ISLAND IN THE AISLES

RENTON, Wash. (FNS) -- The convenience quotient has forced a change in how Quality Food Centers' newest locations are being presented to the public. The chain's prototype here aims to satisfy customer demand for convenience as QFC strives to merchandise a dizzying array of perishable products.The result has been a significant use of self-service merchandising islands, which greet customers as if they

RENTON, Wash. (FNS) -- The convenience quotient has forced a change in how Quality Food Centers' newest locations are being presented to the public. The chain's prototype here aims to satisfy customer demand for convenience as QFC strives to merchandise a dizzying array of perishable products.

The result has been a significant use of self-service merchandising islands, which greet customers as if they were floating in the aisles of the produce department and the food-service area. In a sense customers are channeled through these departments by the islands.

"The floor plan has to be convenient, or people won't shop at your store," said Dean Olsen, director of marketing. "Everyone in the household working and the increased commuter traffic place a lot of stress on people. They just want to know that they can find what they are looking for, pick it up and place a good wholesome meal on their table at home."

The chain's shift in display style is at the heart of the emphasis on convenience. In reworking the way items are displayed, the chain has kept a watchful eye on the variety and selection that have been the hallmark of QFC's operation for decades.

"From a merchandising standpoint, we continue to expand our meal solutions and meal-replacement offerings and present the best, most wholesome food in a most convenient way," said Olsen. "It's all about choices. Whether it's produce, seafood, meat or deli. Whether it's meatloaf, prime rib, seafood entrees or side dishes."

Shoppers entering the 40,000-square-foot unit will find that design elements create an open, spacious environment that looks much larger than it really is, according to Olsen.

The heavy use of islands is a key component of the new Renton store, which is serving as a format prototype for the chain as it expands its Northwest regional operations. An additional 40,364-square-foot unit, opened in Vancouver, Wash., in early December, also follows the island-inspired design. Additional expansion into the Olympia, Wash., area using this concept is also expected.

Self-service-island merchandising is not limited only to newly built units -- all remodels are being retrofitted with self-serve food-service options as well, said Olsen.

Despite this new inroad into self-service, QFC's signature quality format remains at the soul of the operation, according to Daryl Taylor, store manager of the Renton prototype.

"The selection of items ranging from basic to gourmet continues to be sourced from both national and local vendors," Taylor said. "We have always been known for our fresh produce and meat. Now we are presenting a service alternative that our customers are responding to."

The self-service-island merchandisers greet customers entering the unit through the produce department, where four of the merchandisers stand center stage. They are designed so that they can be quickly altered to fit the store's needs. As a result, QFC has the flexibility to employ the units in the morning as a juice merchandiser, in the afternoon as a cut-melon-on-ice display and at any time as a dry bin for specially priced items or seasonal selections, such as nuts or candied fruits.

Produce at QFC is hand-stacked and restocked throughout the day. Organic produce items are situated adjacent to the natural-food department. A 28-foot refrigerated case spotlights dressings, vegetable and fruit trays, salads and juices.

The week that SN toured the Renton store, produce was also featured at the front end, in the form of floor signage explaining that produce is delivered to the store six times a week, that QFC buyers use a variety of vendors and that items are cleaned and trimmed before displaying.

"We want to educate our customers on what each different department is made of," said Taylor.

The floral department makes good use of both indoor and outdoor spaces. Again, island merchandising is put to work with three merchandisers that present a colorful array of cut flowers and greens along with flowering plants.

The outdoor area is utilized, in this mild climate, to display hanging plants and baskets, during all but the coldest of times. A specially designed roll-up window allows QFC personnel to answer questions, deliver orders and ring up sales on the department's dedicated cash register.

The self-service wave rolls onward to the meat and seafood departments, the next areas in the unit's shopping pattern. Oven-ready signature items, prepared in store, are found in cases, ready for plucking. Party trays of shrimp and fully cooked Dungeness crab are poised for customers' carts, as are ready-to-cook crab cakes and parmesan-herb true cod.

More traditional packaged meat and poultry offerings are also presented, along with frozen items, in the meat department. Additionally, there are oven-ready selections here, also prepared in store, including marinated chicken; herbed, rubbed and marinated meat selections; and chicken breasts stuffed with several flavors of dressing. A special holiday cranberry-orange-dressing-stuffed breast was featured on the day of SN's visit.

