Alabama grocer Wright’s Market embraces technology while maintaining personal service

Alabama grocer Wright’s Market embraces technology while maintaining personal service
Second-generation grocer Jimmy Wright has worked diligently to expand the reach of Wright's Market. The company now delivers groceries to rural communities 30 miles away. (Amy Carson Dennis/Alabama Retailer)

Wright’s Market in Opelika began 46 years ago as a 2,100-square-foot convenience store under a different name and a different owner, but it has always been operated by a Wright.

“My dad built the original store for the (previous owner). When my dad completed the construction in 1973, the owner said, ‘You know, I don’t have anybody to run this store. Would you and your wife operate it until I find someone who can?’ Nobody else was ever found,” said Jimmy Wright, who bought the store on Pleasant Drive in Opelika in 1997 and rebranded it as Wright’s Market.

Gary and Linda Wright lived across the street from the store, so it made sense for the couple and their then 12-year-old son Jimmy to run it.

Under the Wrights’ leadership, the store expanded three times over the years, growing into a full 22,000-square-foot independent grocery known for its fresh meat and produce.

The temperature inside the Wright 2 U Freshmobile gets down to 17 degrees. “It keeps everything good and cold,” said Jimmy Wright, who uses the van to deliver fresh meat and produce to rural areas around his Opelika store. (Melissa Johnson Warnke/Alabama Retail Association)

Serving on a broader scale

It was the second-generation operator-turned-owner, though, who had the vision to “think outside of the physical box.”

In 2014, Wright repurposed a van and began a shuttle service for his customers who no longer could drive to the store. “We would go to a customer’s home and bring them to our physical store to shop, then take them back to their home,” he said.

Two years later, in 2016, Wright’s Market moved into e-commerce.  “The customer could order their groceries and pick them up at the store or have them delivered in the Opelika-Auburn area.”

The store now known as Wright’s Market has expanded three times since opening in 1973. (Amy Carson Dennis/Alabama Retailer)

The next step was serving nearby rural communities.

“Our store is back in a neighborhood. A lot of people don’t know where we are, especially in Auburn and other areas nearby,” Wright said. “We also very much saw the need for getting fresh foods to rural areas of east Alabama.”

Helping meet the need for fresh foods in areas such as Hurtsboro and Loachapoka is a 2018 federal grant that allows the store to offer half off fresh produce to certain customers and the addition earlier this year of the refrigerated “Wright 2 U Freshmobile.” The refrigerated van was made possible by another grant through Alabama’s inaugural Healthy Food Financing Program.

“We deliver 30 miles out now,” Wright said. “It went in gradual stages. It all goes back to serving the customer.”

Wright’s Market is the only independent, single-store grocer nationwide involved in a pilot program that will allow those on federal food assistance to use their SNAP benefit card to pay for purchases online. That program is expected to launch in November.

Utilizing technology is “an opportunity to serve people, which is what we have done since the doors opened in 1973, but we just do it on a much broader scale,” Wright said.

“The phrase I use is ‘high tech, high touch,’” he said. “My philosophy is no matter where we are – in-store, outside the store or online – we want to maintain the personal relationship we have with our customers.”

Hunger, housing and healthcare

Besides customers, the innovations at Wright’s Market have garnered awards for Wright and the store. In 2015, he was the Opelika Chamber of Commerce’s Spirit of Opelika award winner; and in 2016, Wright’s Market was the Dream Big Blue-Ribbon Award Winner that won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Community Excellence Award for that year.

Jimmy Wright’s family ran an independent grocery in Opelika for 24 years before Wright bought it and rebranded it as Wright’s Grocery in 1997. He continues to take the business in new directions through e-commerce. (Amy Carson Dennis/Alabama Retailer)

Wright is a past board chairman for the Opelika chamber, a past board member of the National Grocers Association and a current member of the Alabama Grocers Association board.

“I have always tried to advocate for our industry on any level that I could,” he said.

These days, “I have tried to place my main focus on hunger, housing and healthcare,” he added. He serves on the boards of the East Alabama Food Bank, Opelika Housing Authority and East Alabama Medical Center Foundation.

Communities need independent grocers, Wright contends.

“Our small towns, as they grew, were anchored by merchants buying and selling goods and serving their communities,” he said. “That is a great legacy to continue.”

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This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retailer, a publication of the Alabama Retail Association.

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