COOL CONVENIENCE

More refrigerated coolers in the grocery aisles are a sure sign that some retailers have turned meal solutions up a notch.Supermarkets are using coolers to integrate refrigerated or frozen products into dry grocery, so that consumers can find all the ingredients they need to make a meal in one location.A sign of the times, notes Jacquelyn Legg, vice president of solutions shopping at Ukrop's Super

More refrigerated coolers in the grocery aisles are a sure sign that some retailers have turned meal solutions up a notch.

Supermarkets are using coolers to integrate refrigerated or frozen products into dry grocery, so that consumers can find all the ingredients they need to make a meal in one location.

A sign of the times, notes Jacquelyn Legg, vice president of solutions shopping at Ukrop's Super Markets in Richmond, Va., is today's consumer's shopping list, or lack of it. At the Private Label Manufacturers Association's executive conference in March, Legg told the story of how a Ukrop's employee had inadvertently picked up a woman's shopping list off the floor. The list had a handful of items on it, along with the word "dinner."

Retailers vary in their commitment to the cooler units. In some stores, refrigerated cases as small as 4 feet hold categories of product such as salad dressings, pickles, pastas and pasta sauces, while at others, cases extending 8 to 12 feet merchandise a variety of products that might fit in with a specific meal solution.

Of the retailers SN polled, D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, are using refrigerated cases widely, in several aisles throughout their respective stores.

For example, D&W has refrigerated cases in three areas within its units, said Ron Cox, vice president of marketing at the chain.

"We have several stores with cases in our ethnic sections, featuring Italian items in one case and Mexican products in another. We have 8- and 12-foot sections for each," he added.

Items found in the Italian case include refrigerated pasta, cheese, fresh sauces, garlic bread and fresh vegetables. Similarly, in the Mexican section, refrigerated tortilla shells, fresh salsas, cheese and fresh vegetables are merchandised.

Likewise, Seaway Food Town has tied some perishable items into its shelf-stable mix. While not as extensive as what D&W stocks, Seaway merchandises tortilla shells and shredded cheese in its Mexican set and refrigerated pasta with dry noodles and sauces.

Another place that retailers are creating solutions is in the breakfast aisle. Both D&W and Seaway have refrigerated cases in their cereal aisles. Seaway stocks refrigerated juices, while D&W places milk, juice, eggs, bagels, bread, margarine, butter and jams/spreads in an 8-foot refrigerated case.

"The greatest advantage of offering products in this manner is the convenience it provides for our customers," said D&W's Cox.

"If they can go to one area of the store for all the items they need for their meal, we've not only enhanced their shopping experience, but also ensured that we did not lose a sale because they forgot part of the solution.

"Creating solution centers creates habits, as customers come to realize they can shop for 'meals' in one area of the store, rather than having to shop the entire store for items they need," Cox added.

Retailers agree that the primary motivation for adding coolers in grocery is customer convenience. Ultimately, additional benefits are also accrued, in the form of increased customer loyalty and increased purchases.

"By stocking the products based on the way the consumer shops for them, we should derive increased sales," said Patricia Nowak, director of public relations and consumer affairs for Seaway Food Town.

In the future, Food Town hopes to promote based on total meals, rather than components of meals, Nowak added. Other areas where the chain is considering the addition of refrigerated cases are the pet aisle, where shoppers would find frozen pet items, and premade puddings in the aisle that stocks dry puddings. A cooler would round out the pudding selection with some similar refrigerated dessert items.

Kathryn Lowe, director of marketing and public relations at Russo's Supermarkets, Chesterland, Ohio, said her stores are slowly integrating refrigerated cases into their grocery aisles.

Like Food Town, Russo's merchandises meal components, except in its pasta aisle, where it merchandises fresh pastas across the aisle from shelf-stable pastas and sauces.

"This gives our customer additional choices; it increases sales of fresh pastas, yet there is little decrease in dry pasta sales," Lowe said.

Other areas or products Lowe suggested for possible bundling were bottled salad dressings with fresh mixed green salads; fresh sausage and wieners with canned baked beans; packaged chips with fresh salsa; cooked crab cakes with bottled cocktail sauces; and wine, beer, and non-alcoholic beverages such as Snapple, bottled waters and lemonades to accompany the entrees.

Max McKenna, director of business development on meal solutions at Sobey's, Stellarton, Nova Scotia, listed some shelf-stable grocery items that the retailer merchandises as ingredients for meal solutions: rices, stuffings, potato mixes, grains, beans, noodles, and seasoning items like salad dressings, oils and vinegars.

Although Sobey's does not put refrigerated cases directly into the grocery gondolas, it has moved frozen and refrigerated cases into an area designated for meal solutions. The program began about 18 months ago, McKenna said.

"This is a center within the store where we have gathered everything, from single-serve frozen entrees to fresh produce to pastas and sauces. For example, if you walked into one of our stores, you might see on the board, 'Tonight's Special: Chicken Alfredo with Fresh Pasta and Mesculin Salad Greens with Balsamic Vinegar Salad Dressing.' We're trying to market the whole meal package."

Currently, the stores offer no more than four meal ideas per week, but the customer can also mix and match ideas.

When SN spoke to McKenna, he said one of the promotions Sobey's was running in its meal center was "Dinner for Two and a Movie" at a hot price. Shoppers who bought a dinner could take home a video or receive passes to a local movie theater.

Whether retailers use a refrigerated case or create a central location, they must be careful in selecting products for a meal solution. Sobey's McKenna asks manufacturers who participate to create good promotional packages, which then determine some of the items that will be included.

Other retailers, such as Seaway Food Town, rely on category management best practices. Indeed, the chain "is looking at having one category manager take responsibility for the solutions-selling category" as opposed to sharing responsibility among departments, Nowak said.

Sometimes private-label products are highlighted as part of the solution, retailers told SN.

"We believe private-label products fit in very well with this concept. The key is not only to offer the solution, but to offer variety within your merchandising as well. Customers will shop the case for convenience, but only if what they desire is located there," D&W's Cox explained.

Russo's Lowe cautioned retailers to promote only their upscale store brands in a solutions center. "We would not use low-end private-label products, because the image would not be the same," she said.

Raising awareness among shoppers that a store has meal solutions available is also important, retailers said.

Russo's Lowe suggested using signs to steer customers in the right direction. Sobey's uses signage in each of its departments. It also promotes meal solutions with additional inserts in its weekly flier and through its loyalty-card program.

Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash., one of the first retailers to install coolers in the dry grocery aisles, has been unhappy with the results, according to Mike Racine, vice president of sales and marketing at the chain.

"We have tried this, but with little success. It has had minimal impact on shelf-stable items," Racine said.

Additional obstacles retailers might consider before installing cooler units include the cost, which can be considerable, according to David Thorp, grocery manager at Food Markets Northwest, Seattle. He recently pitched the idea of adding a refrigerated case to the dry grocery aisle where salad dressings are found.

"You've got to figure out if it's going to pay for itself with what you're going to put in there and in what amount of time," he said.