In the increasingly contentious battle for consumers, retailers are turning to their fresh-foods departments to differentiate themselves from the competition and capture additional profits. Premium-priced items like specialty produce, fresh-baked artisan breads, value-added fresh meats and gourmet cheeses are taking on new importance as they are elevated beyond their old commodity status to a primary

In the increasingly contentious battle for consumers, retailers are turning to their fresh-foods departments to differentiate themselves from the competition and capture additional profits. Premium-priced items like specialty produce, fresh-baked artisan breads, value-added fresh meats and gourmet cheeses are taking on new importance as they are elevated beyond their old commodity status to a primary attraction and sales driver.

But this multicategory strategy presents supermarkets with a high degree of liability -- one mistake in freshness, quality or taste, and that hard-earned reputation is substantially compromised.

One of the ways operators are protecting the integrity and maximizing the appeal of their fresh-foods selection is by investing in the right fixtures. In so doing, equipment has emerged as a critical element in the larger strategy to build consumer traffic.

While there are many options and companies to choose from in deciding which fixture works best where, there are certain basic requirements that retailers are demanding from manufacturers. Today's formula is reliability, flexibility and simplicity. These include modular units that can easily be moved around to reconfigure the selling floor; "set-and-forget" control panels that minimize training and operation requirements; and multifunction pieces that can be altered or modified according to daypart or category.

Bill Justin, president of Team 2000, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based design and consulting firm, shares the opinion of many in the supermarket industry when he says that there's a trend toward smaller, community-oriented formats that use fresh foods and high-touch service levels to distinguish themselves. That kind of emphasis requires a solid foundation, not only in employee training and product selection, but in the way products are merchandised.

"Flexible fixtures really help put across the human-service element as well as unique product," he said. "I'm trying to focus our clients more on the idea of total-service departments, dependent a lot on items that are exclusive to the stores."

These types of items don't necessarily require a lot of scratch cooking, he said, but they do have to be presented in the best possible manner; and, if they're hot items, finished with flair in front of customers, he said.

"We are evolving to a less packaged look. That is a driving force today in these kinds of marketplace-type stores," he said.

From Justin's perspective, tastes and trends among customers are changing more quickly, and the goal is to install equipment and fixtures that can quickly adapt to new marketing strategies, and the products involved in them.

"The idea is to design flexible equipment that can be very movable, whether from department to department, or from store to store, and not need a whole bunch of technicians," he said. Of course, certain pieces, like refrigerated service cases, are certainly less able to be carted around on a whim, but even their interiors can be modified to reflect updated selling tactics and product-line innovations.

Costs can drive this, but "your store's in constant renovation, anyway. So you don't have to go out and physically renovate your store; rather, let the product renovate it," he added.

At Turco's Market, Yorktown Heights, N.Y., it's the food, not the fixtures and decor, that take the spotlight. Here, this single-unit independent retailer has devoted more than one-third of the store's 38,000 square feet to fresh foods, deli meats, seafood, meat and poultry and hot meals. According to Preston Turco, owner, that was precisely the idea in choosing fixtures that emphasized variety and quality. He sought out custom fixtures to make food, not store, the centerpiece.

"Most supermarkets are stone white or brown, very generic," he said. "We have a very low-key atmosphere. It's not bright in the store. Just the product is lit up. It's more like a theater of food."

Turco comes from a supermarket family, and knew what he was looking for. He owned several greengrocer-type stands in the Bronx, before moving into New York's Westchester county in 1976. As he entered new markets, he expanded from produce to deli, fish and meat. As his store's grew in scope and size, he began learning the intricacies involved with fixtures. Now, in his latest effort, he's taken over an old C-Town Store, gutted it and redesigned it from the ground up. Of the $6.5 million spent on the store, $3 million went to custom fixtures, he said.

"Appearance is always important. But I think, before that, we need to look at equipment that holds the temperature the best," he said. "Shrinkage with fresh foods is a big problem, and that can hurt presentation. From past experience with different cases, different cases hold the temperature better. We were looking this time for the best product that could hold the product the longest and the freshest."

Before making any purchase, Turco visited other supermarkets that had the same model of cases he was considering buying for his own store. Each company provided him with a list of food stores in the area to visit where he could see their cases in action on the store floor.

"In this instance, we stood there for five or six hours, watching what they put in the case, how temperatures reacted, and how long the product looked fresh," he recalled.

At Turco's, the 34-foot service case holds a variety of salads and even smoked salmon, next to which is an 8-foot, one-deck open self-service cheese display. A 16-foot back bar is reserved for the slicing meat and cheese. The service case, manufactured by Wescho Co., West Chester, Pa., is a winner, Turco said.

"A lot of times, you get that decay or crust even after 45 minutes. With this case, there's none of that, all day long. In fact, in our meat department, we spent the extra money and got the cases with a humidification system."

