NEW MERCHANDISING HELPS COOKIE SALES AT BUEHLER'S

WOOSTER, Ohio - Cookie and cracker sales are up at three Buehler Food Markets units participating in a Kraft Foods' pilot that has transformed the section into a near replica of a kitchen - complete with tables, shelving and cookware.Running in Buehler's Ashland, Dover and Delaware, Ohio, stores, the test involves products merchandised in cabinets surrounded by items typically seen in a home kitchen,

WOOSTER, Ohio - Cookie and cracker sales are up at three Buehler Food Markets units participating in a Kraft Foods' pilot that has transformed the section into a near replica of a kitchen - complete with tables, shelving and cookware.

Running in Buehler's Ashland, Dover and Delaware, Ohio, stores, the test involves products merchandised in cabinets surrounded by items typically seen in a home kitchen, including hanging pots and pans, utensils and cookie jars.

"It looks more like a kitchen cupboard than grocery shelves," Mary McMillen, Buehler's director of consumer affairs, told SN.

The new furnishings have turned a traditional cookie/cracker aisle into a homey, inviting place for consumers to shop, McMillen said.

Paid for by Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., and dubbed internally as "Mom's Kitchen," the test involves three different designs. The goal of each is the same: to remind consumers of the Nabisco heritage, and the role that brands like Chips Ahoy!, Oreo and Ritz have played in their lives, said Patrick Hare, director of Kraft's In-Store Merchandising Center of Excellence, a newly formed centralized merchandising department.

"It takes consumers back to the kitchen, perhaps where they had their first experience with Oreo and a glass of milk," Hare said.

Sales have increased not only of Nabisco products, but also the entire cookie/cracker category. For instance, sales of Nabisco's brands at Buehler's Ashland stores are up about 26% from January to date, compared to the same period last year, according to Buehler's. Sales of other brands have also grown.

Nabisco-brand and total category sales also grew in the double digits in Dover. In Delaware, Nabisco-brand sales grew at a lower rate - 5% - while category sales remained even. McMillen attributes this to the fact that the store is undergoing a remodel, which affects sales.

Kraft Foods declined to discuss sales, but said that so far the test has been encouraging, and results will vary by individual store.

Along with the decor, the department is unique in that in two stores, there are two refrigerated coffin displays so that fresh items can be cross-merchandised next to their cookie/cracker accompaniments. One cooler holds Buehler's private-label milk, while the other is devoted to a variety of Kraft cheeses.

"These are logical adjacencies" to cookies and crackers, McMillen said.

Kraft's Hare said the idea was to create a merchandising design similar to that found in stores like Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn.

"You can walk into Williams-Sonoma and see all the elements necessary for a dinner party - including cookbook, table, silverware, even music - set up in one place," he said. "It's not just a pile of items."

Kraft hopes to expand the concept to other retailers, Hare noted.

Consumer intercepts show that 96% of Buehler's shoppers have noticed the changes, and 78% said they would like to see similar departments in other parts of the store, according to Shook Kelley, Los Angeles, a consumer-behavior firm that helped design the department. Shook Kelley is also heading Buehler's Delaware store remodel.

The redesign works because it makes an emotional connection with consumers, said Kevin Kelley, Shook Kelley's co-founder. Rather than being another aisle filled with item after item, it reminds them of their own mother's kitchen, he said.

Such concepts are critical to the survival of the Center Store, Kelley said, saying the department has become too monotonous to shop due to an overabundance of products.

A report from Information Resources Inc., Chicago, concurred that there's too much clutter in consumer packaged goods departments.

"As retailers reduce grocery display space, manufacturers need innovative merchandising tactics that stress the importance of consumer-centric merchandising to drive more profitable rewards," Andrew Salzman, IRI's global chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

IRI cites Campbell's Soup and Gillette as examples of brands that have done just that. Campbell's created a gravity-feed shelving system that simplifies the shopping experience while driving brand and category growth, noted IRI. Gillette, meanwhile, initiated a merchandising plan to launch its new line of Fusion razors, blades and personal care products that enabled consumers to easily find the new items.