BIG PRODUCE DISPLAYS STAND OUT FOR RETAILER

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Valley Farm Market's produce sales have blossomed in new, larger quarters set smack in the middle of a very competitive marketplace here.The two-unit independent took a bold step earlier this year when it expanded its flagship location from 23,000 square feet to nearly 70,000 square feet and more than doubled the size of its successful produce department to 8,000 square feet. All

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Valley Farm Market's produce sales have blossomed in new, larger quarters set smack in the middle of a very competitive marketplace here.

The two-unit independent took a bold step earlier this year when it expanded its flagship location from 23,000 square feet to nearly 70,000 square feet and more than doubled the size of its successful produce department to 8,000 square feet. All of this occurred in an area dotted with units of Giant of Carlisle, ShopRite, Wegmans and a Super Wal-Mart, too.

"We needed to expand, and we knew our sales would, too. For the size of our former store [just three blocks away], we were doing fine. Sales per square foot were tremendous, but people were standing on top of each other. It was very cramped," said owner Irv Schummer.

Now, roomy aisles -- none of them less than 8 feet wide -- and a ramped-up variety of products in all departments get credit for substantial sales increases.

"We've at least doubled the variety we offer in produce. We have the room to do it now, and we can create more mass displays. I have about 72 feet of apples and pears out there right now," Schummer said, but he declined to give a tally of stockkeeping units.

"It differs from season to season. What counts is that we have just about anything in produce you could possibly want. We're able to get the variety I like to have because we buy direct from growers, and we go to the Philadelphia [wholesale] market ourselves twice a week. If there's a particular type or size of apple I want, I can get it from Washington growers I know. We get quality, and we know they'll be fresh because we get them quicker [than if they came through a distribution warehouse]."

Produce has always been Valley Farm Market's signature department, accounting at this location and the former for about 28% of total store sales. That's not particularly surprising since Schummer started out 14 years ago with what was primarily a fresh produce market. Later, he added meat and deli and other perishable departments. Eventually, he put together a full-line supermarket. Perishables still dominate the scene though, taking up nearly 70% of the store and accounting for about that percentage of sales.

"Sales for each department [percentage-wise] pretty much mirror their [selling] floor space," Schummer said.

Customers walk directly into the produce department, which spreads across the center of the store. Yet over the rows of colorful fruits and vegetables, customers can see all the way to the back wall, where the service meat and seafood departments are situated. That's because Schummer and his son, Eric, wanted to create an open-market feeling to the place. All produce tables are low profile, and dry grocery is relegated to the left of the store. Produce actually stands in the center of the store, with bakery, deli and prepared foods to the right.

The frozen food aisle is the first to the left of produce, then dairy, specialty products and regular dry grocery.

"Our row of upright produce cases cuts off [the view of] the frozen food aisle. So when you walk into the store, it looks like a hall of produce. "We designed this store ourselves," he said. "I had been wanting to acquire more land where we were, but wasn't able to do it. Then this space became available. It's just down the street from the former store."

The additional space that allows for wide aisles makes the store easy to shop, and increased variety has brought in new customers, Schummer said.

"We've probably added 10 times as many specialty products. Then buying direct in produce gives me the freshness and quality. That's a differentiating factor. We have a truck coming from California now, and it will be here Monday. The product won't be sitting somewhere for days before it gets onto our racks. We have the capacity here to refrigerate 15 tractor-loads of product."

Apparently, Valley Farm Market is satisfying local demand, if sales are any indication. Schummer said he's been satisfied so far with sales at the new store.