PLANO, Texas -- A first look at the new Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy store here, complete with its powerful presentation of prepared foods, produce, bakery and deli, gives the impression of a chain putting a strong emphasis on its fresh food departments.But a closer look at the 72,000-square-foot store reveals the chain's quiet yet solid commitment to the frozen food department as well.More space, more

PLANO, Texas -- A first look at the new Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy store here, complete with its powerful presentation of prepared foods, produce, bakery and deli, gives the impression of a chain putting a strong emphasis on its fresh food departments.

But a closer look at the 72,000-square-foot store reveals the chain's quiet yet solid commitment to the frozen food department as well.

More space, more stockkeeping units and more demonstration capabilities give evidence that Tom Thumb's latest store format is a more frozens-friendly store.

The store, which opened Oct. 12, is the second "New Generation" store to be opened by Tom Thumb, which is based in Dallas. While there's no doubt that the fresh food areas are meant to draw shoppers to the store, the frozens department's profile also stands out prominently.

The aisle stretches merchandising space for 395 linear feet: 176 feet of coffin cases and 219 feet of doors, an increase of more than 40 feet over traditional Tom Thumb frozens departments.

The larger size allows the company to offer an additional 400-plus frozens SKUs, bringing its total up to about 2,500. Chain officials said the section's large size creates greater flexibility and will make it easier to adjust the assortment to customers' desires.

After all, everything Tom Thumb does within frozens, and the rest of the store, for that matter, is predicated on what the customers are buying, said D. Mark Prestidge, Tom Thumb's vice president of operations.

"The emphasis that's been put on frozens by consumers the last five to 10 years drives a lot of our decisions to increase linear footage. As frozens sales grow, and that entire category continues to grow, we've got to be able to increase the footage we allow to frozen," he told SN during a visit to the newest store.

At the New Generation store, the attention is paying off already. Indeed, in the first three weeks the store was open, the frozens department accounted for 6.5% of total store sales, up from the company's chainwide average of about 6%.

That progress in frozens comes in the face of some stiff local competition, not only from the format's own fresh foods sections, but from a Kroger that opened up only two weeks after this store, followed by a Whole Foods Market store that opened a week after the Kroger unit.

All three stores, plus an Albertson's (which is about six years old), are within three miles of each other in this rapidly growing area in the northern part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

"We were at a real advantage in opening this store two weeks before Kroger and three weeks before Whole Foods, because it gave the customers an opportunity to come in and see what we were offering," said Lewis Brooks, store director of the Plano unit.

Prestidge said the company's New Generation store -- a concept inherited from Randalls Food Markets, Houston, which purchased Tom Thumb two years ago -- "is not a format we're able to put on every street corner.

"The blueprint came from Houston," he said. "Then we went in and made a few changes based on how we operate up here. This is not just a cookie-cutter format. Lewis [Brooks] has the flexibility as store director to merchandise his store based on what his clientele is wanting and needing. Tom Thumb has always had a knack and flair for merchandising. I think it's something that as we get on down the road, our Houston division can learn and benefit from."

The chain will open a third such store in the summer of next year. After that, most of the other stores being planned are conventional stores "in the neighborhood of 55,000 to 57,000 square feet," Prestidge explained.

Frozens has not been neglected at the smaller format, however. Space allotted to frozens in the company's newer conventional stores have exceeded 340 linear feet.

"If you take a store we opened five years ago and then look at a conventional, same-size store today, you'd see we have increased the amount of footage we've dedicated to frozen. Of anything in the grocery area, frozens is probably getting the most attention," Prestidge said.

Frozen food plays an important role in the chain's continuing experiments to deliver what consumers want. An example of how the chain is experimenting is in the location of the frozens sections.

In the Plano unit, as well as the first New Generation store, the frozen food department is positioned at the end of the traffic flow. However, the third New Generation store will have its frozens section in the the center, which is the chain's typical location for the department.

"I personally like this,"

Prestidge said, looking at the Plano department. "To me, the normal flow with customers is to pick up frozens last."

Brooks also favors the placement of frozens at the end of the traffic pattern.

"One problem we have in some of our stores is ice," he said. "A customer will pick up a couple of bags of ice, put them in their cart and wander around the store, and they're dripping all the way. This way, the last thing they're doing before getting on line is grabbing a bag of ice." Prestidge said the decision to move the section back to the center stems from the company's desire to create an open, airy feeling in the department and at the store's core. That's done, he said, through the use of coffin cases, in addition to the aisle's location.

"One of the things we like with the frozen coffin is that, when you're walking across the front of the store, it will open up the back. "In most of our conventional stores here, the meat department is in the back. In other words, if you were to look from the front of the store and look down the frozens aisle, you've got the meat counter. So that opens that up and gives it some exposure."

No matter where it's located, a frozen food section like the one at the Plano store creates a positive image, Prestidge and Brooks agreed. The size helps considerably.

However, Prestidge added that at any size, frozens continues to be one of the most challenging departments in which to effect merchandising change.

"If you need more space in frozens, you have to go in and remodel, tear apart and add refrigeration cases. This is an area in which 10 years ago you probably had half the SKUs that you do now; and it's an area that continues to expand, continues to grow."

But while he contends that frozens will continue to grow in terms of sales, Prestidge said the department has probably reached its physical limits.

"I don't see a dramatic increase in the amount of footage," he said. "I think there will be some changes within the space that's allocated."

Those changes will arise, he added, through category management, something he sees as eventually "greatly reducing SKUs, compared to where we're at right now."

"What is our actual return on the amount of footage we give to the frozen juice department? Is that category growing? Is it shrinking? As more of the Snapples of the world expand, is that taking away from frozen juice? Those are the things that true category management will allow you to get in and identify."

Tom Thumb, like the rest of the industry, is just evolving into category management, particularly when it comes to frozens.

"That is one area we hope to have on line totally within the next six to eight months," said Prestidge. "We've got some systems that will be in place after the first of the year that will allow us to really get into category management."

Meanwhile, the chain continues to experiment. One such move is a recent shift to an ice cream warehousing program. Prestidge said about 400 products, mostly novelties, which were previously direct-store delivered, have moved to the warehouse.

"We're looking at cutting out the middleman. We're able to get a much lower cost through a warehouse program. But what we've got to be able to judge are the true benefits. I think the overall cost benefit will outweigh what we have to spend in labor and inventory," he said.

The Plano unit features two dual-temperature coffin cases in the center of the horizontal aisle along the back of the store, something Prestidge and Brooks said will lead to frequent cross-merchandising of frozen products.

"We're using this now for our grand opening specials," Brooks said. "It gives you a lot of options. We've got power on the ends of these units, our middle frozens coffins and the dairy coffins, which allows us to demonstrate an item and have it right here in the case available for them. Actually, we can use a tie-in display with a dry grocery item next to it."

Brooks said demonstrations of frozen products will play an important role in the new store.