GROCERY WORLD'S NUMBERS OK WITH RICE

HOUSTON -- Officials at Rice Food Markets here say the produce and meat departments in their Grocery World format stores have been pulling in above-average sales numbers.Company officials told SN the overall results so far have them convinced the format is poised for an aggressive future."Our sales are meeting and exceeding our expectations," said Gary Friedlander, company president. "We are going

HOUSTON -- Officials at Rice Food Markets here say the produce and meat departments in their Grocery World format stores have been pulling in above-average sales numbers.

Company officials told SN the overall results so far have them convinced the format is poised for an aggressive future.

"Our sales are meeting and exceeding our expectations," said Gary Friedlander, company president. "We are going to continue expanding."

The company now operates four Grocery World units, each converted from Rice Food Markets locations. The Grocery Worlds are more upscale supermarkets, dedicated to offering an expanded inventory in produce and meat, both in quantity and variety, while maintaining low prices.

At the newest Grocery World, opened this fall, "We're a good 8% to 10% above what that store would normally do," said Ron Shernak, Rice's director of meat operations.

While other departments were expected to generate good numbers in the new stores, sales in the meat department have been a "pleasant surprise," said Friedlander.

"We knew the produce section would do well," he said, but expectations for the meat department were not as high, given what Friedlander said is the current predicament that, at least for supermarkets, meat sales had been deflated.

"You know [consumers] are eating it," said Friedlander, referring to the increasing number of roadhouse-style steakhouses opening around the country. "Hopefully, we can get them to start cooking it again."

Aside from the fresh meat case, one of the main features is a 40-foot case of what Friedlander calls "meat deli," which includes case-ready meat such as Oscar Mayer hot dogs or bologna.

Shernak said one of the things the meat department does to please its customers is offer an abundant, easily accessible selection.

"There's nothing worse than seeing a really good ad, and when you go into the store, you can't find what you want, or the selection is so poor," Shernak said.

Offering a large variety and vast selection allows shoppers to have the best shopping experience, Shernak said.

"It really makes them feel like they get what they want," he said.

Grocery World advertises at least 50 different meat department items each week in its circular.

When the department offers sales, it does not skimp on the quality, which Shernak said is common practice at other stores.

"If we have T-bone steak, [consumers] are going to see the same quality meat, trimmed the same way," he said.

While all four Grocery Worlds are in the Houston area and stock many similar items, one of the main reasons for converting the stores to the new format was to be able to do more micromarketing.

This newest store, located in a large Jewish community, offers a complete line of kosher beef and poultry items, for example.

In the third store, the meat department catered to the surrounding Hispanic population by offering hogs' heads, fritas, fajitas and honeycomb beef tripe. "We do some of our advertising in Spanish," Shernak added.

Knowing what the shoppers in a particular community will want is the hard part, he noted.

"You have to talk to your customers and listen," he said. "We put in a complete line of Hebrew National, but what if we miss something?"

As part of the conversions, the department location was moved from the first aisle to each store's large lobby area, which had not previously been used, said Friedlander. The move subsequently freed the first aisle for other departments.

The fourth Grocery World had a number of promotions to kick off the grand opening, including selling 15-pound bags of potatoes for 99 cents in the front of the department, a jumbo-size Bartlett pear display and a sale on 32-count navel oranges that "weighed about a pound and a quarter," said Mark Luchak, director of produce and floral operations at Rice.

The newest store stocks more than 350 fruits and vegetables. While there are not many produce items that are typically thought of as being Jewish delicacies, Luchak said, for certain holidays the store will beef up the appropriate categories.

"At Hanukkah, we were really featuring similar items to [those] we feature for Christmas and Thanksgiving," Luchak said. "We had potatoes, apples, oranges and anything sweet."

Luchak added that the chain has been concentrating on getting the sweetest fruits, following the persistent demands of shoppers. " 'Is it sweet?' was the first question we were asked," he said.

The store also featured blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and cherries during the Hanukkah holiday, which sold out the first day the store opened.

"We did well with berries," Luchak said. "We had a larger display than we had in our other stores."