BUFFALO, N.Y. -- This city in western New York state may be better known for snowy winters and a professional football team, but it also represents a thriving and competitive market for fresh produce in supermarkets.Several high-profile chains, most notably Wegmans Food Markets and Tops Friendly Markets, have staked a claim on produce marketing here with innovative departments. Both Wegmans and Tops

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- This city in western New York state may be better known for snowy winters and a professional football team, but it also represents a thriving and competitive market for fresh produce in supermarkets.

Several high-profile chains, most notably Wegmans Food Markets and Tops Friendly Markets, have staked a claim on produce marketing here with innovative departments. Both Wegmans and Tops also backed produce up with equally sharp merchandising in the other fresh foods areas.

The smaller operators, meanwhile, are meeting the challenge of competition from those two heavy hitters by finding their own niches, from featuring bulk produce in volume to an emphasis on customer service.

The Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., sponsored a retail tour that stopped at five supermarkets in the Buffalo market and offered a clear snapshot of the state of produce marketing here.

As the tour passed through last month, local retailers were capitalizing on the state's abundant agricultural resources by promoting locally grown fruits and vegetables. Another recurring theme was tree-ripened fruit, which is apparently making it big in Buffalo.

Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, generally considered one of the most exciting retailers in the country, devoted considerable space in the department at its Amherst, N.Y., store to a promotion called "Fresh from the Field to the Store."

Mary Ellen Burris, director of consumer affairs, also promoted the benefits of home-grown produce in her column in the chain's weekly circular.

"The benefit for you is fruits and vegetables that are delivered within hours of picking . . . fresher than they would be if they went through a central warehouse . . . at least one day fresher," Burris wrote.

For Wegmans, putting a personal stamp on produce is one of the ways it stands out from others.

"The key to success is produce and people," said Mike Gorski, store manager for the Amherst unit. Gorski said the store is the largest-volume seller of produce in the 52-unit chain.

The Amherst store is 90,000 square feet. Produce, the lead department, occupies 5,000 square feet.

The department was full of abundant, colorful displays when the tour visited. Tree-ripened fruit was part of a major promotion the week of the tour.

"We've just recommitted to tree-ripening in the last year," said Kevin Komendat, produce manager. "It's gone well for us." Freshness and quality were emphasized throughout the department. Prices were chalked in on blackboards.

Wegmans' Strive for Five program, its in-house version of the industry's national 5 a Day for Better Health campaign, was also in evidence. Wegmans creates recipes that support the program. A recipe for salad Nicoise was the feature when the tour visited.

The Wegmans in Amherst also included a gourmet pizza shop that uses fresh-made dough, and a "Beef You Feel Good About" program that offers hormone-free products from cattle raised under environmentally sound grazing practices and treated humanely, according to the chain.

Meanwhile, directly across from the Amherst Wegmans is The Tops International store, operated by Buffalo's hometown chain, Tops Friendly Markets.

The Tops International lived up to its name, with more global offerings in produce and other departments than many competing stores.

The 112,000-square-foot store included a juicery, a sushi bar, a pastry bar and a cooking school. Newspapers from Germany and Jerusalem were on sale near the entrance.

However, the chain's future, in produce and elsewhere, will be guided by another Tops format, the Tops Super Center, which was represented on the tour by a unit in nearby Lancaster, N.Y.

"This is where we're trying to be," said James Kankoski, director of produce, of the 84,000-square-foot store. "This format is our primary goal."

The Lancaster store featured an open back-room concept in produce and throughout the fresh foods departments. Mass displays on wooden tables in the center gave the produce department a country market feeling. That atmosphere was reinforced with friendly looking scarecrows standing watch over displays of tomatoes and cucumbers. Refrigerated cases lined the perimeter of the department.

A tree-ripened fruit display fronted the produce section. A "Tree-ripened fruit customer care brochure" was available that contained information and tips such as the origin of tree fruit, how to select it and how to prepare it.

Signs for Tops' fictional produce spokesman Walter hung from the ceiling throughout the produce department. The signs designated products as "Walter Approved," and assured shoppers that "Our home-grown produce variety is better because of Walter." (Tops, a division of Ahold USA, based in Parsippany, N.J., shares Walter as a marketing tool with some of the other chains in the United States owned by Ahold.) Locally grown items were emphasized in advertisements as well. Home-grown cauliflower was on ad for 99 cents a head, home-grown sweet corn was 12 ears for $1.99 and home-grown eggplant was 49 cents a head.

Produce, situated to the right of the store's entrance, was followed by the other perishables departments lining the walls reaching around the store. Their highlights included a cheese shop, a salad bar, a New York deli, a carry-out cafe, a floral shop and a seafood department.

A Jubilee Foods store in Buffalo has carved out a niche with a focus on bulk produce. The 60,000-square-foot store, owned and operated by Fleming Cos., positioned produce as the lead department.

Jubilee's business strategy emphasizes a "clean store with quality products, especially perishables," according to PMA.

Signs attested to both the quality and the affordability of the produce. "Bulk produce. Select your own fruits and vegetables, and save a bunch," "Our produce is delivered bulk for maximum freshness" and "Freshness and low prices" were among them.

The large produce displays were mostly of unwrapped products.

The front page of Jubilee's weekly circular was devoted to "Fresh Produce, as good as it gets." Ad items included cantaloupes for 99 cents each and watermelon at 25 cents a pound. Inside the ad, Jubilee also printed the names and locations of several growers that supply the store. "Jubilee Salutes Our Hometown Growers," the headline read.

Quality Markets, in Williamsville, N.Y., also put an emphasis on local growers. Ad items included locally grown fresh green beans, at 2 pounds for $1, and locally grown roma tomatoes at 79 cents per pound.

Quality is a division of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Penn Traffic Co. "We try to stay standard throughout the chain, without taking away all flexibility," said Art Beard, customer service representative.

The independent emphasizes interaction with customers. The day the tour visited, for example, was "Senior Citizens Day," a weekly event that offers automatic discounts to seniors throughout the store. By mid-morning, the store was full of older people taking advantage of the discounts.

Tree fruit was a hot item at Quality during tour week. Peaches retailed for 48 cents a pound, as part of a "Bushels of Produce Bargains" ad theme. Tree-ripened nectarines, plums and peaches, at $1.68 per pound, were also on ad.

The 55,000-square-foot store, with a 12,000-square-foot produce department, used wooden tables.

"We've been using the tables for quite a while," said Beard. "The lack of refrigeration has been a problem, but you learn to work with it."