When it comes to bakery fixtures, more and more supermarkets are discovering that the world isn't flat.At the very least, it's slanted. European-style slanted tables, in fact, are replacing flat tables all over the place. They are one of the more important elements in a current and widespread exploration of in-store bakery merchandising trends that is prompting bakery executives to find and exploit

When it comes to bakery fixtures, more and more supermarkets are discovering that the world isn't flat.

At the very least, it's slanted. European-style slanted tables, in fact, are replacing flat tables all over the place. They are one of the more important elements in a current and widespread exploration of in-store bakery merchandising trends that is prompting bakery executives to find and exploit new fixtures to their best advantage.

What's happening is that supermarket operators are taking a more sophisticated attitude toward the in-store bakery, according to the retailers themselves, as well as consultants and equipment suppliers. Simply put, the bakery is growing in importance, and so is the equipment it uses for merchandising.

Chains and independents across the country are installing state-of-the-art equipment, with a variety of specific objectives in mind. Those objectives include making major changeovers to self-service; reorganizing an ever-growing variety of products; meeting the need to provide more convenience for today's busy consumer, and putting an exclamation point behind the freshness of the department's offerings.

To do it, retailers are looking for and installing fixtures that:

Offer flexibility and mobility, such as the latest crop of slant tables or self-contained refrigerated cases and other equipment with features such as easily adjustable shelving.

Keep a low profile or use lighting to draw more attention to the products and leave sight lines open so customers can see the in-store production behind product freshness.

Have consumer convenience built in, whether that means walk-around designs and easier access for grab-and-go purchasers.

At least one retailer reasons that it could be success that's currently breeding change in bakery fixtures.

"As we make more money, we get more space for the department, and we're allocated more money for improvements. We can add fixtures and equipment that help us sell even more product," said Barb Harner, bakery director at Steele's Markets, an upscale operator in Fort Collins, Colo.

Steele's is not alone. Retailers all over told SN they are refining their strategies for using fixtures, especially in new stores and remodels this year. Equipment consultants concurred.

"Bakery is hot; just exploding," said Terry Roberts, president of Merchandising by Design, Rochester, N.Y., a design and store-planning firm that works with supermarkets and specialty retailers.

"Supermarkets have been learning the bakery business over the last few years and now they're looking to make the most of it with better merchandising," Roberts said.

"I've seen much more activity in retrofitting and refurbishing in-store bakeries than I have in past years," said Carl Richardson, a Rochester, Mich.-based consultant who was formerly a bakery executive at Farmer Jack Supermarkets, Detroit, a 97-unit division of A&P, Montvale, N.J.

Some retailers are installing updated fixtures, in part because they're easier to clean.

"We're getting pedestal cases in our division, primarily because you can clean underneath them easily," said Charlie Van Pelt, bakery-deli merchandiser for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie's 97-unit Atlanta division.

The Winn-Dixie division is also changing its equipment to give busy shoppers what they want fast, Van Pelt said. That is why he has been putting a 15-foot refrigerated island merchandiser into new stores and remodels in addition to the existing in-line refrigerated cases of 6 to 12 feet, depending on the store. "The new island cases have helped sales because they allow us to sell more products, a bigger variety, for self-service. We try to have what people want in that case, and they'd rather just pick it up and go," Van Pelt explained.

While the division's in-line refrigerated cases are used for variety cakes and other everyday items, the island merchandisers are devoted to promotional and high-end items, Van Pelt said.

"For example, in strawberry season, we'll devote one side of the island case to strawberry pies and shortcakes in there. On the other side and on the ends, we'll have specialty desserts," he said.

The island cases are also designed with a more upscale look than the traditional coffin case, Van Pelt said.

"They're about belt-buckle high and have risers and lighting. So they display well and the access is easy. There are no doors," he said. A 3-inch curved glass edge keeps the chilled air flowing back into the case but doesn't interfere with accessibility, nor does it hamper the customers' view of the product, he pointed out.

