THE CASTUS COURSE

SAN RAMON, Calif. -- Offering a plentiful selection of low-carb bread and confections is among the merchandising tips traditional supermarkets can learn from the fast-growing Castus Low-Carb Superstore chain, based here.Castus differentiates itself by carrying a large assortment of key categories that are typically off limits to low-carb dieters. Bread is certainly at the top of the list, but confections

SAN RAMON, Calif. -- Offering a plentiful selection of low-carb bread and confections is among the merchandising tips traditional supermarkets can learn from the fast-growing Castus Low-Carb Superstore chain, based here.

Castus differentiates itself by carrying a large assortment of key categories that are typically off limits to low-carb dieters. Bread is certainly at the top of the list, but confections are a close second.

"Candy is something that low-carb consumers really miss," noted Jason Thrasher, owner of one of Castus' newest franchised stores, located in Rocklin, Calif., a Sacramento suburb.

Each of Castus' 50-odd stores, all but three of which are franchised, stocks dozens of low-carb confections that are bound to please low-carb dieters and diabetics alike. At Thrasher's unit, both sides of a 30-foot gondola are devoted to low-carb confections from brands like Atkins, Judy's, Asher's and Pure Delite. More than 100 stockkeeping units are offered.

Along with carrying an abundance of bread and candy, Castus differentiates itself in the market other ways. Among its strategies:

One-stop shopping;

Product sampling;

Customer service.

ONE-STOP SHOPPING

Low-carb dieters are certainly choosy shoppers, but that doesn't mean they have countless hours to spend visiting multiple retail outlets. Just like mainstream shoppers, they're pressed for time and are on the lookout for a store that can meet all their low-carb needs.

That's just what Castus -- the Latin word for clean and pure -- strives to provide. The retailer not only features a wide selection of dry groceries, but also refrigerated items, frozens and even books and magazines.

"Shoppers may be able to go to a Safeway or Wal-Mart and pick up a few low-carb items, but here they have a selection of everything they need," Thrasher said.

Thrasher's 2,300-square-foot store carries about 1,500 SKUs. Using mini-shopping carts, customers can browse the store's five aisles, two three-door freezers and one three-door refrigerator. Selections include supplements, protein powders, dressings, sauces, pastas, frozen entrees and desserts, candy, cold beverages, yogurt -- and plenty of breads, bagels and tortillas.

Featured brands include Low-Carb Emporium, Keto, Atkins, Walden Farms and Carb Fit. Stores will soon make room for a Castus private-label line reportedly under development.

Low-carb dieters are just like everyone else in that they're looking for quick and easy meal solutions. Castus responds to this demand by carrying several portable, heat-and-eat products. For instance, Thrasher's store just started offering several types of tortilla wraps made by Eat Right. The soy-based tortillas contain just four net grams of carbs, 220 calories and 40 grams of protein.

"This is a convenience item that someone can take to the office and heat up for lunch," said Thrasher.

SAMPLING

In-store sampling is a major part of the Castus operation. Thrasher's demos four products on a daily basis. The samples are displayed on a table adjacent to the checkout. Sampling is key to getting people to try -- and buy -- low-carb foods, he said.

"A few years ago, there was a limited selection of low-carb foods on the market -- and many didn't taste good. That's no longer the case," he said.

Indeed, Castus is spreading the word that low-carb foods are not only healthful, but taste good. It has an aggressive growth plan to do just that.

Castus plans to have 200 stores in operation by the summer. Long term, its goal is to have 5,000 franchises in the United States, Canada and around the globe.

"Low carb is not just a lifestyle for the United States, but a nutritional practice that would truly benefit the whole world," Rick Schott, the company's chief executive officer, said in a statement. Schott declined further comment.

Thrasher agreed. "The low-carb craze may slow down, but it's definitely not a fad. People are changing the way they eat," he stressed.

He noted, for instance, that the low-carb supercenter concept caters not only to die-hard low-carb consumers and diabetics, but also those who simply want to eat healthier, ingest fewer carbs or consume carbs that are more fibrous.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

Customer service is another key offering at Castus. Thrasher's four employees make it a priority to provide advice and information to customers.

"A person can't go into a Bel Air or Wal-Mart and ask a lot of questions about [low-carb] products. But they can at Castus," he said.

The chain has strengthened this offering by launching informative customer workshops to explain the right way to lead a low-carb lifestyle. At Thrasher's unit, about 35 people attended the first workshop last month.

The store also has a loyalty program in place. For a one-time, $20 fee, customers can get the Castus Preferred Customer Card, which entitles them to 5% back on purchases made after $75 is spent within a calendar month. Members also get advertised savings without having to clip coupons.