional Kansas locations – two in Manhattan, one each in St. Marys, Clay Center, Council Grove and one in Fairbury, Neb.

Without Ray's, several of these communities would be miles from a grocery store and lack access to fresh, nutritious food.

David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, said 40 percent of Kansas counties are severe food deserts, which means the residents must drive more than 10 miles to a grocery store. He also said 51 percent of Kansas towns are without a grocery store.

Procter thought the presence of Ray's was particularly important to Clay Center and Council Grove.

"It's pretty clear that those stores are the only source of healthy, nutritious food for many miles around," he said. "So in that sense, those stores in those two communities… are really vital, preventing people from living in food deserts."

More than a Store: Ray's in St. Marys

For the St. Marys community, simply the presence of Ray's Apple Market has been a service to the residents. After the town's previous grocery store burned down in 2005, the people there were without a full-service store for several years until Ray's stepped in.

"When we lost our grocery store, it definitely had an impact," said Helen Pauly from the St. Marys Chamber of Commerce.

Though the local pharmacy and other stores in town started carrying some items, residents had to drive a minimum of 16 miles round trip to the nearest full-service grocery store in Rossville.

Ryan Meireis, store manager of the Ray's in St. Marys, moved there shortly before Ray's opened and experienced the frustration of driving long distances for groceries – a frustration the whole community had been experiencing for some time.

"The store was only one month away from being open, but just that one month was so inconvenient," he said.

When Ray's finally opened, it gave the community local access to a variety of fresh, high-quality foods.

"It makes you feel like you're from the big city," said Pauly, referring to the convenience of having so many choices right at her fingertips. "I don't think a week goes by that I don't hear how thankful people are now to have a grocery store. They appreciate it because it was gone and they didn't have it."

Ray's also strives to complement its products with excellent customer service

"Ray's seems to be continually trying to figure out what the community will purchase," Pauly said, "changing brands and changing types of foods so they keep a variety of things going. And they're willing to order in anything that you want."

Meireis special-orders certain gluten-free products for one of his customers to purchase by the pallet. He has also special-ordered other items and even brought back a discontinued ice cream flavor for just one customer.  

Meireis and Pauly have both been pleased with the community's response to Ray's.

"I feel like the community has stepped up and shown their appreciation for them being here by using them," Pauly said.

Dave Imming is a regular customer at Ray's in St. Marys. Though he averages about four trips to the store in a week, he has been known to make up to three trips in one day.

He said Meireis is often "right out there in the thick of it," carrying groceries or stocking the shelves, but that he will drop whatever he is doing to help a customer.

"If you need something, he (Meireis) says, 'I bet I can find it for you,' and he always does," Imming said.

For Imming and other customers, grocery shopping has become more than just an item to check off a to-do list. It's actually fun.

"It's kind of like a family here," he said. "I just enjoy going to grocery store. It's kind of a fun time."

Local Ownership

Procter said he thinks the local ownership of Ray's differentiates it from bigger options such as Wal-Mart, Hy-Vee and Dillons.
Mike Floersch, owner and operator of Ray's — whose father started the business — lives with his family in Clay Center, where Ray's headquarters is located.

"I think that Ray's may be more nimble in that if there's something that someone comes in and asks for – they want a particular kind of health food or something like that – it's probably a lot easier for Ray's to make that kind of decision and purchase that kind of food," Procter said, "as opposed to Hy-Vee or Wal-Mart if it doesn't fit into what the corporate office says it's going to sell in this particular area."

Procter said he thinks that Ray's will go further in custom service than stores like Hy-Vee, Dillons and Wal-Mart might because while it may not be policy for the bigger stores to accommodate individuals, Ray's can write its own policy.

Nittler, who worked at the Council Grove location before going to Manhattan in 2009, said that in addition to paying close attention to its customers, the family who owns Ray's is attentive to the ideas of its employees. Having been in the grocery business for decades, those people have seen the ups and downs and been through many changes and modernizations.

