GRAND UNION ROLLING OUT ECCE PANIS BREAD LINE

WAYNE, N.J. -- Grand Union Co. here has begun to roll out Ecce Panis branded, artisan breads after the products proved their worth in selected test stores.Over the last two months, the chain sales-tested the breads in four stores in New Jersey and one in Connecticut with satisfying results, officials said."I was pleasantly surprised. When you're told a product's potential, you hope it will live up

WAYNE, N.J. -- Grand Union Co. here has begun to roll out Ecce Panis branded, artisan breads after the products proved their worth in selected test stores.

Over the last two months, the chain sales-tested the breads in four stores in New Jersey and one in Connecticut with satisfying results, officials said.

"I was pleasantly surprised. When you're told a product's potential, you hope it will live up to it. In this case, it went beyond that. Sales are definitely above our expectations," said Bill de Brauwere, director of bakery merchandising for the 225-unit chain.

"In one of our stores, Ecce Panis made up 7% to 9% of total bakery sales. And, without any promotion or any kind of advance notice to customers, we sold out nearly the whole cart of bread the first day we had it in one of the New Jersey stores," he added.

What's even better, de Brauwere said, is that Ecce Panis sales are incremental.

"They're not cutting into sales of our other products at all," he said. The chain's 130 stores that have in-store bakeries offer a variety of crusty breads that are baked off on-site.

The branded, upscale breads -- which have become well known to New Yorkers via Ecce Panis' five freestanding bakery stores in Manhattan -- are merchandised at Grand Union on 3-foot by 6-foot mobile carts with see-through doors. The loaves, in a variety of shapes, are displayed unwrapped. Customers help themselves, placing their loaf of choice in a perforated plastic bag provided at the cart.

"The fixture itself is pretty unique. I think it attracts people's attention," de Brauwere said, in an effort to explain the product's quick sales success at Grand Union.

He also said getting customers to taste the breads is the clincher.

"Ecce Panis helped us with demos the first week and we always have a domed platter on the cart with samples. Once they try them, customers don't seem to mind paying the price for these breads," de Brauwere said.

Indeed, the two best-selling Ecce Panis varieties at Grand Union -- raisin pecan and calamata olive -- are the highest priced, with a retail of $4.99.

"All the specialty loaves are outselling baguettes and semolina breads. That's probably because we already have a very good semolina and baguette of our own," de Brauwere said, pointing out that specialty breads tend to attract customers' attention.

"We've had very positive comments from customers. Some have said they used to have to go into the city [New York] to buy bread like this. Others have told us that some of these are so good they can make a meal of just the bread."

De Brauwere acknowledged that in the past it has been a challenge to get supermarket shoppers to buy pricey, artisan breads.

"The market for them is there, but it's hard for supermarkets to reach that customer. People get introduced to good, chewy, artisan breads at the better restaurants, and some of them are now happy they can find them in their supermarket," he said.

But getting their attention is the challenge, he stressed. De Brauwere pointed out that in its Connecticut stores the chain had tried another line of branded artisan breads previously without much success.

"It didn't work for us because I think it needed more creative merchandising. It was hard for a customer to distinguish the product as something special."

The Ecce Panis display cart, on the other hand, sets the product apart, giving it its own identity, de Brauwere explained.

Descriptive brochures, available at the display, also tell the Ecce Panis story.

"And even though it's self-service, we have the cart placed near the service bakery counter where our people can talk to customers about the product. They're knowledgeable about it. Ecce Panis helped us there," the bakery director said. He added that customers also are invited to bring loaves to the service counter to be sliced.

The chain plans to situate its Ecce Panis displays in its in-store bakeries, but will experiment with positioning the display in the deli at one of its New Jersey stores, de Brauwere said.

The five stores where Ecce Panis was initially tested were chosen for their foot traffic, their demographics, and because they had enough space to accommodate the mobile, self-service bread display, he said.

Based on the sales results at those stores, the chain is aiming to put Ecce Panis into at least 50 Grand Union units in the metro New York area and Connecticut, de Brauwere said.

"We're rapidly moving beyond test stage to a rollout. Right now we're working with Ecce Panis to come up with a downsized version of the bread cart for stores that don't have enough space for the 3-by-6 one," he noted.

At this point in time, the rollout will be limited to a fairly small geographic area, because the product's success is based on "its being delivered fresh every day," de Brauwere said.

Ecce Panis makes deliveries direct to stores each morning from its production facility in Carlstadt, N.J.

"If they build a satellite facility at some point, we could put it in stores farther out," de Brauwere said.

Grand Union offers 10 to 12 varieties of Ecce Panis breads each day. Six or seven of the best sellers will be core products and the others will be rotated in and out, sometimes based on the season, de Brauwere said.

The Ecce Panis products were spotlighted for the first time in a Grand Union ad circular this week. They got a nearly 4 by 4 spot in the grand opening circular for the chain's newest store, which opened March 13 in Point Pleasant, N.J.