Twenty feet of service meat and 15 feet of service seafood, plus a lobster/crab tank, offer further selections. Counter staff produce oven-ready offerings based on Chef's Express recipes created by the QFC staff, who can also assist customers with preparation instructions.

In fact, the meat and seafood department's oven-ready value-added selections are considered one of the main ingredients in QFC's expansion of their meal-solutions program. The category reaches across department boundaries, as these items are also available in another island in the food-service area.

Chef's Express items target customers who wish to cook at home, but don't want to do a lot of preparation. In the food-service department, these items are merchandised in a two-deck walk-around case. Here, wines are cross merchandised with stuffed chicken, London broil, side dishes and salads. Some of the items on this self-serve merchandiser are keyed to the food-service department, others to the meat or seafood department.

"Chef's Express is designed to give customers variety and options, regardless of which department we have assigned them to," said Taylor.

On an adjacent merchandiser, items tagged Entrees to Go are also offered up in a self-service format. Prepacked, vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses are available in one section, with the balance of the walk-around case dedicated to grab-and-go sandwiches, precooked meals, spreads and dips. These Entrees to Go selections are prepared and packaged in store, according to Taylor.

A self-service salad bar, priced at $3.99 per pound, is positioned mid-department. It contains 20 toppings, four lettuce blends, two soups and a variety of rolls.

The dedicated cash register posted in the food-service department further emphasizes QFC's keen vision of service.

"It is one of our finest refinements," said Olsen. "Our customers enjoy the convenience of a home-cooked meal offered in the convenient format of self-service."

The unit's full-service deli backs up the self-service options. Presliced meats, specialty olives and signature salads are merchandised in a traditional deli case. Hot and cold take-home meals and made-to-order sandwiches from QFC's Northwest Sandwich Bar are presented in the service area of the food-service department. Offerings include hot grilled panini sandwiches and Chef's Express quick-preparation entrees, which are packaged fresh every day in store.

These service cases have also undergone some merchandising refinements. In the hot service case, rotisserie chicken, lasagna, macaroni and cheese and egg rolls are displayed on heated tiles, rather than the traditional well, giving the case more of a restaurant-buffet look. The cold service case displays 16 feet of prepared Asian foods, including pot stickers and vegetable egg rolls, in line with chicken cordon bleu, pot pies, fresh roasted turkey and baked potatoes.

While most of the value-added items are prepared and packaged in store, the chain's commissary provides item components for assembly at store-level later. The time-saving elements include precut produce items, sauces and dips, along with a select number of high-volume sandwiches and side dishes.

Within the food-service food court, the bakery also makes a self-service statement, again with islands. Three walk-around merchandisers showcase specialties from QFC as well as famous local bakeries including Larsen's and the Cucina! Cucina! restaurant chain. Other bakery trendsetters, such as sugar-free selections, are also spotlighted in the self-service merchandisers.

Another self-serve merchandiser offers a wide selection of breads, including QFC favorites and local bakeries' products. More than a dozen varieties are on display at any one time, ranging from Yukon gold potato bread to onion garlic rolls, Couronne and Ciabatta.

Located on one wall is a self-service doughnut case, with self-service air-pot coffee urns. This set-up is situated along the perimeter of the unit's seating area, which consists of five tables in addition to bar seating.

Between the bakery and the service deli case is Veneto's espresso bar. A service option for the caffeine-driven, this section offers a dedicated cash register to speed customers through the department. Chocolates, muffins, cookies and pastries are merchandised in self-service formats at this station.

While some QFC locations offer Cinnabon, Noah's New York Bagels and Starbucks food areas, the new Renton location does not include these subleased departments in the unit's floor plan.

The 87-unit Bellevue, Wash.-based chain merged with Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., last March. The operation subsequently joined with Cincinnati-based Kroger. QFC's marketing differentiation had been based on a strong quality and service tradition, which the operation used as a springboard to grow from a six-unit group in 1958 to the second-largest supermarket chain in western Washington, just behind nationally recognized Safeway.