Stronger Than Steel: McKeesport Candy Co.

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Switching Gears

"Above all, the wholesaler must be willing to make adjustments. There are no blueprints for these changes and choices we must make - certainly none which will suit everyone. We cannot say one is the right choice for all."

- Earnest Prince, speaking as president of NCWA in his 1955 convention keynote address to the industry.

While other Candy and Tobacco wholesalers have changed their product mix to compete as full-line convenience product distributors, McKeesport Candy instead opted to specialize in candy and change the focus of its customer base. The company services few convenience stores; now the majority of its accounts are large supermarkets. In these stores, McKeesport mainly services the bulk candy displays.

Rounding out the wholesaler's retail customer base is an eclectic group of niche markets including small candy shops, department stores, card shops, bookstores, drugstores, military institutions, even a hardware store and a shoe store. McKeesport also has a thriving fundraising business, which Jon launched while still in college at Ohio University. He started selling candy to schools and organizations in the area eight years ago, though Jerry told him "We don't do that. That's not our business."

But Jon pushed forward, and since then, the fundraising base has grown to about several hundred accounts throughout McKeesport's distribution area. "It's growing nicely," Jerry reports today. "Its become another niche that we need to be competitive."

The fundraising business serves as a good example of the company's commitment, or even devotion to customer service. "It's our main focus, our passion," Jon says.

Like the woman concerned about the Reese's cup counts, customers can reach him 24 hours a day, seven days a week usi8ng a special pager software program the wholesaler provides. Accounts receive a disk to load on their computers that allows them to type messages to Jon. The messages then appear on his pager, so he can respond quickly.

"The fundraising business is 1 percent about selling the candy, says Jon. "They can buy the product anywhere. It's more about establishing trust. You're dealing with folks that, number one, aren't business people and, number two, don't know anything about buying. So, they have to feel comfortable with you."

The high comfort level, he says, is something everyone at McKeesport works hard to provide to its customers through services such as 24-hour support hotline, on-time delivery and support materials. "We try to dispel some of the mystery and educate people about what they are buying," Jon adds that many of his fundraising accounts have been buying from McKeesport for years, despite the fact that they're a customer type that traditionally has a high attrition rate and little loyalty to suppliers.

The company's attentiveness to customer needs has generated good word of mouth, which in turn acts as McKeesport's main source of new business, "And we get a lot of referrals," says Griffin.

Currently, the wholesaler offers fundraising products from three major manufacturers. This fall, however, McKeesport plans to introduce its own catalog sales program for fundraising accounts. The distributor once tried a manufacturer's catalog, or order-taker program, but was disappointed in the quality of the candy.

"So we decided to do it ourselves," says Jerry. "We're putting together a color brochure that will feature gift containers of our most popular bulk items. Which we normally haven't offered to our fundraising customers." McKeesport will label the containers with the organization's name.

Perhaps there's no bigger testament to the success of McKeesport's service-oriented approach than the 2-inch-thick folder of thank you letters the company has received from fundraising customers over the years. And one woman whose weekend was saved by a prompt phone call from Jon.

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