Nick Akins talks grocery business with Oroville Chamber

Gary DeVon.staff photo Customers use the new self-checkout stands at Akins Foods.
Gary DeVon.staff photo
Customers use the new self-checkout stands at Akins Foods.

React to competition with online shopping, self checkout options

OROVILLE – Nick Akins, vice-president of Akins Harvest Foods, spoke at the Oroville Chamber of Commerce’s November meeting about of the history of the family-owned stores, as well as recent updates to the stores in Oroville and Quincy – including online shopping and self-checkout stands.

“My father and brother would have liked to be here too, but due to prior commitments they are unable to make it” said Akins, “I’d like to talk to you a little about our company history.”

Akins said his grandfather came to Washington State from Arkansas and started working at a small grocery in Yakima.

“In 1963 he opened Akins in Quincy with a handshake loan of $10,000 from Dairygold,” said Akins, who said several other stores were to follow. He also said his uncle had a number of grocery stores, but has recently sold them.

“In the 1990s we ran into competition from WalMart and we shut down stores until we were left with the original store in Quincy,” he said, adding that his father became the owner in 2007. “In the 1990s we decided we had to react,” he said.

Unlike many grocery stores Akins is not part of a large change and is an independent.

The company decided it was time to expand again and in addition to the Quincy store they had a store in Bonners Ferry. That store closed after a brand new Safeway was built in the town. However, they bought Prince’s Foods in September of 2012 and leased the grocery side of the building from the Prince family. Later, together with an uncle, the entire Prince’s Center was purchased. They lease the department store side of Prince’s Center to The Country Store. The warehouse and RV park are still owned by the Prince family, he added.

“We made the purchase after many years of negotiation… Jim Prince is a tough negotiator,” said Akins. “We still face really big challenges on a daily basis, it can be really hard to compete with stores like WalMart, Winco and even Safeway.”

Clyde Andrews, former chamber president, asked if there was any plans to change the name of Prince’s Center to something like Akins Center.

“The facility will always be Prince’s Center,” he replied.

Akins said now independent groceries also have to compete with online powerhouses like Amazon, as well as WalMart, and recently the company launched a website and app for buying groceries online.

“We are very proud of our e-commerce business and we were able to add two more positions here and in Quincy,” he said. “Now people can have the convenience of shopping from their own pantry and from the fridge.

The customer can order from their computer or through their app on their phone or tablet.

“We had one woman with a baby who said she was very happy shopping online. She could order from home then drive up to the store and the groceries are brought to her without ever having to leave the car. Rather than having to bring the baby into the store and try and shop,” he said.

Andrews asked how the online business was doing now.

Akins recalled an anecdote from a  retired grocer whose business mostly cash or check. The retired grocer spoke about when his store bought in credit card machines. He said the grocer had no sales in the first week, a few in the second week and four or five in the third week.

Like the retired grocer and the credit cards it started slow, it went from nearly no orders to one a week, according to Akins.

“It will take awhile to develop. We are building up to adding delivery to the customer’s home,” he said. “Most of our online orders are coming from north of the border.”

The stores have special parking areas for those who are picking up their purchases.

“Our passion is our love for the business, love for the community we serve,” he said. “We are very open to working with the community and the school. We are committed to the community.”

A big change at the grocery store is the addition of four self-checkout stands. He assured the chamber members that the new self-checkout won’t lead to less employees at the store, but instead will make checkout faster for the customers.

Akins said the store in Oroville is much bigger than the Quincy store, but that store will be expanding. Company-wide he said Akins has 120 employees.

When asked about Akins Harvest Foods’ relationship with the Country Store, which is shared with the Prince’s Center building, Akins said, “Great. They are a great neighbor and a great tenant.”