Slanted European-style tables are new at five-unit Steele's, and Harner praised the wide variety of ways that the tables can be used.

"Their versatility is what makes them great," said Harner. "We use them flat or angled with baskets and stoppers," she explained, referring to the removable strips of wood that hold baskets or boxes in place on the slant.

"Two years ago we might have thrown a tablecloth over a flat table and built a display; now we use baskets on the slanted table. And they have wheels so we can move them around easily. You can also adjust the height of the table and it has a shelf that pulls out."

She said she will often use the built-in pull-out shelf to display a related product. "For example, we would use it for garlic bread if we have baskets of baguettes and French bread and other varieties on the slant," she said.

Flexibility is the key with the slant table fixtures that Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., added late last year in its newest stores.

"You need to change the look in the bakery. You don't want to lull people to sleep; you want to wake them up," said Tim Kean, deli-bakery-seafood merchandiser for the eight-unit retailer.

"We used to have traditional-style bread racks with fixed shelving, a long gondola that actually created another aisle. You couldn't walk around it. Now instead we have nine or 10 slant tables in the bakery aisle. You need open space so people can walk around a display and you also need to have a good traffic flow," he said.

Kean said the tables' flexibility meets both of those requirements in the stores where he has installed them.

"And the slant tables allow us to build a huge holiday display -- for instance, Christmas cookies -- and then adjust it so it looks full even as the product is sold down," Kean said. "You do it by managing the flexibility of the table. Start out with it flat, then slant it and use baskets. It doesn't ever have to look half empty."

The neatness factor was a consideration at Minyard Food Stores when it decided to add tiered shop-around display fixtures with adjustable shelves in its most recently opened stores.

"We've gone away from flat tables," said George Timms, director of bakery operations at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, operator of 48 Minyard units, 19 Sack 'N Save warehouse-format stores and 13 smaller Carnival Stores.

"In the past we could have had as many as 12 of them. Instead, here we now have mostly 4x8 shop-arounds. They make it easier to organize products. You can show a lot of product in small amounts and it looks good. By comparison, it's hard to control products on a flat table -- it can end up looking like a garage sale," he said.

More refrigerated cases are on the agenda at West Linn Thriftway, West Linn, Ore. The two-unit, upscale independent is in the process of remodeling its flagship store and has ordered additional refrigerated cases and service cases that can be opened from the front.

"The refrigerated cases will allow us to merchandise more variety of product, and the front-opening cases are easier to clean," said April Rhodes, assistant bakery manager at the flagship store.

"They'll also display product better because they have lights above each shelf. The ones we have now only have a light at the top," Rhodes added.

At Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa., for example, the new fixtures going into the bakery are all low-profile, said Alan Christiansen, bakery buyer-merchandiser.

"We want to emphasize that everything is fresh. One way to do that is to let customers see that products are made here," he explained. "Even our new self-service doughnut cases are low -- about 48 inches high. Previously, we had had the conventional self-service doughnut cases," Christiansen said. He was referring to floor-to-ceiling cases with slanted shelves and glass doors.

Low-profile cases have played a role in the Winn-Dixie Atlanta division's strategy to boost self-service merchandising to 70% of the department from only 10% a short while ago, said Van Pelt.

"We're keeping the cases low. Doughnuts are strictly self-service now, but they're in cases just 3 feet off the floor," he said.

Most importantly, in the last year or so manufacturers have begun to make merchandising fixtures that address the needs of in-store bakeries specifically, said Roberts at Merchandising by Design.

"Many of the display fixtures you can buy now, the ones that offer flexibility, for example, were not even available five years ago as standard equipment. You'd have had to have them custom-made," Roberts explained.

Consultant Roberts said self-contained refrigerated cases, with their own condensers, are also becoming more readily available from manufacturers as a standard offering. "They're very popular. They give retailers the option of locating them where they want them because they don't have to be hooked up to an existing line," she said.