DOROTHY LANE, SUPERVALU STRIKE GOLD

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Dorothy Lane Market and its wholesaler Supervalu relied on extraordinary customer service to help win the gold in the second annual Retail Merchandising Challenge, a competition held during the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's convention here late last month.Teams of deli associates from three supermarket operators went up against each other, in a test of technical

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Dorothy Lane Market and its wholesaler Supervalu relied on extraordinary customer service to help win the gold in the second annual Retail Merchandising Challenge, a competition held during the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's convention here late last month.

Teams of deli associates from three supermarket operators went up against each other, in a test of technical skills, merchandising savvy and creativity. Top winner Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, competed against Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., and Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.

It was a close call, according to judges who comprised a seven-member panel from within the industry. When the tallies were in, however, the gold medal went to two-unit independent Dorothy Lane Market, which had teamed with Supervalu to compete. The silver medal went to 14-unit Dierbergs, while the bronze was earned by 81-unit Price Chopper.

"Until the scores were totaled up, we could not have predicted who was the winner. It was that close. They were all exceptional," said Carol Christison, IDDA executive director.

Members from each of the merchandising teams said it was a winning experience.

"Actually, I felt we were all winners. Just being chosen to participate in the Merchandising Challenge was an honor. And we all came back with new ideas. It was a great experience," said Bernie Moran, deli supervisor at Dierbergs and team leader for his group.

The three teams were selected for their merchandising expertise early this year by IDDA's ShowPlace committee, which includes representatives of all segments of the industry.

At the show, the teams set competing deli cases, cutting cheeses and deli meats, sampling products and interacting with show attendees. Each team was given the same set of materials, from products to props, to choose from for setting their cases. From that point on, their own skills and originality came into play.

"I was amazed at how well they could set themselves apart," said Terry McNutt, training manager

at Wilson's Continental Deli, Oklahoma City. McNutt served on the seven-member judging panel, which was headed up by Regi Hise, manager of training and education at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Madison, Wis.

The panel graded the teams using a long list of criteria including details on organization and sanitation, and cheese cutting and wrapping, as well as merchandising and customer service.

"They were all so outstanding that we had to really pick them apart and pay a lot of attention to details. It was very close," said judge Lee Ann LeBore, senior deli specialist/coordinator for Fairway Foods, a Minneapolis-based food wholesaler.

"And it was obvious that the companies had sent their best people to compete," said another judge, Norma Gilliam, public relations director for The Hubert Co., Cincinnati, which supplied the props and fixtures for the contest.

The theme of gold-medal-winner Dorothy Lane Market was "We're the Store That Accommodates." The team emphasized its customer service, said Shirley Hollis, food service director for the independent, which is supplied by Supervalu Inc., the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based wholesaler.

One judge said she was particularly impressed with that team's responsiveness to anyone who came near its display area. "When I saw one show attendee ask about a product, it was immediate that the associate cut a sample and began offering interesting information about it," the judge recounted.

Hollis of Dorothy Lane noted that its team set out to make its area "customer-friendly." In real life at Dorothy Lane Market stores, for example, each department displays a large photograph of its manager and associates, with their names included. In keeping with that, the team members had a group photograph taken prior to the competition and displayed a blow-up of it on an easel in front of the showcase.

"Also, I think we were the only team that picked up on Father's Day as a theme. We displayed 'gift baskets' in baseball caps with cheese wedges and sausages, for example," Hollis said. The first day of the IDDA show was Father's Day. Fred Ruehl, bakery/deli product manager at Supervalu and team leader for Dorothy Lane, said, "I was impressed at how well we worked as a team, because we don't work together everyday. It also was obvious we were enjoying what we were doing."

This is the second time in a row that an independent, working with its supplier, took the top award. Last year, the gold went to Spartan/VG's Food Centers and Pharmacy, Fenton, Mich., which is supplied by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based wholesaler Spartan Foods. In the 1994 event, Tom Thumb Food & Drugs, Dallas, won the silver medal, and Larry's Markets, Seattle, won the bronze.

In addition to earning overall scores, which were computed Olympics-style, each of the teams was recognized for a particular area in which its performance was deemed outstanding.

This year's silver winner, Dierbergs, which had as its theme, "The Taste of Excellence," received special recognition for service selling.

"The judges tested us all by placing orders for various things and when one of them ordered a party tray from us, we ended up selling him two. I think that counted," said Moran of Dierbergs.

Dorothy Lane Market got special recognition for product knowledge and Price Chopper, for merchandising.

"We merchandised every piece of product they gave us," said Frank Lotano, Price Chopper deli specialist and team member.

Price Chopper's theme was an old-time Italian deli. "We had massive displays. For example, we used eight wheels of Jarlsberg, which gave it that old-time look, but we also rotated our products, featuring a different vendor each day," said Dotti Lawless, Price Chopper deli specialist and another team member.

"It was a great experience. It brought us closer together and we came back with new ideas," Lawless said. She and other team members said they were particularly impressed with cheese-carving, which they were shown in training sessions prior to the contest.

"Just a logo or a simple carving in the case would attract attention," said Ken Street, a team member and a Price Chopper deli manager at store level.