HILLS MARKET BEEFS UP PREPARED FOODS

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hills Market here doubled its prepared foods sales when it added variety and brought them out of the corner and into the spotlight.Previously, the prepared foods items had occupied a 12-foot refrigerated case late in the store traffic pattern. Now, they're in a more prominent 20-foot case against the back wall, in-line between meat and seafood and the service deli counter."We're

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hills Market here doubled its prepared foods sales when it added variety and brought them out of the corner and into the spotlight.

Previously, the prepared foods items had occupied a 12-foot refrigerated case late in the store traffic pattern. Now, they're in a more prominent 20-foot case against the back wall, in-line between meat and seafood and the service deli counter.

"We're selling the idea of a whole meal by doing this," said Todd Kerscher, owner of Hills and three other stores that operate under Food World and Food Works banners. "When customers come to the meat counter to choose an entree, they may see an already cooked side dish they'd like to have with it. Or they might decide not to cook at all."

The prepared foods reset has recharged the ambience in the store, local observers told SN.

"There's an air of excitement at that back counter. When I was in there just a couple of weeks ago, I heard customers commenting on the variety, and associates were offering samples," said Karen Johnson, a locally based consultant who works with supermarkets.

"In addition to the variety and the way items were displayed, I was impressed by the level of service. It was obvious to me that associates were there to educate customers about the products, as well as to serve them," Johnson added.

When the prepared foods were isolated in the corner -- separated from the fresh meat and seafood counter by a bakery products display -- it didn't matter how good they looked. Customers had already made their meal decision before they got to that area of the store, Kerscher said.

"By the time they saw our homemade pot pies and meat loaves, they'd already bought their entree at the meat counter," said Peggy Hollenback, Hills' food-service director.

Moving the case was a big step, but boosting the variety of items was a major factor in the category's sales success, Kerscher said. "We know people like to have a lot to choose from."

Five to eight entrees and five to six side dishes, plus salads, are offered on any given day. The runaway best-seller is Hills' store-made, twice-baked potatoes, for $1.50 each.

The company started out with a mix of 15 or 16 items and gradually increased it, bringing it up to between 25 and 30 by the time it moved the prepared foods case to its present spot last fall. Another boost in variety is set for this spring.

"We're looking to increase our mix by at least 15% We had no idea sales would be this good. We expected that moving the prepared foods and adding some items would give us a 15% to 20% sales increase," Kerscher said.

He is so happy with the results that he'll carry the concept into his three other stores, and is in the process of adding self-service refrigerated cases for prepared foods.

"We'll change the mix somewhat to fit the demographics, but this has worked so well that we'll definitely add prepared foods in our other stores as soon as we can," Kerscher said.

At Hills, one refrigerated case has been added for self-service just across the aisle from the service counter. Additional cases will be added to capture more lunchtime sales, Kerscher said.

"We'll be dual merchandising to see what customers really want, but my bet is that sales will increase significantly with the addition of more self-service," he said.

The refrigerated cases will replace some grocery items at three endcap areas facing the service counter. No grocery products will be eliminated, but facings of some items will be reduced, Kerscher said. Hills Market is located in a high-income suburban area. There also are some office buildings nearby. The mix of items is traditional and predominantly features comfort foods such as individual meatloaves.

"We've found that that's what people want during the week when they're feeding the whole family. But we put more high-end items out on the weekend. That's when people are more apt to treat themselves, or try something they haven't tried before," Hollenback said.

Most of the line-up of prepared foods at Hills is made in-store, including a variety of personal-size pizzas, but a few are sourced from outside.

"We have Thai food from a local Thai restaurant. They make it for us and bring it in each day. It gives us an ethnic food in our mix, and we couldn't hope to make it better than the Thai restaurant does," Hollenback said.

Distinctive items such as hye-roller sandwiches are part of the deli/food-service mix. They're made from rolled lavash bread and a variety of store-made fillings. All the prepared foods themselves look appealing, but the way they're merchandised is what really grabs customers' attention, Johnson said.

"For example, the hye-roller sandwiches are piled high on big crockery platters, and the personal pizzas are merchandised in baskets," she said. All items in the service case are cradled in baskets or huge platters and bowls arranged on wood-slat risers.

In addition to Hills' twice-baked potatoes, their signature sauteed green beans with roasted shallots and hazel nuts is a "destination product." So are the from-scratch crab cakes for $16.99 a pound, Hollenback said.

Kerscher said he's dedicated to offering customers what they need for home meal replacement. When he bought the 18,000-square-foot Hills Market three years ago, the store's product mix was 70% dry grocery and 30% fresh. Now it is 45% dry grocery and 55% fresh.

Kerscher commented that he sees no slow-down in sight for sales opportunities in home meal replacement. "We're just scratching the surface ourselves," he said, and added that other supermarkets in the area have just recently shifted their merchandising strategies to put more emphasis on prepared foods. According to local observers, Hills has led the way.

"They know what they're doing. They got into the idea of meal replacement early," said Carin Solganik, vice president at Dayton, Ohio-based consulting firm Solganik & Associates.