ALTERNATE FORMATS LIVE

Sometimes it seems the time has arrived to retire that venerable industry term "alternate format." After all, the term is a little provincial because it really describes any store that has the effrontery to sell food, but which fails to hew to the definition of a supermarket.It's also true that nearly any format imaginable now has some kind of food-selling component: Convenience, mass, drug, membership

Sometimes it seems the time has arrived to retire that venerable industry term "alternate format." After all, the term is a little provincial because it really describes any store that has the effrontery to sell food, but which fails to hew to the definition of a supermarket.

It's also true that nearly any format imaginable now has some kind of food-selling component: Convenience, mass, drug, membership club, do-it-yourself and so on. After a while, it's easy to get used to those food-retailing players as a part of the competitive landscape.

But then something different happens and along comes another entrant into food retailing from a seemingly unlikely direction: As you'll see on Page 13, it now develops that petroleum-retailer Chevron Corp. is moving into the meal-solutions business. The news article was written by SN reporter Roseanne Harper.

Petroleum companies have long been in or near the convenience side of food and nonfood retailing, of course. They were pressed toward that style of retailing simply because the core proposition of their retailing offer -- fuel and other auto-related services -- proved to be insufficient to generate the cash flow needed to justify doing business. Indeed, the insufficiency of the core retailing proposition is what inspires any nonfood retailer to turn an eye toward food.

But now, Chevron is moving beyond conventional convenience with the test of a store that would sell fresh-prepared meals. The first such store just opened in San Ramon, Calif., with another five or so to roll out later in the year. Some of the units will include fuel sales, some won't.

The stores are to be called "Foodini's Fresh Meal Market," a name that seems to owe its heritage to escape-artist Houdini, since one of Foodini's marketing tag lines is "escape from cooking."

In any case, stores will include features such as a service counter, from which hot meals will be merchandised; a coffee bar; a snack area; a soup and salad counter; a fresh bakery; and grab-and-go areas from which packaged meals and side dishes will be offered. The initial Foodini's is of about 4,250 square feet.

Price points for single servings of various food products are modest, generally in the range of $4 to $5. Plans call for phone and fax orders to be accepted, along with walk-in business. Products appropriate to all three meal occasions of the day are offered.

This sally into food retailing is a move supermarket operators should look at carefully since Chevron is already well into the convenience-store industry with more than 5,000 stores in operation. It's not too difficult to picture Chevron retrofitting many of those convenience stores into meal-solutions stores in much the same way Wal-Mart Stores is busily converting discount stores to supercenters.

At the same time, perhaps it is a little ironic that this type of retailing venue would surface from the petroleum industry since a format much like this was cited at a recent supermarket-industry meeting as a direction in which supermarkets themselves should move in upcoming years. This opinion was mentioned in this space earlier this month.

But maybe this is all a good wake-up call: If this freestanding meal-solutions outlet is a good idea, now is the time for supermarket operators who are so inclined to make a move toward this convenience-driven line of food retailing.