Caitlin Tierney, 99 Cents Only Stores

Caitlin Tierney
99 Cents Only Stores

Produce program making significant inroads

The 99 Cents Only stores have built in price challenges with fresh items such as produce, nonetheless the chain has built a very credible produce program and that department is the leading seller for the deep discounter.

Caitlin Tierney, who is director of fresh for the close to 400-store chain, joined the outfit in 2016 as a veteran produce retailer with more than a decade of experience across the country in a diverse array of operations.

Her story begins in Farmington Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, where she grew up and attended high school.  Unsurprisingly, her father worked for the area’s ubiquitous automobile industry as he had an executive position with the Ford Motor Company.  But Caitlin had different ambitions. She went to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., beginning her studies as a pre-med major with dreams of becoming a doctor.

At the two-year mark, she switched to entrepreneurial studies determining her talents and interests lie in a different direction. While still in college, she started working for a mortgage company, but didn’t particularly like that industry, and decided to try her hand at retailing.

It wasn’t long before Caitlin Tierney found her niche.  She first took a position with Spartan Stores in Michigan as a category assistant in the produce department.  “I learned about the industry one strawberry at a time,” she quipped.

About a year later, she was promoted to produce buyer and fell in love.  “I love the supply chain and find it fascinating,” she added.

Caitlin stayed with Spartan Stores for six years before a change in management caused her to look elsewhere and expand her experiences.  She soon moved to New York and began working for Fresh Direct, the online retailer that emphasizes top-notch produce for its customers.  She called it a great experience.  “The quality of produce we sold was amazing.  We had to make sure it was perfect and only bought the top grades,” she said.

She loved the experience and could have stayed their longer, but Tesco, one of Great Britain’s leading chains, came knocking.  They wanted some help with their on-line business and the job soon grew into a senior produce buying position when the chain launched Fresh & Easy in Southern California as its entry into U.S. retailing.  Caitlin moved to California and was with that retailer until it closed its doors.  She again learned a lot and was grateful for the experience.

The now-veteran produce buyer uses similar adjectives to describe her stop in between Fresh & Easy and 99 Cents Only stores.  For more than two years, Caitlin was with Bayer CropScience working with seed producers, growers and retailers as the seed division of Bayer attempted to engage the end buyer to create demand for its particular seed varieties.  The idea was to have large retail buyers commit to buying specific varieties, thus creating demand for those varieties.

While Caitlin called it fascinating, she admits to missing the dynamics involved in retailing and driving consumption at the end of the supply chain, rather than at the beginning.

It was 2016 and the position at 99 Cents Only stores emerged.  Caitlin has found it to be a great fit.  “I love it.  We serve the underserved creating a viable option for groceries for those who can least afford them.

99 Cents Only has stores in four states: California, Arizona, Nevada and Texas.  The majority of the stores are in California, but it is continuing and it has a distribution center in Texas as well as in the Golden State.

Caitlin loves making deals and creating great bargains for the retailer’s customers.  Along the way she has helped upgrade the offerings and is proud of the produce she buys and is stocked on the shelves for the eponymous 99 cents.

Since she has been with the company, produce sales have grown tremendously.  It is now the chain’s top seller and within produce, organics make up 21 percent of sales.  To accomplish this, 99 Cents Only has expanded its pricing format.  For produce, there are now three sets of prices: 99 cents, $1.49 and $1.99. Of course, often those pricing numbers are use to sell multiples, such as three lemons for 99 cents.

Caitlin said it is virtually impossible to have a credible and well-stocked produce department if you only stayed within the constraints of the store’s name.  And she admits that it is sometimes an issue as some customers want to hold them to that.  But she quickly rattles off  several $1.99 prices that are killer deals for customers.  “Most of our customers don’t mind when they see we are giving them two pounds of avocados for $1.99 or a bag of apples for $1.99.  That’s a much better value than they can get anywhere else.”

She noted that packaged salads sell for that price as well as some great organic items.  But there are still many items at 99 cents, including a one-pound clamshell of organic strawberries from Mexico that the chain offers about 30 weeks of the year.

While the retailer attempts to offer every item, every day, Caitlin says that is not always possible.  She called cauliflower “a problem child” and said when celery prices rose into the stratosphere last year, “that became a bit of a challenge,” she said.

“But usually we find a way.  We adjust sizes or variety.  We don’t buy the sizes in the greatest demand.  We are always looking for value but our goal is to be a number one grade or better,” she said.

She said the produce department is heavily concentrated toward the top sellers but the company has more than doubled the number of SKUs it carries since she came aboard.  Plus, building the organic department from nothing to more than 20 percent of produce sales in three years is quite an accomplishment.  Caitlin believes the retailer’s produce sales will double in the next five years.

While the chain is clearly a deep discounter, Caitlin lists all retailers as competitors.  “Everyone in L.A. is fighting for the same customers,” she said.  “Our goal is to have those customers make 99 Cents Only their first stop.”

She said the chain cannot fill up the average customers entire basket, but if they can get the shopper to come to  their store first, they can pick off some sales with some of their unquestionably great deals.

It appears that Caitlin Tierney’s goal is now to grow the produce department one strawberry – make that one load of strawberries – at a time.