HOUSTON RETAILERS ARE THRIVING ON DIVERSITY

HOUSTON -- Supermarkets here are ahead of the curve when it comes to retail marketing.A tour of four leading chains revealed that this city's retailers are successfully drawing diverse customers into their stores with the right products, promotions and services.For example, at Kroger's Signature store at 1801 S. Voss, Chinese New Year's displays beckoned Asian shoppers who celebrate this popular holiday.

HOUSTON -- Supermarkets here are ahead of the curve when it comes to retail marketing.

A tour of four leading chains revealed that this city's retailers are successfully drawing diverse customers into their stores with the right products, promotions and services.

For example, at Kroger's Signature store at 1801 S. Voss, Chinese New Year's displays beckoned Asian shoppers who celebrate this popular holiday. An endcap in Center Store displayed soy sauce, fried-rice seasoning, canned shrimp and beef chow mein, chili oil, bamboo skewers, fortune cookies and water chestnuts.

A coffin bin was decorated with Oriental fans, and visuals depicting the Year of the Ox carried the promotion into the frozens department, which was located in the left rear of the store. Frozen egg rolls and snow peas were among the items featured.

Awareness about foods in the promotion was raised through Kroger's in-store circular and signs.

Another display catered to hurried shoppers needing a quick meal solution. Just behind the front-end registers, an endcap shelved mayonnaise, canned tuna fish and crackers.

An extensive fresh coffee section in one Center Store aisle stretched about 12 feet toward the front end. Brochures explaining the available flavors as part of Community Coffee's Private Reserve Gourmet Collection were available at the display.

A humidor was installed here ahead of the trend -- two years ago, when this store was built. About 16 feet long, it is integrated into the beginning of the shopping pattern.

The cigars are merchandised near a seating area where shoppers can enjoy freshly prepared espresso, cappuccino and other coffee.

A store employee told SN the section was recently expanded to include cigar accessories such as cutters, boxes and gift sets. Sales have been good, he said, particularly because of the cigar trend among young professionals.

Also appealing to a more upscale consumer is the store's wine department, which is positioned opposite the store's entrance. The presence of a wine steward added to the section's style. He was on hand to answer questions and help shoppers with their wine choices.

Like the Kroger store, Randalls Food Markets' Flagship store, located at 12850 Memorial Drive, targeted several kinds of customers. It offered a variety of specialty items for upscale shoppers, local promotions with a down-home flavor and programs designed to appeal to young mothers.

For example, applications and informational materials on Randalls' Stork Club were available upon entering the store. Signs for reserved parking for expectant and new mothers have been installed in the parking lot.

Shoppers in search of a meal idea could turn to an endcap where several flavored pastas priced from $3.19 to $8.99 were cross merchandised with Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio wine and pasta sauces, which included premium and mainstream offerings.

Randalls, too, has jumped on the cigar craze with a freestanding humidor as an endcap. It caps off a double aisle of cereal, syrups, canned meats, rice, beans and macaroni and cheese. The doors were unlocked so shoppers could help themselves.

While Kroger and Randalls cater to a diverse customer base, Rice Epicurean Markets targets the upscale, gourmet foods shopper. SN visited the store at 3745 Westheimer, near Houston's River Oaks, an exclusive, upper middle-class neighborhood.

To serve that wealthier demographic, the store pushed specialty items like boxed See's candies, its house brand of supreme coffees, Con Piacere Original Antipasto, Balsamique glaze, Uncle Roy's Wild Cherry Granola and S.T.U.B.S.: Simply the Ultimate Bread Stick.

Magnifico Marinara or Fra Diavlo sauce, one of Rice Epicurean's private labels, was being sampled during SN's tour. Normally priced at $4.99, the 24-ounce jar was on sale for $2.99.

Rice also provides cooking classes each month. Famous chefs teach techniques, share recipes and offer some hands-on experience to customers at the Epicurean store on San Felipe, near Voss Road, but shoppers can sign up at any Epicurean location.

Fiesta Mart caters to a very different customer base, specializing in Hispanic and other ethnic foods. For the consumer in search of an international meal, Fiesta is a destination stop.

The 115,000-square-foot store at 6200 Bellaire Blvd. serves more than 20 ethnic groups, according to Bernie Murphy, the chain's public affairs director. The store bustled with shoppers, more so than any other store SN visited in the area. Aisles were crowded with families, single shoppers and friends -- most of an Hispanic background.

About eight aisles were dedicated to international packaged goods. Some ethnic cuisines represented were Korean, Thai, Nigerian, Lebanese, Greek, Filipino, Pakistani, Indian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Israeli, Cuban, French, German, British and Italian.

The rest of the store highlighted foods that appeal to Hispanic consumers. Sections of packaged spices were stocked in aisles throughout the store. An emphasis on fresh items was apparent, given the large size of the produce section. For example, numerous bins were filled with a variety of chili peppers.

Imported Hispanic packaged goods were given space equal to or surpassing that of U.S. brands. A 14-ounce can of Goya Sweetened Condensed Milk was featured for $1.29. Goya Comb Honey was priced at $3.69 for a 16-ounce container.

This store also featured a scratch bakery with a machine that makes fresh tortillas. Other noteworthy amenities and services included a travel agency, check-cashing counter, utility bill service center and electronic ticketing for cultural and sporting events.

Vendors lining the sidewalk outside the store hawked such wares as clothing, tools, jewelry, Western boots, audio equipment, cassette tapes, CDs, wigs and artwork.

A Fiesta-owned building next door contained a laundromat, medical offices, auto supply store and restaurant.