Knowing its own shoppers
Customers find it all at Farm & Fleet
The subject line on the email in my inbox stated, “Take your tailgate party to the next level with these recipes from Blain’s Farm & Fleet.”
The email included recipes for Crock-Pot cheeseburger fries, bacon sriracha queso, loaded tater tot skewers, “over the moon” pizza dip, cheesy meatball bites, buffalo chicken jalapeno poppers and more.
Enough to make the mouth water, for sure. But wait a minute: Why is Blain’s Farm & Fleet sending me tailgate recipes for foods that it doesn’t even sell? Surely this must be some type of mistake?
Farm & Fleet may not sell groceries, aside from bags of chocolates, nuts and jerky. But the retailer is keenly aware that its clientele is likely to go tailgating at a Green Bay Packers or Wisconsin Badgers football game this fall.
And if they’re going, they will need outdoor garments and gear to keep warm and to sit on, and they may need a portable grill or a cooler — all of which are sold by Farm & Fleet.
The emailed recipes reflect one of Farm & Fleet’s core strategic business philosophies: Know your customers and meet them where they live.
“Absolutely. We were at the Packer game yesterday, tailgating. We think about our customers that way,” said Jane Blain Gilbertson, CEO of the Janesville-based company. “We sell products that people can use tailgating. We think about our customers as our neighbors. And neighbors share recipes.”
Blain’s Farm & Fleet has grown to operate 38 stores and have 4,400 employees throughout Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. The company plans to open two more stores at as-yet-undisclosed locations next year.
Replete with the scents of fertilizer and tires, if Farm & Fleet stores seem comfortable and familiar to their Midwestern shoppers, that is an intentional and deliberate outcome, Gilbertson said.
Farm & Fleet monitors its customers closely and then provides merchandise to accommodate them and their lifestyles.
You like free-range chickens or eggs? The store sells poultry bedding and organic feed.
You want to grow your own fruits and vegetables? The store sells jars and canning equipment.
You have a hankering for some fresh maple syrup? The store sells tree-tapping equipment to get it done.
You want to keep your feet warm to survive a Wisconsin winter? The company developed its own private-label Work N’ Sport boots.
And along the way, Farm & Fleet continues to innovate. One of its most remarkable innovations came in 2003. On March 3 of that year, Tom Woychik, an employee at the company’s Janesville distribution center, suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died on the job.
“It shook our people to the core,” Gilbertson said.
By September of that year, the company began installing automated external defibrillator devices in all of its stores. The management teams at the stores and distribution centers were trained to provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Over the years, according to Gilbertson, the devices and training have helped save the lives of seven people, including employees and customers.
“Being family-owned allows us to concentrate on the right things,” Gilbertson said. “In 62 years, we’ve been fortunate to never close a store, to never leave a community. And we have no plans to do so. … It really comes down to trust.”
While we’re here, let’s provide the answers to some questions so many Wisconsin residents have asked over the years: What’s the difference between Blain’s Farm & Fleet and Mills Fleet Farm? Aren’t they the same stores? Don’t they sell the same things?
Blain’s Farm & Fleet was founded in Janesville by Gilbertson’s father, Bert Blain, and his brother, Claude Blain, in 1955.
Mills Fleet Farm was founded later that year in Brainerd, Minn., by Stewart Mills Sr., along with his sons, Henry Mills II and Stewart Mills Jr.
Though both retail chains were inspired by a North Dakota firm’s original co-op concept, they are independent companies. Contrary to urban legend, they were not split up because of a family feud or a divorce settlement.
As both chains began to grow, they made a “gentlemen’s agreement” to jointly purchase wholesale merchandise and avoid competing in “each other’s backyards,” Gilbertson said.
Mills Fleet Farm was sold last year to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a private equity firm.
“I’m saddened to see many familyowned businesses being taken over by Wall Street private equity firms,” Gilbertson said.
Over the years, it will be interesting to see if the new corporate hierarchy at Mills — while Blain’s remains family-owned — results in more differences between the two chains.