Born and bred in Worcester, Imperial Distributors has grown steadily since its inception over 70 years ago in a garage on Holland Road. Based in Worcester and Auburn, Massachusetts, Imperial currently serves over 2,000 food stores and employs 600 people, — a far cry from the one-man business scrambled together by founder Frank B. Sleeper in 1939.
Then, as now, privately owned Imperial served as a non-foods service wholesaler/distributor, buying cases in lots from manufacturers, delivering products to stores in shelf quantities, and providing in-store merchandising services. Approximately 20,000 SKU’s are stocked at the Worcester and Auburn distribution centers. The product assortment is focused on health and beauty care items, cosmetics and general merchandise, including a large assortment of housewares, film, batteries, stationery, baby needs, pet supplies, and seasonal non-food products.
A native of Worcester, Frank Sleeper was just 25 years old when he started his business in troubled economic times, as the nation was emerging from the Great Depression. He scraped a few dollars together, invested in an inventory of less than 100 cases of such products as toothpaste, shampoo and aspirin, and purchased a small,second-hand delivery truck. Sleeper’s “business plan” was to supply local grocery stores with a homemade cabinet with shelves to display the profitable, “impulse” products unavailable at that time from grocery wholesalers.
By the end of WWII, the operation had expanded to a company with five employees and enough warehouse space to serve 150 retailers. Business exploded in the 1950s as the nation moved into prosperity and growth, and supermarkets burst onto the retailing scene.
Supermarkets ousted the corner grocery stores, boasting larger sales areas, low prices, heavy promotions, parking lots, “one-stop shopping” with meat, produce, and grocery and non-food items. Imperial helped fuel the supermarket tide, providing such new value-added services as pre-pricing, guaranteed sale, shelf stocking, and bigger non-food assortments. As the company expanded, it moved to a larger premises on Granby Road and then to Chandler Street. The Auburn facility was constructed in 1966 and was enlarged four times over the years to its present size. In 2001, Imperial added 165,000 sq.feet of warehouse space in Worcester.
In 1964, the founder’s son, Michael D. Sleeper, joined Imperial after graduating from college. He began in the sales department, moved into purchasing, then into operations, and in 1973 was named President and Chief Executive Officer.
Today, Imperial Distributors serves chain and independent supermarket locations throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Current accounts include Acme Fresh Markets, Big Y, Bi-Lo, Dave’s Marketplace, Fairway Markets, Foodmaster, Foodtown, Hannaford, Kings, King Kullen, Market Basket, Price Chopper, Roche Bros., Shaws / Star, ShopNBag, Stop & Shop, Thriftway, Wegmans and Whole Foods and supermarkets in Puerto Rico and Bermuda. An average of 200,000 products is shipped each day.
According to Sleeper, “Our corporate mission is shaped by the retailers we serve. We respond to their day-to-day operating needs as well as their longer-term vision. It is our team members who read the marketplace and shape and build our company.”
|In 1939, little open cabinets with a few shelves and about 50 items — chiefly health and beauty care products — were placed in Worcester grocery stores by Frank B. Sleeper, a one-man operation he named Imperial Distributors. Sales per store averaged $2 a week.|