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Retailers were more aggressive in their Center Store strategies this past year, improving selection, updating category management best practices and otherwise finding better ways to intercept today's shoppers before they have a chance to go somewhere else.Most efforts were successful: Witness the speedy inclusion of low-carb items in store sets, accompanied by signage and informational tools designed

Retailers were more aggressive in their Center Store strategies this past year, improving selection, updating category management best practices and otherwise finding better ways to intercept today's shoppers before they have a chance to go somewhere else.

Most efforts were successful: Witness the speedy inclusion of low-carb items in store sets, accompanied by signage and informational tools designed to make locating such items easier. Operators also continued to improve their understanding of ethnic shoppers, building sections devoted to native products, while tempting traditional consumers with exotic meal ideas.

Merchandising is not only becoming more responsive, it's also getting smarter. Decisions were made this year by both government and manufacturers to change labeling to reflect nutritional components like trans-fats. Many consumer packaged goods companies also signed on as advocates in the new war on obesity, vowing like Kraft to reformulate products, or Coke, which has launched its own children's fitness initiative. Companies that make food and the retailers that sell it finally seem to be on the verge of bridging the gap between what they offer and what consumers desire.

But 2004 also saw the category struggle to maintain its dominance, not only within the supermarket itself, but against alternative formats that use nonfood, durable goods as their profit centers, and low food prices as the lure that gets consumers into their store. Retailers increased their chances of hanging on to the No. 1 spot by making their private-label lines more sophisticated and their aisles more consumer-friendly.

Price is still a key focal point, but quality and presentation this year played larger roles than ever before. And, as the channels continue to blur and consumers keep getting more options as to where they spend their food dollar, the responsibility of those running grocery operations will be just that: to keep Center Store the center of the store.