MODESTO, Calif. -- Bring in the kids, and the parents will follow. That's precisely the aim of the "SuperFriends" store-tour program at Save Mart Supermarkets here, and officials said they have evidence it is working."Children bring their moms over to the seafood department and they look for the person that showed them the lobster. They ask to see the SuperFriend and the other associates who showed

MODESTO, Calif. -- Bring in the kids, and the parents will follow. That's precisely the aim of the "SuperFriends" store-tour program at Save Mart Supermarkets here, and officials said they have evidence it is working.

"Children bring their moms over to the seafood department and they look for the person that showed them the lobster. They ask to see the SuperFriend and the other associates who showed them their departments. Those kids act like they've made friends for life, and when they're that enthusiastic we know they've talked and talked to their parents about what they saw in our stores," said Alicia Rockwell, director of communications and consumer relations for the 98-unit Save Mart.

It's no secret these days that children are a strong influence on their parents' buying decisions, especially when it comes to food. Retailers can cash in on this "kiddy leverage" by building customer-loyalty programs that focus on kids -- and the more cool "stuff," the better.

"We want kids to say, 'Hey, let's go to Save Mart!' and I'm confident a lot of parents are hearing that," said Rockwell.

In that effort, Save Mart stands out in its area. Indeed, few other supermarket operators anywhere are trying to elicit that kind of plea from kids, said one consultant who's a former retailer himself.

"There's a golden opportunity there that most retailers are overlooking. I have three young children and I know that kids influence where mom and dad shop for food. But we in the supermarket industry have had a hard time seeing the direct connection between customer, kid and pocketbook," said Harold Lloyd of H. Lloyd & Associates, Virginia Beach, Va.

Save Mart, with its high-activity tour program, is one retailer who definitely sees the value of getting young kids hooked, Rockwell told SN. The chain is particularly cultivating sales in its fresh departments with the chainwide SuperFriends tour program. It's impressing youngsters by giving them a close-up look at lobsters, star fruit, giant dough mixers and other things right in the aisles of their local Save Mart Supermarket.

No simple cookie clubs or fruit clubs here. Popular though they may be, most of those efforts are scattershot compared with Save Mart's tightly focused SuperFriends program. It's specifically designed to give children in each of Save Mart's market areas a behind-the-scenes look at "the big picture."

With its focus on education, the Save Mart effort is built around organized tours designed for children in kindergarten through third grade. What's unique, officials said, is that the tours are led by a specially trained associate, the SuperFriend, at each store. And all the fresh departments get involved in showing the kids what happens in the back of the house -- demonstrating meat-wrapping and bread-proofing, for example.

The fresh, perimeter departments get the spotlight because of their good profit potential and also because those departments offer some action that can pique that age group's interest. The focus on fresh also gives the chain the opportunity to introduce kids to good-for-you foods they may not have been familiar with and it offers the opportunity to talk about food safety, said Rockwell.

"Ultimately, everything is tied to the bottom line," she said, explaining that one of the goals of the program is to boost sales in the fresh departments.

"But those departments also give us something interesting to show the children, things they think are cool. For example, almost all our stores have live lobsters in tanks. And the kids get to see the meat-wrapping machine in the meat department and the huge racks of bread and cookies going into the ovens in the bakery."

At the end of its first year of operation, SuperFriends has been called a resounding success by Save Mart officials. It may be difficult to quantify the success of such a program in dollars, but the acclaim it has received leaves no doubt about the impression it has made in the chain's various market areas, said Rockwell.

In the first year, from September 1998 through September 1999, more than 13,000 school children have taken the tours and Save Mart has formally surveyed teachers involved to get feedback.The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Rockwell said. Not only that, but Save Mart has been able to determine that the program is bringing a significant number of the students' parents into its stores.

Like cookie clubs, store tours themselves are nothing new. Indeed, SuperFriends is a refinement of a previous tour program that Save Mart had run in the 1980s, but this one is different in the way it's organized. It's notable for its direct link between the corporate office and each store, for full participation by each store, and for a well-organized system of communicating information back and forth from store to corporate and vice versa, and even between stores.

Rockwell and Sharon Seiler, consumer relations coordinator, organized the program with the goal of maximizing the number of tours and and the market areas covered. At the same time, they aimed to maintain all necessary safety measures.They also structured the program to ensure adequate feedback from the field.

"The problem with the former program was that it was too selective. We were only addressing certain market areas and that's because there were only two people doing the tours, both of them from our office. Our Northern market area got left out completely because it was too far away from the office," Rockwell said.

The challenge was to expand the program and still maintain control of it.

"I knew we needed to offer it in all our stores. Once we decided that it should involve a tour leader from each store, we jumped in and organized a training program," Rockwell said.