"They listen," Nittler said. "If you have ideas, they listen to what you have to say. If it's something they think can be incorporated into the business, they will do it. They don't just listen to you and then blow you off. I really like them. They're kind of a laid-back bunch of people, but then again, they know the business, and I just really enjoy working for them."

One in a Million: Competing for Customers in Manhattan

In Manhattan, consumers have myriad choices for grocery stores. The 6th Street location of Ray's Apple Market, for example, has to contend with Hy-Vee, Wal-Mart and Dillons all within about a minute's drive. There is also a Walgreens in nearby.

"We're kind of a little fish in a big duck pond here," Nittler said.

While Ray's cannot buy in bulk the way the bigger chain stores can, it has worked out its own system to get deals on certain items from its warehouse and pass those savings on to customers. Instead of giving customers a swipe card to show at each transaction like Dillons does, Ray's posts signs by items to announce a "temporary price reduction" on products it was able to purchase for a lower price that month.

"If it's going to help us save a few dollars here and there so we can pass that savings to the consumer … that's what we've been doing," Nittler said.

She said the people at the Ray's headquarters in Clay Center, who determine pricing of the stores' products, are cognizant of the prices being offered by big box stores in Manhattan and work to keep the products at Ray's competitively priced. Even if Ray's is a few cents higher than the bigger stores on some items, it will be a few cents lower on others, Nittler said.

While the 6th Street location of Ray's struggled when Hy-Vee opened, it has since regained some of the sales volume it lost to that competitor and is really holding its own among so many other grocery stores, Nittler said.

"We've got people that come in here just because we aren't the big store," she said. "They don't want to have to walk through the big store. They're able to find things and not spend half a day in here."

Advantage of Multiple Locations

Ray's is able to price its items competitively and succeed in multiple locations partly because it has multiple locations. When one store is struggling, revenue from another store that is doing better can be used to support the one in need of some help.

While volume and buying power are typically advantages of large grocery stores, Meireis said the business model that Ray's has with multiple small stores also gives it an advantage over independent one-store owners because larger orders can be split between stores.

Across the board, the grocery business is an intensely competitive one. According to the Food Marketing Institute website, the average profit for a grocery store is two cents on each dollar of product it sells. After buying items to stock its store, paying employees, and taking care of bills, there is never much left over.

"It's a hard industry, it really is," Nittler said. "As an independent grocer, it's very hard for people that maybe have only one or two stores to make it anymore. If you've got more stores in your corporation, then you can … rely on the others because a certain part of the state may be doing a little better than another part of the state, so we kind of end up helping each other out, it seems like, from time to time."


Keeping Up with the Times

As newspapers become more and more obsolete, grocery stores have begun to advertise and post their weekly specials online instead of only in print. Procter said this is becoming more and more prevalent, although some smaller stores might not have the money or expertise to set up more complex websites.

"I think that more and more stores are starting to find that there are benefits to advertising online," Procter said, "to have an online presence that appeals to not only the people that are shopping, but their kids, appealing to just a whole variety of ages through websites, Facebook, whatever it might be."

Go to www.raysapplemarket.com, and you'll find the grocery store's weekly specials, information about its meat, bakery, deli and produce departments, links to nutritional guides, and sections about interaction between Ray's Apple Market and the community. Using the Internet to connect with consumers has helped the 6th street location tremendously, Nittler said.

"So many people are on the computer, not everybody gets a newspaper anymore," she said, "so by having our ads on that each week, they're able to see what we've got, not have to go find a paper to get our weekly ad."

In St. Marys, the impact of online content is harder to define. Meireis said the website might have less influence in St. Marys because many large families there do not have Internet. But he did add that it is another tool to help promote the store to the surrounding area.

"There are quite a few people from out of town that want to get our ads," he said. "A lady from Paxico doesn't get our ad flyer there, but she can sign up for an e-mail and get it every week."