Food-safety concerns and the still-growing value-added category are reconfiguring the shape and structure of fixtures in produce departments as never before.Retailers said in interviews with SN that those dual pressures are prompting them to buy equipment with features like solid refrigeration systems and flexible display space.Bruce Peterson, vice president of produce merchandising at Wal-Mart Supercenters,

Food-safety concerns and the still-growing value-added category are reconfiguring the shape and structure of fixtures in produce departments as never before.

Retailers said in interviews with SN that those dual pressures are prompting them to buy equipment with features like solid refrigeration systems and flexible display space.

Bruce Peterson, vice president of produce merchandising at Wal-Mart Supercenters, Bentonville, Ark., for instance, said emphases on space, department layout and temperature control are among today's top concerns.

For Vince Terry, produce director at Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark., the priorities in fixtures "go back to mobility and flexibility. You still need to be able to customize your department by the hour. We need to be able to meet the customer's needs this evening without having product out for two days.

"We have to do everything to maintain the advantage and the confidence that consumers have placed in us, to provide them with a good, safe, healthy and tasteful product at a value," said Terry.

Such issues have grown ever more important to equipment suppliers too, as retail produce departments continue to increase in size and "more and more are the focus of the store," noted Tom Meyers, chief executive officer of Carlson Airflo Merchandising Systems, a produce merchandising equipment manufacturer in Minneapolis.

"There's been a change to value-added produce and with that we are seeing a move to new fixtures that maintain temperatures and different styles like mobile cases," said Tim McMahon, vice president of sales at Barker Co., a refrigerated merchandising equipment manufacturer in Keosauqua, Iowa.

Carlson's Meyers said the two most important trends in fixtures are expanding display space, for the ever widening selection of produce available, and ensuring that produce is displayed at the correct temperature. Retailers, he said, are "pushing for variety and freshness."

To accommodate new varieties of precut product, retailers "are going to shelves that will handle whatever capacity they are looking for," explained McMahon.

One such retailer, Russell Vernon, the owner of the single-unit West Point Market in Akron, Ohio, confirmed that his produce-fixture priorities are a good refrigeration system and flexible display space.

Wal-Mart's Peterson said more and more retailers, as they continue to increase the number of items they offer, are wrestling with the same question: "How do you merchandise them so that the customer can best see them?" Increasingly, the answer they are finding is to reshape the space.

"[Current] refrigeration needs reconfiguring, to allow for more linear feet," concurred West Point's Vernon.

Travis Lusk, produce staffer at the Wedge Community Co-op, a single-unit food-retailing cooperative in Minneapolis, added that produce fixtures need to be "easy to stock and rotate and look pretty."

Additional display space is being found to accommodate growth in value-added categories, said Meyers of Carlson Airflo. "The use of multideck shelving is growing and it's designed to merchandise the product better."

Michael Diedrick, produce manager at an Andronico's store in San Francisco, said his triple-deck case was one of the operation's display options that allows him to present the 500 or so items he has in the department properly. "We have a lowered shelf so it's right at eye level," he added.

By moving to a multideck display case, retailers have the immediate opportunity to create far more impressive displays that use a much wider range of product, Harps' Terry pointed out.

Some Harps units, he said, have "a produce pavilion called the Marketplace, with multideck rackings." He added that "I like customized European tables to give you a marketplace feel."

Low-deck cases have the added convenience of letting retailers bring items from different departments together. "There is more of a trend to integrate product, [such as putting] potatoes on display with margarine and cheese," said Terry. This way, "We are allowing more sales, so that if your shrink stays stable, [shrink as a percentage of sales] will drop."

"The perishables are blending into a meal area that is dictating low-deck mobile cases," said Carlson's Meyers. And "signage and lighting are geared to combining these departments."

The produce department at one of Harps' locations is doing just that.

As Terry described it, "Seventy-two feet in the front of the store [are dedicated] to an integrated HMR program, set up by menus." He said the meat, produce, deli, bakery and grocery departments are all participating in putting it together.

"Each section [of the case] is adjustable, but stays at 35 degrees," he explained. "The greatest issue is flexibility in temperature control."

Terry added, "It would be great to have the HMR section go up there, with a mobile display that's a freezer or to integrate other items."

"We can adjust the temperature in sections," said Andronico's Diedrick about his operation's refrigeration system, which he called "cutting-edge." He said his case has "probably 20 valves and every 6 feet we can adjust the temperature."

Andronico's also makes use of "eight-sided refrigerated hex tables, 9 feet in diameter, that are so unique because they can feature single items and turn the refrigeration on and off," Diedrick said.

The underlying trend is the growth of the value-added sector, as it simply continues to demand good refrigeration, said manufacturers. Barker's McMahon said "manufacturers have had to modify case design to get better temperatures."

Wal-Mart's Peterson agreed. "Temperature considerations are becoming a paramount issue," he said, but added that, as he sees it, "It's evolving beyond a quality issue and becoming a food-safety issue. It's a whole different discussion now. Discussions about temperature zones have expanded and become much more sophisticated."

The manufacturers and retailers also agreed that a lot of produce supermarkets, faced with pressure to keep costs low, are choosing to retrofit existing equipment.

Harps' Terry acknowledged that such a decision must be evaluated on an individual basis, but he's got a firm opinion. "I'm not a real big fan of people going in and retrofitting old cases. I see it as a Band-Aid, and not an answer."

Still, many are choosing to have their produce original cases revamped, manufacturers reported.

"Old stores want their temperatures improved. The old cases have temperatures of 50 [degrees]," said Meyers. He said that once temperature "was never a priority. Now, with value-added, it's temperature, temperature, it's all people care about."

Good refrigeration "keeps the product fresher. It makes my job easier and there is less shrink," added Andronico's Diedrick.

Good equipment also makes the product look better. Indeed, lighting and product visibility were also cited as important produce-merchandising equipment issues.

Keith Killen, president of Angeli Foods, Iron River, Mich., said lighting was the most important feature of fixtures in his produce department. "We want contrast and color accuracy, so the reds look red," he noted.

"Having good lighting so the customers can actually see the produce is very important," agreed Andronico's Diedrick.

Good lighting is essential to "making sure we can highlight the product," concurred Harps' Terry.

Equipment needs also extend, where applicable, to signage, said Angeli Foods' Killen. "We are using chalkboard-looking panels with liquid chalk, which gives a market atmosphere," he said.

Wal-Mart's Peterson even noted that returnable containers are an issue likely to have a major effect on fixture design in today's produce department.

West Point's Vernon said he has seen very little transformation in fixtures currently available in direct response to retailers' changing merchandising needs.

"Other than reconfiguration, multidecks and round units, there is not much new," he said, except for some custom work. "The technology is advanced but the basic body [of the fixtures] looks as it always has."

Wal-Mart's Peterson noted that the produce-fixtures market addresses "components of all [these priorities], but each of those areas could be improved. State of the art is not a good/bad issue, it's a good/better issue."

At least one of those crucial components -- temperature control -- cannot be overlooked, said Terry at Harps. "I think the greatest mistake is probably not to do something. I think there is going to be a time when if you don't have the right temperature, you don't carry the product. There's a liability concern out there that's too great."