LANGHORNE, Pa. -- McCaffrey's Markets is cultivating record produce sales with a new approach to buying and merchandising.The three-unit independent has leveraged the flexibility that comes with being small and it's paying off big in Champagne mangos, 8 ball zucchini and sales that have soared 15% over the same period a year ago, officials said."We've just touched the tip of the iceberg. This has

LANGHORNE, Pa. -- McCaffrey's Markets is cultivating record produce sales with a new approach to buying and merchandising.

The three-unit independent has leveraged the flexibility that comes with being small and it's paying off big in Champagne mangos, 8 ball zucchini and sales that have soared 15% over the same period a year ago, officials said.

"We've just touched the tip of the iceberg. This has already surpassed our expectations, and as we go along and see how it works, we'll be able to make improvements," said Jim McCaffrey, the company's owner and president.

"I think the sales increase we've seen at West Windsor [the first store to get the merchandising reset] is incredible in light of the competition up there. Wegmans sits only about three miles from us," he added, referring to the trend-setting Rochester, N.Y.-based chain known for strong produce merchandising.

The resets at McCaffrey's maximize flexibility with "associate-friendly" cases that are more vertical and less deep, and mobile fixtures that don't require a lot of manpower to load up or move around. Examples are large, sturdy, European-looking wicker baskets that measure nearly two feet across and small, metal carts that can be rolled out of the back room in a hurry.

The idea is to be able to zoom in on good buys that are top quality, get the items into the department right away, and highlight them in stand-out displays so they move quickly, said Tony Mirack, McCaffrey's produce merchandiser/buyer.

In addition to moving product, the new system has added a personality to the department that sets McCaffrey's apart from the bigger chains, Mirack said.

"We want our customers to feel our smallness. We want them to know we're the neighborhood market, and the key to that is real flexibility in the store. It allows us to take full advantage of good buys and interesting products because now we can find a home for them fast," Mirack added.

The items are finding their way into customers' hands quickly, too. At one store, McCaffrey's sold twice as many Galia melons from the new wicker baskets than it had when the melons were part of the regular melon display.

"We put the baskets on top of crates at the head of the aisle so customers saw them first thing," Mirack said.

"We look at these types of displays as the trimmings with the turkey. It makes the department, just like the stuffing and gravy make the meal. We've always had a good produce department with a lot of variety, more than 300 items, but the difference now is that individual items jump out at you."

Jim McCaffrey stressed that the goal of all the changes is customer satisfaction.

"The way Tony is merchandising the department makes it easier for the customer to shop the department and it also accommodates more variety. Lastly, it highlights things that are in season or that the customer would want to try. We want to wow them," McCaffrey said.

"Tony's presence here is a big part of it, too. He goes out and scouts the market for new things and what's good. Before, we were at the mercy of our wholesalers to tell us what was out there. Tony has been with us just about a year and he's the motivating factor behind the changes we've been making."

The expandable metal carts, an important part of the effort, take the spotlight on weekends. At the first reset store, Mirack also has designated three of eight endcaps on refrigerated, island cases for on-the-spot displays. He rotates different items onto those at least once a week.

"We highlight what's at the height of its season, what's a particularly good value for the money, or what's the best of the best," Mirack said. Sometimes the star product is simply one that Mirack thinks is terrific. A case in point is 8 ball zucchini, which racked up tremendous sales.

"That was a new item out this year. I saw it at the Terminal [wholesale/consumer market in Philadelphia], and we got as much as we could from the farmer who was growing it. It was such a success we couldn't even get enough of it," Mirack said.

The 8 ball zucchini, instead of being elongated, is perfectly round, about the size of an 8 ball or maybe a baseball. Intriguing-looking, the item certainly would have caught people's attention. But instead of just being a curiosity, it scored sales, at $2.99 a pound, that even impressed Mirack.

"We sold 20 cases in one store over the weekend and we had people asking for them weeks after they were all gone."

While that product was spotlighted in the attractive, new wicker baskets, Mirack gave much of the credit for its success to an informative sign he plunked right on the display. The sign told customers the round items taste just like ordinary zucchini but, because of their shape, are easy to slice and put on the outdoor grill.

Another item, new this year for McCaffrey's, was a Champagne mango which is smaller than a regular mango. Those were also displayed in the wicker baskets.

"This mango has a custard-like inside that tastes like a combination of peach and pineapple. It's loaded with vitamins A and C and is a good source of potassium," said the sign, which also offered advice on how to peel the fruit and remove its stone.

The signs are part of the plan, designed to supplement the new way of displaying things. In addition to describing a new product or underscoring what a value it is, they're also are used to add "fun food facts" to more familiar fare. They might give tips on preparation, nutrition information, or something on the origin of the item. Even the creation of the signs can be quick because they're computer-generated and laminated on-site.

"I think customers like to read about products. They may not be comfortable asking questions, so they like to have the information right there," Mirack said.

Mirack's background has a lot to do with the way he's setting the department up at McCaffrey's. Prior to joining the retailer, he was a buyer for a large wholesaler. While he was there, he said he was often frustrated by the fact that supermarkets weren't set up to take advantage of a lot of the good deals he uncovered.

"They'd so often say they didn't have space for the product or they couldn't take it right away. I decided right then and there that if I ever worked for a retailer, I'd see if we could be flexible, and that I'd make the most of my relationship with the [wholesaler's] buyers. They're the first to know when a shipper or grower is heavy on a product or when there's an especially great product out there," Mirack said.

Now, he's committed to giving McCaffrey's customers the benefit of such things.

"If we hear of a grower or shipper who says he's come into a big crop of extra-large peaches, for example, we ought to be able to react to that the same day or at least the next day. In order to do that, we have to have a place to put them, and we can't have a guy spending a whole day resetting the department to do it," Mirack said.

He gave an example of a recent quick decision that gave customers a good buy on red peppers.

"We're a Holland pepper house, but right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, we couldn't get them because there wasn't anything shipped by air for several days. During that time, we took advantage of California red peppers brought by truck. We got a good price, and they were excellent quality."

He loaded the colorful peppers onto the metal carts and rolled them out. Then, he made an informative sign for the display that told the story.

The 40,000-square-foot West Windsor, N.J., store was reset at the beginning of the summer and the second store was re-done this month. The third store, in Princeton, N.J., will get the new look after the first of the year. There, refrigerated island cases will be eliminated in favor of Euro-style, wooden tables.

"That will be ideal. If I should get a good deal on Clementines, for example, I could put pallets of them right in the middle of the aisle because the tables could be rolled out of the way."

Mirack explained that being a small, family-owned company works to McCaffrey's advantage.

"We don't have to go through several layers of management or negotiate red tape to make a buying decision, and what we're doing now just accents that fact," he said.

"We've carved a niche. The key is recognizing our niche and keeping our focus."