Jim Riesenburger, a partner in RL & Associates, Rochester, N.Y., the firm that designed and outfitted Turco's, notes that these modern cases use design concepts that include stainless steel, larger cooling coils and slower air speeds, all of which combined prevent product denigration. He cited a study conducted on behalf of Wescho in Germany that found a 2% to 3% reduction in shrink through use of this system.

He added that there are labor-saving implications with newer case designs as well.

"Not only do you save in shrink, but associates don't have to take the product out back to the kitchen to be freshened up or turned. There's a labor-saving there, and also savings where you'd otherwise have to throw product away," he said. "You also have greater product acceptability from the consumer standpoint because the food always looks appetizing."

In the deli, cases are straight, non-glare glass, which departs from the "Euro-case" look, where the glass front bows out. Mark Leenhouts, Riesenburger's business partner at RL & Associates, notes that design is being driven by two factors in determining the style of refrigerated service cases: the cost of the curved glass and the usefulness of the top of the case.

"Curved glass was beautiful, but there's an added expense to that, and it's questionable whether it makes much impact on the merchandising," he said. "Then we also must look at the top of the deli case. There's valuable space there, and we need to be able to merchandise everywhere today."

A nearby deli-related counter features a whole sandwich bar, gourmet soups and Caesar salads, mostly served to order. There is a food court with an open self-serve food bar, and there is a pizza and pasta action station.

"We've always been an upscale store, but with reasonable prices. I think the best way to describe our approach is food is bought with the eyes," said Turco. "So, if presentation is done right, it just enhances peoples' appetites."

Produce and floral are related departments that present problems of their own. Here, space is the issue. Retail produce managers are increasingly challenged by year-round supply, branded items, and global sourcing, all of which has combined to put a premium on valuable aisle space. Floral is an up-and-coming department where service counters and well-appointed merchandisers constitute a potential for high margins.

One chain undertaking a major initiative to boost the profile of these departments is Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J. The retailer is opening new formats like the fresh-oriented GU Fresh Market format, as well as a new prototype mainstream Food Market venue. Victor Lomoriello, vice president of produce, said that the chain's renewed emphasis on the produce and floral categories has required creative thinking.

"The space in stores is limited," he said. "You just can't keep growing because you have more SKUs. What we've done is go up the walls, go upwards -- vertical vs. spreading out."

While fruits and vegetables may not be alone among store departments in battling for maximum space efficiency, there are additional issues of perishability, seasonality, consumer expectations and store demographics that complicate the challenge of fitting more products into a limited area.

"All of the variety is great for the consumer but handling it can be difficult for the retailer," agreed Ed Odron, a former retail produce executive and now a partner in the consulting firm of Heintz & Odron 2000, Stockton, Calif. "While many of us have prototype stores where more space is being allocated to produce, a lot are working with great stores in great locations [that] only have, say, 30,000 square feet. That's when it becomes a real challenge to work all of these products in."

At Grand Union, Lomoriello said that modified dairy cases, with adjustable, multideck shelf options, are helping to ease the crunch. These flexible fixtures allow the retailer to categorize more merchandising room for improved presentation. And, they're less expensive than custom fixtures that may not be as adaptable, he said.

"We've installed the spray misters, and used a couple of different manufacturers for the racking. They're flexible and adjustable for depth," Lomoriello said. "We've also put in additional five-deck cases to expand for the future. Some sections we're using as a seven-deck case."

At the first Food Market store, in Carlstadt, N.J., the produce department comprises roughly 2,400 square feet of the store's 55,320-square-foot total. Given the constraints, vertical fixtures to create a wall of produce have had a positive effect on presentation.

"Talking to a few of the customers during all these openings, they perceive produce to have an extended variety beyond what they're seeing," said Lomoriello of shopper reaction to the vertical schematics. "They can see a lot more product in the vertical set so that they can choose a lot more from the same item -- it's not all layered on top of each other in the case."

One of the drivers in this category has been the advent and popularity of value-added items like branded bagged salads. As they started becoming a permanent resident in the produce aisle, retailers began switching from the old style of single-deck, sloped cases to multideck models that today stretch up to 24 feet in length. The salads and other fresh-cut items require strict temperature control at 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Items like cut melon or fruit salad might look attractive on an open ice table, but food-safety concerns have moved these items back into the case.

One option Lomoriello said he believes has a positive effect is the use of the color black for shelving. "It highlights appearance, with the lighting on the product, not on the fixture. The customer doesn't even know what kind of case they're looking at -- they're looking at the product," he said.

"Shelving is shelving for products like canned goods, but the challenge for produce is that many of the fixtures need to allow for refrigeration, which can be more difficult to attain," added Odron, discussing the functional requirements of the cases. "Fixture manufacturers have done a good job of designing cases that are flexible and maintain the proper temperatures. Many stores are putting in cases where a range of temperatures can be achieved to allow for different products to be merchandised, and that also allow for added shelving."

