After opening the business more than three decades ago, Jake Weber has sold the Village of Oak Creek’s sole supermarket, Weber’s IGA, to the Aspen-based Clark’s Market chain in June. The store will change from being a part of the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA) to becoming the first Clark’s Market in Arizona and will be tied to the Associated Food Stores distribution network, which reports serving more than 400 retailers in eight intermountain states.
The Clark family owns six stores along Colorado’s Western Slope in resort communities and rural localities – Aspen, Snowmass, Telluride, Crested Butte, Norwood and Battlement – and one in nearby Blanding, Utah. For Jake Weber, finding a buyer like Tom Clark Sr. was “an answer to my prayers.” Weber expressed reluctance to sell the store for fear that it would not continue to serve the VOC community effectively and that staff might be cut. While Weber will continue to own the Weber’s Shopping Plaza, the Clarks took over the store’s operations on June 1, and plans to employ all staff members while updating the store.
Weber and his family moved to Sedona in 1981 and ran a store in uptown Sedona until opening Weber’s Market in 1985 (in a building along SR179 on the north end of the VOC now occupied by Village Ace Hardware). The store joined the IGA network in 1987. In 1998, the operation moved to its current Verde Valley School Road location, making it possible to add a pharmacy.
Clark says the opportunity to buy the store fell in his lap. He was contacted by one of the main supermarket brokers in the country, Food Partners. Having done business with them before, the firm knew what kind of store would be a fit for Clark and his brand. In addition, he and Weber realized they had a lot in common when they first met.
“We started talking and it was clear we are both interested in family-owned companies. We found a number of similarities that way,” said Clark. “We are very interested in companies that treat their employees well. I assured Jake that we didn’t get to be the size we are by treating people badly.”
While several of Clark’s stores are geared more toward resort crowds or rural populations, he realizes he will have to satisfy both publics in the VOC. “So far, I think the store will have upscale elements for the resort crowd, but also offer many value-driven options,” said Clark. “We’re working hard on that and have recently visited other stores that blend the two because we need to satisfy everybody. We won’t specialize in one side at the expense of other. We will have both. We can’t make it without local support. We know that.”
Clark is planning a total store remodel that includes new fixtures, flooring and décor, as well as elements from other stores like an expanded produce aisle, organic section and specialty foods selection.
“People in Sedona are well-traveled and see products elsewhere they want,” he said, adding that the company is a major promoter of healthy lifestyles and healthy living, and that they will look to source as many goods locally as feasible, including produce.
So far, there have been few changes since the torch was passed, except for product mix, a new point-of-sale system, new shopping carts in two sizes, and placement of Clark’s/Associated Food Stores’ private label (Western Family).
“We are trying to get to a real feel for the market and what they are shopping for,” added Clark, who lives in Goodyear for some of the year. “We are continuing market research to know what customers want and are looking for. Number one: we are a consumer-driven company. What they want is what we will give them.”
Even as Clark and his staff learn more about what to offer at their VOC location, there a couple of areas that appear primed for expansion. “We are very interested in the bakery/deli,” Clark said. “This is one of our strengths. We will do a lot to expand that area. We will include a lot more prepared foods, to-go and such. To make pizzas and crusty breads, we are going to install a brick oven. We also want to be more of a Welcome Center for quick things like drinks, smoothies and a coffee bar. This differentiates us somewhat from other stores.”
A concern that Clark inherited is the reputation that Weber’s IGA pricing was sometimes too far out of line with Sedona and Cottonwood competitors. “We do a lot of competitive pricing in our stores, some independents don’t and I’ll leave it at that,” Clark said. “I personally do competitive pricing every day, every week. We already dropped the price of a gallon of milk. We do several hundred price changes weekly, most being down. We are getting pricing more in line with other stores. We will get there and are getting there.”
As for community involvement, Clark calls it a priority. “We are known for that and it’s another thing Jake liked about us. We will do our very best to continue Jake’s efforts. I know Jake will be around and that he’s not shy!”
Despite being in a business that offers small margins, in a service industry and retiree area like Sedona, Clark is confident that his company’s experience and values will mesh well with residents and visitors alike in the VOC. “We think we can add some real value to that market,” he said.
Clark worked for Safeway while in college, then in regional brand marketing, getting to know the retail side of the grocery business. After deciding to move to Aspen, he connected with a developer looking to build a shopping center where another much-needed grocery store could be located. The Aspen location opened in November 1978, adding other stores to his roster starting in the early 1990s.
According to the website, each Clark’s Market has “its own personality.” In resort communities, Clark’s Markets are conventional grocery stores that emphasize natural, organic and gourmet products. In the more rural country stores, Clark’s is a conventional store that “gives people the product mix that they need, and products that help them stretch their dollars as far as they can.”
By Tom Vitron
Photo by Tom Vitron