FRESH DESIGNS

Full-scale change has finally arrived as supermarkets are repositioning their fresh departments around the needs of consumers.Previously, these departments were only highlighted by the progressive few, but a new wave of retailers is leading the way by transplanting their perishables up front and center.As these fresh departments come forward, they're not only growing in size, but in product mix, including

Full-scale change has finally arrived as supermarkets are repositioning their fresh departments around the needs of consumers.

Previously, these departments were only highlighted by the progressive few, but a new wave of retailers is leading the way by transplanting their perishables up front and center.

As these fresh departments come forward, they're not only growing in size, but in product mix, including a sharper focus on fresh meals, the cross merchandising of perishables with traditional grocery, and the addition of on-site preparatory stations, according to a number of store designers.

The new focus on fresh items is evidenced through a number of modern store designs that retailers are presently implementing, including many who typically maintained long-standing traditional formats.

According to Ron Cox, director of marketing for D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., retailers must continue to react to customer demands, which include more fresh foods, and design their stores accordingly.

"Whether it be pharmacy, whether it be meal solutions, or any of those things that create multiple trips within a week," explained Cox, "you have to meet [the customer's] convenience because they're the drivers."

This isn't the first time D&W has expanded or redefined its perishables departments, according to Cox. This latest facelift has taken into account the growth of fresh meals, and has influenced such diverse subjects as parking and the placement of entrances.

Cox said that certain departments have always been up in front and always will be. "Produce continues to be one of the No. 1 reasons customers shop at grocery stores," he said. "Obviously, you want to put your best foot forward in that regard."

Presently, D&W has seven units that include a fresh-meals department, called the Chef's Kitchen, which is typically located in the meat department or adjacent to it, said Cox. Culinary professionals provide customers with demonstrations using various products from the store, which is a prime cross-merchandising opportunity, he explained.

"[The demonstrations are] really focusing on center-of-the-plate items, but also auxiliary items that can be paired with those meals, a big plus," said Cox. "We have so many things on our shelves that people are interested in, but they don't know how to use them and they may not pick them up."

In addition, D&W has installed cafes to augment the up-front fresh departments "where we think they make sense," said Cox. He said the cafes accommodate between 50 and 70 people.

To provide convenience, he said, D&W has installed separate entrances with a "door to store" theme, providing parking right next to the building. D&W is also planning to put in-store banks in all its units, as well as child care centers.

Hans Gobes, senior vice president of communications for Zaandam, Netherlands-based Ahold, parent company of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets, recently told SN that he believes "it is very logical to move fresh as close as possible to the front of the store so that customers have immediate access."

This was confirmed last month as Ahold opened its newly remodeled 112,000-square-foot International Tops unit in Amherst, N.Y. The store emphasized the retailer's commitment to fresh foods by repositioning the department in the front.

Under the new design, customers enter and are immediately met by the prepared-foods center -- a service area selling grilled foods, Chinese fare, pizza and soup; a self-service salad bar; a deli; a kosher deli; and a cappuccino bar. A 40-seat eating area sits adjacent to the walk-around format.

From the prepared-foods area, customers are naturally led to the right side of the store where they walk into the produce area, once again taking up a critical location in the fresh-department cluster.

According to Terry Roberts, president of Merchandising by Design, Pittsford, N.Y., "the days of designing stores where you're going to be forced to shop all the aisles in the whole store are really gone. We're going to see better combining of fresh perishables with traditional grocery categories."

Referring to it as "ensemble merchandising," Roberts said that retailers are resetting the correct adjacencies of departments and redirecting traffic flow in order to improve convenience and create a customer-friendly environment.

"The trend is to convert the overall store to a fresher format and combine fresh products and grocery categories," said Roberts.

To this end, Roberts noted that this shift -- away from traditional grocery items toward fresh items -- has created a significant change in the amount of total store footage allocated to perishables departments. Fresh departments have increased in size by about 25%, she said.

"Fresh has really become grouped in perishables power aisles and the grocery and hard goods have played the secondary role in location," said Roberts. "The perishables are taking up increased footage."

Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., is one retailer not afraid to provide additional space for its fresh departments. Its new 122,000-square-foot store, which opened in Amherst, N.Y., last month, has dedicated almost one-third of its space to fresh foods.

The store includes a separate entrance for customers who wish to patronize only the Market Cafe. On entering, customers are immediately hit with a host of prepared-foods stations, ranging from a Chinese food buffet to hot entrees to pizza combo meals. Just outside the food-service area is a sushi station that straddles the middle of the fresh power aisle.

Lining the left side of the aisle is a case dedicated to value-added and ready-to-heat foods, a service meat counter and service seafood. Along the right side of the aisle is a wood-fired brick oven with salespeople merchandising fresh breads, a bakery counter, a kosher deli and a non-kosher deli. At the back of the aisle, shoppers will find a cheese shop and a floral department.