FRESH MOVES FROM SUPPORT ROLE TO CENTER STAGE

In researching the growth of the perishables departments in anticipation of our 50th anniversary issue (to be published July 22), I've spent a lot of time talking with veteran retailers -- some retired and others nearing that milestone -- about the categories they managed.Granted, there's a lot to talk about, because the 50 years SN is focusing on chronicles an era when fresh foods emerged as a dominant,

In researching the growth of the perishables departments in anticipation of our 50th anniversary issue (to be published July 22), I've spent a lot of time talking with veteran retailers -- some retired and others nearing that milestone -- about the categories they managed.

Granted, there's a lot to talk about, because the 50 years SN is focusing on chronicles an era when fresh foods emerged as a dominant, defining force guiding retailers as the industry evolved into the "fresh market" formats you see today.

This collective stroll down memory lane is illuminating -- and thought-provoking -- because it creates a panoramic, big-picture perspective of the industry. Step back and pause for a moment, and you realize what an amazing story it is. The conversations are mingled with personal reminisces, as well as the voice of experience: stocking the first bagged-salad mixes, opening the first case of boxed beef, knowing that this could be something that would change the way we work and sell food to the public.

If there's one overarching trend connecting the fresh-food departments, it's that just about all of them were founded on the idea that they would support Center Store, where most consumers at that time (in the 1960s and early 1970s, when perishables were just coming into the supermarket arena in serious fashion) still did most of their shopping.

With the possible exception of meat, which was contributing upward of 20% to total-store sales even back then, the others were single-digit players: Luncheon meats, a few cheeses and basic salads comprised the deli, which was often an extension of the meat case; produce was no more than 100 items merchandised in the last aisle, anteing up about 5%; the in-store bakery might have a single, three-tier service case of cookies and doughnuts; and seafood was most likely not even in the store.

These small departments were added to the grocery mix merely to offer shoppers the added convenience of patronizing that particular store. In those early days, no one immediately saw the potential for these categories to develop into stand-alone destination departments. Indeed, the retailers implementing fresh-food programs back then saw the departments as already fulfilling the needs of their shoppers.

As such small pieces of the business, retailers didn't put a whole lot of emphasis on profitability. The attitude was more, "Let's get it into the store, and the total-store ring will generate a return." Opinions changed when the industry started growing faster, and the departments started having more impact on numbers and operations. The mantra became, "Find a way to get this department to make a better contribution."

The growing sophistication of the market required new strategies capable of consolidating merchandising, product selection and operational efficiencies into a formula strong enough to generate profit during times of change, but flexible enough to itself change with the times.

It's an exciting dynamic that's still in a state of evolution, and the departments are getting better all the time. In fact, we're at the point now where they are standard, almost mature concepts -- ready to become hallmarks of tradition, rather than a new, in-store accessory.