Even as it has been shutting some stores and trying to get concessions from unionized employees, West Sacramento-based Raley's is trying to reassert its brand in a brutally competitive Northern California supermarket environment.
The privately held company's multiple marketing efforts range from online shopping options to expanded private brands to working closely with local growers and even bringing back an instantly recognizable voice from the past.
"We're always looking for ways to improve the Raley's brand, both in our food and service area," said Kevin Konkel, senior vice president of sales and marketing. "Yes, we are doing different things."
Analysts are skeptical that marketing efforts will be enough to solidify Raley's position against the onslaught of competition from nonunion discount grocers such as Wal-Mart. Raley's sales fell 8 percent between 2008 and 2010.
But local shoppers are likely to notice some of the efforts.
One of the most visible is the return of 83-year-old Frank McMinn, the longtime radio voice of Raley's. McMinn's silky-smooth delivery could seemingly prompt the most jaded radio listener to take instant notice of a weekly special on sweet corn.
The folksy McMinn who joined Raley's as an ad man in the 1950s and was a marketing vice president before retiring in 1993 was out the door as pitchman in late 2008, when Raley's opted to try other marketing options.
However, when Michael Teel, grandson of Raley's founder Tom Raley, came back on board as CEO in early 2010, things were re-evaluated.
Konkel recalled meeting with Teel and explaining that "Frank is eager and anxious to help in any way he can."
And with that, McMinn was back, just about a year ago.
Ironically, McMinn's role as a spokesman for Raley's produce began after his formal retirement in the early 1990s. He was doing some consulting work, narrating spots for Bel Air Supermarkets.
Konkel said Raley's execs took notice.
"At some point, we said: 'Why can't Frank tell the story? Hey, Frank, you're a great storyteller, Let's try you out.' And it was magic. It resonated with our customers."
For his part, McMinn is pleased to be back in the fold.
"Oh, sure, I'm enjoying it," he said. "It's not that difficult. They simply tell me what they want to advertise, and then we work on the copy. We have an agency involved now, too."
McMinn said he routinely runs into longtime local radio listeners who say, "Hey, I always felt like you were talking to me."
Beyond McMinn, Raley's is reaching out to consumers in various ways.
The company's "ecart" program which began in a single store in Benicia in 2003 now takes in about 30 stores, including more than 15 Raley's and Bel Air markets in the Sacramento area.
The ecart system enables shoppers to select groceries online and have their orders filled by a Raley's employee. Customers can then drive by the store at a specified time to pick up food without leaving their cars. Raley's also offers e-coupons at its website.
Dovetailing with the company's emphasis on families and food, Raley's touts its relationship with local growers.
"We work with family farms within 50 miles of each location of the stores," Konkel said. "We're encouraging our produce managers to work with local growers and bring more sustainable items into our stores."
Raley's likewise promotes its private brands, everything from fresh deli offerings to daily meal specials. Raley's brand foods include steaks, kabobs and romaine hearts.
"Private brand development is very important to us," Konkel said. "The idea is for Raley's shelf items to be better than the national brand."
Other consumer-outreach efforts include a $3.99 generic drugs program, a nutrition labeling system based on a points scale of 1 to 100, store-specific merchandise in the company's Nob Hill Foods and Food Source chains, and "Raley's Dailies," which the company bills as consistent value pricing on items customers buy most.
Konkel also said Raley's is always looking for ways to get customers more involved, and that "a more dynamic way is coming before the holidays."
Konkel declined to elaborate, but there is already considerable online traffic saying that Raley's is ready to roll out a customer-loyalty card, called "Something Extra." Consumer and employee accounts say it will track purchases and provide perks based on an industry standard 1-point-for-every-dollar spent system.
Is all of it enough to turn the tide against discount chains such as Wal-Mart, which is scheduled to open multiple Neighborhood Market stores in the Sacramento area this month?
Analysts say Raley's faces a tough climb.
"Thinking local and boosting your brand those are good moves," said Raymond Flores, a Los Angeles-based retail/branding consultant. "But at the end of the day, consumers are so price-driven now that I wonder how much ground they can make up.
" Wal-Mart's low-cost strategy has beaten down other stores before."
Robert Reynolds, a supermarket consultant in Moraga, said Raley's faces "a very difficult situation. I'm not sure there is a magic cure.
"Part of the problem is structural. In the Sacramento area, for example, Raley's has many big stores with high overhead costs and they're going against much more bare-bones operations."
Raley's-loyal customers are more confident about the local grocer's future.
"I've shopped (Raley's) for years and will continue to shop at their stores no matter what," said Janet Thomas-Reed, strolling the produce aisle of Raley's at Antelope Road and Interstate 80 in Citrus Heights. "The stores are clean and kept up, the staff is friendly and the prices are good for the things I buy for my family."
At the Bel Air store at 4005 Manzanita Ave., in Carmichael, Sacramentan Pat Doyle said she was "sticking with the local stores I believe in supporting local businesses, and I like their stores. I will not be changing."