These attributes are especially helpful as produce-related categories, like vegetarian proteins, arrive in the department. Grand Union is increasing its offerings of soy and like products to at least 8 feet in produce, up from 4 feet in earlier layouts.

Fixture manufacturers and category experts also report a trend toward the use of mobile merchandisers. These smaller units, usually no more than 10 linear feet, are readily adaptable to daypart changeovers (juices in the morning and salads in the afternoon), and easily moved to the front of the department, or the store itself, during peak shopping periods. Similarly, these mobile carts are ideal for lunch-time salad bars that can be stocked in the produce department and then wheeled over to the deli or meals area, they said.

As retailers undertake initiatives to upgrade their perimeter departments, they are once again embracing the idea of service meat, and restaffing the department with knowledgeable associates who have the technical know-how concerning meat, poultry and seafood, as well as the ability to educate and up-sell customers on the inventory. In this situation, installing the proper fixtures is a priority, since they become the stage on which the product stars -- particularly with the advent of specialty upscale cuts like certified Angus beef or organic chicken on ice, and value-added items in the form of stuffed chops or marinated chicken breasts.

This is certainly the philosophy at Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, Akron, Ohio, which recently opened its second store in nearby Solon. The 37,000-square-foot selling floor is full of natural and organic foods, including fresh items. Because these products are more expensive, even to source, Phillip Nabors, Mustard Seed's president, said he and a team of designers and consultants took special pains to select the best fixtures that would protect the foods; maximize shelf life and appeal; and highlight the freshness and quality of the meats.

"We're in the business of selling naturally raised meats and organic meats," Nabors recently told SN as the store bustled with pre-Easter and Passover shoppers. "We wanted to properly convey the selling attributes of that to our customer. For us, that means selling it at least in part in a service environment."

To that end, the goal was to recreate the feel of an old-time butcher shop, where the emphasis is placed on customer-associate relations, in an environment that encourages interaction, personalized service and product quality. In a twist on the old formula, however, Nabors added that the cases also had to possess a certain amount of flexibility.

"We also wanted to merchandise meal solutions in the department, so we sought a case where we could do service and self-service, in the same lineup," he said.

At Mustard Seed, the service meat line is comprised of 16, four-foot cases that are part of the Dome Series, manufactured by Barker Co., Keosauqua, Iowa. For continuity, he also ordered an additional 100 feet for the store's high-profile Market Kitchen, where the cases frame the 6,000-square-foot open-production kitchen.

In the meat department, the fixtures feature humidification, non-glare glass and a flat top for cross-merchandising, and the department is fronted by an open self-service deck. This component allows Mustard Seed to assemble like products associated with specific proteins merchandised in the case, Nabors said.

"We might want to merchandise some potatoes, carrots and onions in front of where the roasts are sold; or we might want to offer the cocktail sauce right in front of the shrimp," he said. "For special promotion, we might have the salsa, the tortillas, the cheese and the other items you need to make a fajita with the fajita strips that are marinated and sold out of our service meat case."

Another quality that attracted the veteran retailer focused on the display area in the service part of the case, which is higher off the floor than the traditional gravity case. It raises the line of vision of the interior so that it's easier for customers to shop -- and buy.

"You get the right lighting in there, and what we're able to achieve is a very dramatic presentation -- where the product is 'in your face,' up in that selling zone, and you almost feel like you can just reach out and grab it," said Nabors. "The glass simply just disappears. It provides a very powerful merchandising platform for our service environment."

The view is enhanced by the optional non-glare glass, a growing favorite among retailers who agree that the technology behind it has matured in the past few years to the point where the extra expense is worth it. Nabors said he also was intrigued by the smaller interior, a characteristic he considers a benefit, since it requires a lesser amount of product to fill (and appear "full" to the customer), therefore encouraging quicker rotation. He estimated the Barker cases at approximately 24 inches deep.

"We're able to have a lot of variety without having to put too much product out and have quite a lot of linear display without a lot of inventory," he added. "We have some dividers that allow us to segregate the different categories. You might spread out the fish for Lent, for instance."

Merchandising strengths aside, Nabors was also concerned with the cases' ability to shield the product from the effects of time, which is why he zeroed in on fixtures with rehumidification capabilities.

"Every old meat guy will tell you that you have to have a gravity case because a case with a fan will dry out your product -- which is true if you don't rehumidify," he noted. "These cases have humidification, which buys you back your shelf life that you'd otherwise lose by having a forced-air case."

In the dairy department, multideck self-service cases have always been the fixture of choice. But even here, an explosion of new products and sizes has dairy managers reviewing their category management manuals and planograms in an effort to squeeze even more products into existing space. Of all the sub-groups in the category, milk and cheese are the most troublesome, according to category experts and industry observers.

