WELLESLEY HILLS, Mass. -- Roche Bros. Supermarkets here is walking away with bigger meals sales -- and profits -- since it put itself in its customers' shoes.The chain has dramatically altered the presentation of its prepared foods to make it easier to purchase a meal, and it's working. Double- and triple-digit increases in sales of some items are the proof of the pudding, officials said."We made

WELLESLEY HILLS, Mass. -- Roche Bros. Supermarkets here is walking away with bigger meals sales -- and profits -- since it put itself in its customers' shoes.

The chain has dramatically altered the presentation of its prepared foods to make it easier to purchase a meal, and it's working. Double- and triple-digit increases in sales of some items are the proof of the pudding, officials said.

"We made the changes to better serve our customers and that motivation has thankfully resulted in both increased sales and profits," said Jarett Peppard, director of food service for the 13-unit retailer.

Roche Bros. is recognized in the industry as a pioneer in prepared foods, having set up a central kitchen in 1985. Paul McGillivray, vice president of perishables, has directed the meals program through several stages of evolvement.

More than a year ago, he and other top officials decided to investigate how the department could contribute a bigger chunk to the company's overall profitability. At that time, Peppard, who has a food-service background, as well as experience with such retail chains as Harris Teeter and Kash N' Karry, was recruited to help with that endeavor.

"As we reviewed the department, we always looked at it from the perspective of the consumer. How was the process of buying a prepared meal from us viewed by our customers? That was the big question," Peppard said.

By this time, the customer-friendliness of the department is almost where Roche Bros. wants it, but there's still more to do, Peppard added.

Changes made over the past year and a half include: 1) balancing the number of items in each meal category -- appetizers, soups, entrees, salads and desserts; 2) merchandising them in menu order; 3) providing high-visibility signs for each category; 4) switching to packaging that differentiates menu categories and does a better job of showing them off; 5) pricing by the portion rather than by the pound; and 6) printing attractive, colorful hand-out menus.

During that time, dollar sales of total prepared foods have climbed 17% over the same period a year earlier. Unit sales of whole meals soared 121%, resulting in a 50% jump in dollar sales in that category. Not only that, but margins on whole meals rose 10% to 15% over the year before. Many of the changes made for presentation's sake resulted in efficiencies that are contributing to the bottom line, Peppard explained. And no additional space or new equipment was required for the re-do either, he added.

Peppard said he and the Roche Bros. team began the project by analyzing all menu items. For example, they set about finding out why some selections were slow movers.

"We eliminated or modified some items that were underperforming and added items in categories that weren't well represented. Having 50 items doesn't necessarily mean you have a balanced menu," Peppard said.

Chicken Kiev with pasta, a slow-seller that contained 71 grams of fat, was eliminated from the whole-meal lineup. Officials could find nothing other than the high fat content that might have discouraged sales. On the other hand, the team blamed the looks of some products for their stunted sales performance. One was the chicken parmigiana dinner.

It had been packaged on a 9-inch round plate that was over-wrapped and then capped with a dome top. The overwrap was mashed against the sauce so that "often all you saw was plastic and marinara sauce," Peppard said.

The company knew the quality of its chicken parmigiana was tops and that customers liked the taste of it. That was proved every time the product was sampled in-store, Peppard said.

So it was put in a new package that "makes it look as good as it tastes" -- a rectangular tray with no overwrap and a dome top that fits securely. Also, the production of that item has been brought in-store because it didn't transport well (from the chain's central kitchen), Peppard said.

Almost immediately after the modification, sales of that dinner tripled, Peppard added.

Some categories, like appetizers and pot pies, needed more variety, Peppard said.

Several selections, including seven-layer dip and Buffalo tenders, were added in the appetizer category. The pot pie category, too, which has been a long-time customer favorite, was expanded with the addition of a small and a large shepherd's pie.

An entirely new salad section was added in the chilled, prepared case.

Soup will be the next menu item to get attention, Peppard said. Right now, the chain offers clam chowder and two or three other soups, but Peppard said the category is under-represented.

"We'll add as many varieties as we need to."

Besides balancing out the number of items in categories, the chain also has attempted to ease customers' meal quests by creating high-visibility signs delineating categories in its self-service, chilled prepared-foods case. Any such designation was previously lacking.

Indeed, the chilled, self-service case appeared to be "just a sea of food" to some customers, Peppard said. In addition to the lack of category signs, side dishes were in the same size packages as entrees.

"I remember trying to find linguine with clam sauce in the case in our Wellesley store when I first came here, and it was difficult. You had to pick up a lot of packages to find what you wanted," Peppard added.

Now, the cases are "menu-merchandised" with simple, large-lettered signs that define sections for appetizers, salads, entrees, quiches and pot pies, whole meals, and a new category, "take-and-bake."

"It's as if you were reading a menu. The appetizers are in the first section, for example. Each meal-component category has its own section and the sections are side by side. It's much easier to put a meal together quickly because you see what's available in each," Peppard said.

Also, now side dishes are packaged in smaller containers than the entrees, and whole meals are packed in a different-shaped container than those used for entrees.

The chain's customers will probably find meal-buying getting even easier this year. The installation of new, overhead signs to draw customers to the cases and walk them through the decision-making process is next on the agenda, Peppard said.

"That will be my big focus this year, to better communicate destination areas."

While the Roche Bros. evaluation team had found that the quality of the prepared foods was already good, some of the recent changes have had the effect of boosting quality even further.

For example, packaging pot pies in aluminum pans instead of dual ovenable trays ensures that the product, when reheated, will be the best it can be, with its integrity intact, Peppard said.

The aluminum pan negates putting the pot pies into a microwave.

"We're forcing people to reheat those particular products in the way that makes them turn out the best, in the oven," Peppard said.

The same goes for the take-and-bake line, which Peppard engineered. It includes such family favorites as lasagna, stuffed shells and meatloaf, "things that people would cook at home if they had the time."

The ready-to-bake "take-and-bake" items are packed in 2-pound quantities in aluminum trays with a dome lid. They're deliberately packaged that way so customers will bake them in the oven, not the microwave, Peppard said.

"We found that the finished product is better when baked in an oven, so that's the way we want our customers to do it."

The take-and-bake line, which Peppard said is helping to propel sales of the whole prepared-foods category, occupies 3 to 6 feet in the prepared-foods self-service case, depending on the store.

"It's doing great. It makes up 5% of our total [prepared-foods] sales," Peppard said.

All the recent moves have contributed to bigger sales and less shrink, both of which make for better profits. And efficiencies at the chain's central kitchen and increased in-store production have pushed costs down and margins up, Peppard said.