CENTER STORE OVERHAUL PAYS OFF FOR INDEPENDENT

LEONVILLE, La. -- Among the most radical ideas in supermarkets of late have come from Food Lion and Marsh Supermarkets, in the form of their new "lifestyle" stores. But as the story of one independent shows, retailers need not have the resources of a big chain -- or even a regional one -- to accomplish big things in store design.Richard Champagne and his wife, Angela, operate a lone 10,000-square-foot

LEONVILLE, La. -- Among the most radical ideas in supermarkets of late have come from Food Lion and Marsh Supermarkets, in the form of their new "lifestyle" stores. But as the story of one independent shows, retailers need not have the resources of a big chain -- or even a regional one -- to accomplish big things in store design.

Richard Champagne and his wife, Angela, operate a lone 10,000-square-foot store here in rural Louisiana. While Champagne's Marche is known for its perishables, like specialty meat, they worried that the center of the store was losing relevance as shoppers seek out cheaper and easier alternatives.

Their answer was to make shopping easier by organizing categories according to how people shop for them, much as Food Lion and Marsh have done.

"People are so time-starved today," said Champagne, whose business started with his grandparents in 1926. "If you can save them 10, 15 minutes in a day and they have more time to spend with their family, you can't put a price on that."

A little more than a year after the reset in September 2004, Champagne believes he's on to something. In the first six months of this year, dry grocery dollar sales -- which had been flat since a Wal-Mart Supercenter moved nearby a few years earlier -- ticked up 4%. Total store dollar sales, meanwhile, had been growing 1%. (Champagne hasn't measured sales since then, as the store got an unusual one-time sales boost following Hurricane Katrina.)

Some of that sales increase is likely attributable to about 500 new items that were added as part of the reset. But Champagne believes most of the credit goes to the new organizational pattern.

"To have a 4% increase in grocery, especially when you have an industry that's losing share in the Center Store, that's pretty impressive," he said.

The changes were dramatic. Breakfast items including cereals, Pop Tarts and milk were brought together in one area. A barbecue aisle was created, with marinades, charcoal, paper plates, side dish makings and beer. In another aisle went ingredients common in indoor cooking, such as seasonings, canned meats, pasta, rice and beans.

Elsewhere, peanut butter and jelly were stacked on top of the commercial bread. Baking needs, canned fruit and cake mixes formed a baking-themed aisle.

Having related categories near each other drives sales by helping shoppers find what they're looking for, but also by reminding them of products they may not realize they needed, Champagne said.

"People still want to cook, but the time factor's such a critical thing," he said. "If they can save a little time, they get the best of both worlds."

Champagne also added a dollar set in addition to the new items, in response to the growth of dollar store chains like Dollar General and Family Dollar in the region. He fit in these additions by extending shelves from 60 inches to 72 inches tall. He also dressed up the aisles with black shelf strips. "The higher aisles gave the illusion of wider aisles," he said.

Food Lion assembled a team that studied for two years before launching Bloom, A Food Lion Market in 2004. Champagne had no such luxuries.

He and his wife sketched out a new store plan in about four hours, which involved relocating nearly every grocery and nonfood category. Customer research consisted of asking a handful of longtime shoppers what they thought of the proposed reset. His wholesaler, Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge, La., helped create new planograms, and vendors helped reset the shelves over three days.

To ease the transition for customers, associates handed out fliers for three weeks explaining the new floor plans and had extra bodies on the floor to answer shoppers' questions.

Todd Simon, the retail counselor for Associated Grocers who aided the Champagnes in the reset, said the sales turnaround was dramatic, in light of the competition from Wal-Mart, especially for Center Store sales.

He said he plans to show the concept to other AG retailers in hopes they'll try a similar approach, noting that the recent hurricane damage could provide an opportunity for some major store resets.

"Some of them are pretty dyed in the wool and tough to change," he said. "But I'd love to try it again in a big-city setting."

Reading about Bloom, with its emphasis on adjacencies and shopper convenience, gave Champagne confidence in his reset idea, and he believes grocery sales could grow even faster over time as people get used to the new organization and enjoy the convenience. At the same time, he concedes that it's hard to change decades-old shopping patterns when most retailers stick to traditional store designs.

"This is the difficult thing when you have the industry doing things in a certain way," he said. "It's hard for other retailers to make a change like that. But I think it's important, because as time goes on, people are going to have less time."