"There are a lot of new milks emerging. We're no longer a fat-free, 1%, 2% and whole-milk category. There's more and more single-serve moving out of retail," observed Jerry Dryer, president of Jerry Dryer Group, a dairy-related consulting firm based in Chicago. "The dairy case hasn't had enough linear feet for years, and now it's rapidly falling behind, given the advent of all these new products.

"And that's just the beverage side," he added, noting that natural cheese, cubed and sliced cheese and shredded blends are filling up the other end of the aisle. "It's no longer the dairy case. It's the refrigerated-foods case."

According to a recent survey of 3,000 supermarkets by Dairy Management Inc. and ACNielsen, both in Chicago, the average dairy department is 396 linear feet. That space seems even smaller when bombarded with a host of new stockkeeping units at the rate that's occurring in the dairy aisle right now, Dryer said.

"With the kind of velocity there is in the dairy case -- the dollar return on the items -- retailers ought to be paying more attention to it," he said. "I haven't seen anything much change. The aisle is just more crowded and there are fewer facings of product."

In a survey of more than 700 stores around the United States, the DMI/Nielsen researchers found that fluid milk earns one-third of category dollars but ends up getting only 15.5% space; cheese gets 24.5% of space but accounts for only 22.9% of dollars. How do these numbers affect the fixture debate? They've resulted in a search for alternative merchandising locations, said Dryer.

"It's a very significant issue for the milk folks to understand how they can potentially increase incremental space elsewhere in the store, because in reality, it's very difficult to regain space within the current department sets," he said.

David Bishop, a dairy specialist at Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill., said that retailers are beginning to turn their attention to merchandising dairy more effectively, though not by adding another shelf to an already crowded five-deck case. They've begun opening secondary locations within the store, using smaller fixtures that stress convenience, rather than selection.

For example, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. has been installing 8- and 12-foot-long refrigerated sections dedicated to meals solutions near the front entrances/checkout areas with cross-category representation, including single-serve milk containers. At Queen Anne Thriftway in Seattle, milk is sold like Coke and Pepsi from single-door coolers at the express checkout, along with six-packs of eggs and the like. Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., has within the past 12 months begun installing upward of 16 feet of refrigeration along the post-register exit aisle and stocking it predominantly with gallons and half-gallons of milk. Similar to the purchase of ice, where customers pay first and grab the bags outside from the freezer, Wal-Mart customers tell the cashier what they want, pay for it and grab the the milk on the way out.

"The last couple of years, with the introduction of plastic single-serve products, the opportunities are endless to get secondary space for those products, either in the front of the store with a home-meal replacement section or the cookie aisle," said Greg Rotunno, DMI's director of milk marketing.

Cheese is also making its way into alternative selling venues. Rotunno cited a test two years ago where cheese was merchandised in a 4-foot secondary location of select Dominick's Finer Foods units in Chicago -- in the dry pasta/ethnic-foods aisle.

Regardless of secondary locations, however, there's still research going on into how to make the present setup in the dairy aisle more effective, and easier to work with from a labor point of view. Bishop noted that there's the simple challenge of stocking and rotating items.

"Fixed shelving presents many challenges. With yogurt, for example, it has a very high labor component associated to stocking, rotation and cleaning," he said. "It's very difficult to reach in because the shelf heights are not conducive to store labor."

Service is paramount in today's in-store bakery. The festive nature of the department and its high-touch atmosphere require special attention toward fixtures that encourage interaction, while providing a clear, appetizing view of baked goods and convenience for the employees.

Tawn Earnest, communications coordinator for Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., said that when the chain opened a new prototype of its Kash n' Karry Food Stores division in Clermont, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, the bakery, along with several other fresh departments like deli and floral, were all designed to face outward from the center as the customer walked in. "The deli-bakery in this store, unlike traditional supermarkets, is not set up against one of the four walls of the building. It's in the middle of the store," she said. "It's a semi-circle."

Earnest said that the fixtures in the department are not customized, since it would be cost-prohibitive for the chain, which operates nearly 100 stores in Florida.

"I don't believe that we're using fixtures in this store that are different that those in other Kash 'n Karry's. But the floor design and placement are unique. That is what makes this store setup unusual," she said.

Here, the idea is to take standardized, though quality, fixtures, and to situate them in such a way that the entire look of the department is altered and upscaled. Earnest said the design priority was to make the area appealing and shopper-friendly.

"We were careful to place workstations so that employees face out to the customer even as they work. So, there's no more slicing the cheese with you back turned to the customer," she said. "It has a fresh, very appetizing draw, because you see food, you smell food; it's the colors of that department and the faces that look out at you that set the tone for the entire shopping trip. You know it from the get-go."

The prototype's bakery arc is made up of mixed service and self-service case, including a sizable doughnut display, bagels and fresh breads.