Each store manager was asked to choose an associate from his store who would be appointed that store's SuperFriend (tour guide) and an alternate. Seiler sent a profile sheet, indicating the qualities to look for in a SuperFriend, to each manager. Once each store had appointed its two employees to the SuperFriends program, Seiler and Rockwelll put the employees through a 15-hour training program. They also developed color-coded cue cards for them to use on the tours.

"What's so good about this program, unlike the earlier tours we had, is that it's all done at store level. The SuperFriend who conducts the tour is from that store and that's a big advantage because he knows the people he works with. It's much easier for him to ask his colleagues to join in. For example, when the SuperFriend gets to the seafood department, he'll ask the seafood manager to talk to the group, and maybe to haul an octopus or a whole fish out of the case so the kids can see it up close," Rockwell explained.

"There's total store involvement. We never had that dynamic before and customers notice that." That's a plus and so is a noticeable boost in employee morale, Rockwell said.

Seiler sends out a newsletter on a regular basis to SuperFriends to keep them informed of what's going on at other stores. In the newsletter, she includes feedback from children, teachers and parents. Copies of the newsletter are sent to the executive committee as well. Also, a prominently positioned bulletin board in the lobby of Save Mart's corporate office shows off thank you letters and photos taken on the tours.

"That's to keep our executives and also our vendors informed about what's happening with the program and how it's being received," Rockwell said.

Children as well as parents and teachers write to tell Save Mart officials how they liked the tours.The kids are particularly impressed with the action demos, Rockwell said. They're shown how meat is cut, then put on a tray and sent through a machine that overwraps it with plastic and places labels on it. A fat test to determine the percentage of fat in ground beef is demonstrated in the meat department also.

"In the bakery, they learn about proofing French bread and see how cakes get decorated. I think the highlight for them is seeing how the flowers and other decorations are put on the cakes. We also show them the huge mixers and how ingredients come to us. The SuperFriends show them how everything comes in big buckets, not like at home where you open a little box of cake mix. Children only think about things the way they see them at home, so those mixers and buckets are new to them," Rockwell said.

She said they're also impressed by the huge racks of product that are fed into ovens in the bakery.

"We really take them into the back of the house and those ovens are hot. That's why it's so important that the SuperFriends be trained well. In fact, we instruct them to use their judgment. We tell them that if a class seems a bit unruly or things look hectic in the bakery because there's a rush for some reason, they should not take the children back there. They're told, in that case, to just explain from the front of the department what's going on," Rockwell said.

The SuperFriends also are instructed on how to take the children through a department. For instance, they're told to get the children to form a single-file line and to warn them not to touch anything.

"And, of course, there is always a teacher with the group and several parent-volunteers, who help keep an eye on them," Rockwell pointed out.

In the deli department, they see meat and cheese being sliced and chickens sometimes being loaded or unloaded from rotisseries.

The benefits of taking the children and the teachers and parent volunteers behind the scene are well worth any risks involved, Rockwell stressed.

"It's a perfect opportunity for us to show off freshness, to show parents the back of the house so they can see how clean it is. When we did our survey, teachers rated us very high on cleanliness. That's so important."

The tours, 50 minutes to an hour long, do not include any sampling of foods.

"Tastes of food are not offered in any of the departments, because we have to be sensitive to children's allergies. We've stopped giving away cookies for that reason," Rockwell said.

In the produce department, SuperFriends can take the opportunity to introduce the kids to fruits or vegetables they may not be familiar with.

"Sharon's background is in nutrition, so she's aware of what kids are missing in their diets. Our hope is they'll bring Mom or Dad back and tell them they want to try an artichoke or something else they've never eaten before. At any rate, in the produce department, we talk to them about Five a Day and the importance of those guidelines. We try to support the industry itself. I think we're supporting the health information that's out there," Rockwell said.

She pointed out that Save Mart received the Florida Tomato Committee's top award this year for its educational efforts with the program and was also recognized by the Food Marketing Institute.

"Food safety is something we address also. These children are young, so we don't get technical. But we talk about the importance of washing fruits before eating them and about washing your hands," Rockwell said. Prior to scheduled tours, teachers are sent a packet that includes background information to prepare the students for what they'll see. In this fall's packet, a food-safety game is included.

At the tour's end, the children themselves are given packets that include pamphlets on Five a Day and the Food Pyramid and other appropriate information provided by industry groups. One handout, "The Good Food Shopping Book Just for Kids," was developed by Save Mart. It's a booklet containing coupons for something in each of the four food groups. The coupons are for a free can of tuna, a loaf of bread, a carton of yogurt and a fruit roll. Here's the deal: The coupons will be honored on a return visit when the child is accompanied by an adult. That attempt to, at least in a small way, quantify the effectiveness of SuperFriends has paid off with gratifying results.

"We've had a 34% redemption rate, which is above-average redemption. I know our executive committee members were pretty impressed with that figure. We know, at least, that a good many parents are coming back to the store with their children," Rockwell said.