ATLANTA -- As part of its grand entrance into the Atlanta market, Harris Teeter is positioning itself as the area's wine cellar. But the wine department in the chain's first store here is certainly no basement dweller. Wine is a focal point, situated smack-dab in the middle of the store -- an exclamation point to its overall sophisticated, yet fun, atmosphere."We wanted to make wine a centerpiece,"

ATLANTA -- As part of its grand entrance into the Atlanta market, Harris Teeter is positioning itself as the area's wine cellar. But the wine department in the chain's first store here is certainly no basement dweller. Wine is a focal point, situated smack-dab in the middle of the store -- an exclamation point to its overall sophisticated, yet fun, atmosphere.

"We wanted to make wine a centerpiece," said Rush Dickson, senior vice president of marketing for the Charlotte, N.C.-based company. "And that's something new for the chain."

Dickson said the 141-store chain has "always paid attention to wine," but the repositioning of the department, along with other enhancements in merchandising and selection in this 45,000-square-foot unit, takes selling wine at Harris Teeter a significant step forward.

Indeed, Dickson said wine and beer combined represent 14% of grocery sales distribution at the store. Grocery, in turn, hauls in 42% of the total store take.

Three hanging banners -- distinct in color and design from other store signs -- proclaim the presence of "Fine Wines" within the store.

The department is staffed with a full-time wine consultant, another innovation for the chain, said Dickson.

The consultant, Margaret Parker, has been assigned the task of choosing and overseeing the nearly 2,000 varieties of wine handled in the expansive department.

"We get pretty much everything that you can get in the city," she said of the voluminous selection. Parker added that the big assortment comes with the territory.

For one thing, this department is substantially larger than typical Harris Teeter wine departments, with ample room to display more bottles. In addition, the location of the store itself dictated such an inventory.

"We're near a section of town called Buckhead, which is known for its nightlife," explained Dickson. "It's a relatively upscale area. And, given that fact, I think [prominent positioning for] wine, and beer, naturally goes with it."

In the other stores, wine is given a spot in the last corner of the shopping pattern. But according to consultant Parker, the best place for wine is in a primary spot, such as the middle of the store, as it is in Atlanta, or in the first aisle of the traffic flow.

"That's where you're going to make the money" with wine sales, she explained.

To net more of those sales, Harris Teeter stretched the department with 72 linear feet of shelving, five shelves deep, housing the majority of the bottles. The wine is displayed on green, modified warehouse shelving with recessed lighting hidden behind an overhang panel to spotlight the products.

In the center of the wine aisle are two 16-foot, wooden laydown fixtures with more bottles.

Generally, Harris Teeter offers bottles of wines ranging from $2.99 to $125, including the likes of Dom Perignon ($104.99). However, the majority of the bottles in the Atlanta unit fall in the $10 to $20 range, said Parker. Harris Teeter is offering more of the boutique premiums and varietals, she said, to better differentiate itself from the Kroger, Winn-Dixie and Publix units in the market.

"Most of the other chains deal with jug wines. People in their 20s and 30s really aren't buying jug wines anymore," she explained. "One of the first questions I ask customers when they're looking for wine is how much they want to spend," said Parker. "And I was surprised to note generally they are willing to spend between $15 and $20," she added.

Such answers from consumers led Parker to incorporate even more wines in that upper-premium price range since the store's opening in October. Most of additions were varietals such as zinfindels and chardonnays.

"They want a good selection of higher-ticket items," she said. But that's not to say customers can't find something on even a higher, even bacchic scale. Six-liter bottles of Martini & Rossi ($159.99) and Tattinger ($339.99) are also available, for instance.

Parker said, in general, the inventory of highest priced products is purposefully kept on the slim side, and controlled carefully.

"Some of these wines are only available at certain times of the year. And because we have to pay up front, we buy only as many cases as we think we can get away with. So we don't keep a lot of the more expensive items on hand."

At the other end of the spectrum, Harris Teeter does keep a "limited selection" of the generic wines, less than 5% of the total assortment.

Parker said jug wines were at their peak in prior decades, when people would buy "anything pumped out of California. But now, jug wines generally are purchased by people who are over 50 years old. We keep varieties like Taylor, Inglenook and Rossi for them."

As evidence of the immense and still growing popularity of the varietals, Parker recalled that when the store first opened, $20 chardonnays and similar offerings flew out of the store, virtually from the moment the doors opened. "We didn't sell our first generic bottle until 3 p.m," she said.

When asked which wines seem to be particular favorites currently, the wine expert pointed to the California boutique premium wines.

Customers are looking for labels such as Kendall Jackson and Beringer, Parker said. "And when they're on sale for $10.99, $9.99 or $9.69, they just smoke out of here," she said. Indeed, when such premium wines are on sale, she can't order them fast enough.

"Customers read; they're aware of what the best buys are," she said. "They are very knowledgeable, and they keep up on what's good."

Parker said customers also get some selection assistance from the 30-plus chefs or culinary institute-trained personnel that work in the various perishables departments, who are always willing to pass on some wine advice for the at-home chefs.

Another source for wine information is a rectangular wine kiosk and showcase area, which houses an array of books on the subject of wine and gourmet foods. The station, situated at the back end of the department, also merchandises related products and accessories such as decanters.

The rear position is a focal point for merchandising. Two refrigerated endcap cases at the back face the meat department and provide such items as chilled chardonnays and Asti Spumantes.

Between the wine aisle and the consultant kiosk, the department also boasts two 5-foot display stations that spotlight stacks of featured-item cases -- which, according to Parker, are proving popular with her customers. Selling wine by the case is a good option for supermarkets, she said, because it offers shoppers a discount.

Harris Teeter offers its Atlanta customers a 10% discount on all wines bought in case volume, whether featured or regularly priced. And shoppers are free to create their own mix of bottles per case and still receive the discount, Parker said.

Cases of wine are stored on top of the green, modified-warehouse shelving holding single bottles. According to Dickson, the chain decided to limit the amount of back-room storage for wine and devote that space to the sales floor.

Another important tactic being used at Harris Teeter's first Atlanta store is to take wine's profile out of the wine department at every appropriate opportunity. The chain cross-merchandises wines all around the store. In December, for example, wine was displayed in the floral department, in the cheese department, in deli and in at least two grocery aisle endcaps. Freestanding wine racks were sprinkled throughout the store.