I like to think I know a fair bit about supermarket retailing in the USA, having visited stores in 30 states, but one of the joys of America is that there is always a nice surprise around the corner. And a way of remembering that sitting at one’s desk is the worst way to be a retail analyst.

Madison in Wisconsin is a fine city. It had an entire store devoted to Wisconsin Badgers sportswear, a stark reminder that badgers, alongside otters, are grotesquely underused as sporting mascots. The city also boasted some majestic architecture, tremendous food and beer and is also the most bike-friendly place I’ve ever been to in the country.

Safe to say, I really enjoyed my two days there, and took in a couple of nice stores. It was on the way out of the city, however, that I stumbled across a real supermarket jewel. I was in search of breakfast and some end-of-holiday wardrobe replenishment, so headed to the Hilldale Mall. I was there that I encountered Metcalfe’s – one of a three-strong chain of family-owned supermarkets in Wisconsin that oozes class and many of the qualities that good food retailing stands for: provenance; localness; service; consummate visual merchandising; and experience.

There are many things that mean that this store will linger long in the memory, but I think that provenance and localness are the two features that will be the most abiding. Loads of retailers bang on about local sourcing, but I can think of about two in the world that undertake the endeavour of supporting local producers as meticulously as Metcalfe’s.

Point of sale throughout the store boasted of Metcalfe’s dedication to the mission of ‘bringing local home’. In other hands, this would be the sort of hollow promise that I’ve seen from countless retailers: stocking about a dozen local SKUs while the rest of the store is a morass of national brand sterility. Not so here. At every turn, there was genuine evidence that this is a business that cares about the environment, cares about local farmers, cares about food and – as a consequence of the above – cares about its shoppers. I hate being preachy, but this stuff matters and Metcalfe’s is an exemplar of how to do it.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a food store, Metcalfe’s is no slouch either, a lovely mix of modern and traditional with an evident pride in merchandising and instore standards. Produce was a treat, graphics underscoring the retailer’s credentials atop some fantastic misted displays of fruit and vegetables.

Other parts of the store were equally intriguing. US supermarkets do a fine line in shiny tiled floors, and this was no exception. Throughout, standards were excellent with great availability and the shelves faced up to a state of near perfection. Graphics were used nicely around the perimeter of the store and, this is where it gets interesting, individual items had their food miles displayed on-shelf.

Not some notional food miles either – the actual number of miles from the store where they were produced. I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that this sort of signage would be impossible to implement for a Kroger, a Magnit or a Tesco, and it is in this respect that Metcalfe’s benefits from being a small retailer, but the message that it conveyed about localness and authenticity was marvellous.

As an industry, we spend far too much time sat on our backsides and limiting our sphere of research to the big cities where we live; be that London, Boston, New York or wherever. This trip to Metcalfe’s was testament to the fact that making the effort to travel and see new retailers can yield rich dividends in terms of insight, education and inspiration.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director

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