When it comes to merchandising prepared foods, supermarket operators are saying there's no business like show business.The big trend in display fixtures is equipment that shows off the food particularly well, and at the same time allows customers to see some theater in the food-preparation area, said retailers who shared their insights on equipment procurement strategies with SN.To deliver the fresh-made

When it comes to merchandising prepared foods, supermarket operators are saying there's no business like show business.

The big trend in display fixtures is equipment that shows off the food particularly well, and at the same time allows customers to see some theater in the food-preparation area, said retailers who shared their insights on equipment procurement strategies with SN.

To deliver the fresh-made message, deli executives are also moving self-service cases nearer to the service counter, hoping that consumers will make the connection between the two.

In practical terms, the shift means low-profile cases will continue to sit at the top of many retailers' shopping lists.

It also signifies that the days when durability and functionality were the major factors on equipment buyers' minds are gone. Now the key is equipment that best shows hurried meal-seekers what you've got quickly, said industry sources.

"Today's shopper doesn't care if your case is going to last 25 years or if it's easy to clean. She just wants to buy something to take home for dinner," said one equipment buyer.

At Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C., the food products and how they will be displayed are of prime concern when the company chooses display fixtures.

The primary aim is to emphasize how good the product looks, particularly when it comes to case design and lighting, said Ruth Kinzey, manager of corporate communications at the 134-unit chain.

"Lighting and case design help give the entire prepared-foods area a cohesive look so shoppers will recognize that prepared food at service and self-service counters can be found in one area," Kinzey said.

Such an emphasis keeps the low-profile display case -- in both service and self-service applications -- a hot item in food-service departments across the country. Retailers said it creates a "customer-friendly" environment by bringing the product closer to the customer.

The low-profile case also pulls down barriers between customers and associates, said most deli/food-service executives and consultants.

One retailer on the West Coast, who declined to be identified, said European-style low-profile service cases have boosted deli profits for his chain because they don't require a huge amount of food to make them look full.

"We can get a loaded-up look without having so much food in there that it creates a serious shrink problem," he explained.

Byerly's, Edina, Minn., has been integrating more low-profile European cases into departments for a few years and will continue to do so, said Mary Lou Long, director of deli operations at the 12-unit chain.

"I like them because the low-profile brings the associate closer to the customer. And customers can be served faster, too, because there are no doors on the backs of these cases," Long said.

A remodeling project two years ago at Crook's Supermarkets, Nashville, Tenn., included a switch to European-style cases, and it's proven a boon to selling prepared foods, said Daisy King, home economist and spokeswoman for the five-unit retailer.

"It's easier and more natural for an associate to offer a sample across the lower case. And it also enables us to merchandise related products on the tops of the cases." she said.

King said she's currently using marble pedestals on top of the deli cases, to display related items, such as gourmet mustards and sauces.

Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif., is returning to European-style cases after installing traditional vertical deli cases for the last several years, said a local source familiar with the chain.

"They'd tried European-style cases about 10 years ago, and then went back to the flat-topped, vertical case. But in the last five or six remodels and new stores this past summer, they installed modern-looking, low-profile cases," the source said. "At a new store that opened last month, the whole length of deli cases is low profile."

A lot of chains and independents are using those low-profile cases to more explicitly link self-service and service products.

Deli executives agreed that the nearer the self-service case is to the service case, the better it is for sales volume overall. Some said that the best combination is a self-service case directly below a service case. That arrangement gives customers a clear message that the products they see in the self-service case have been freshly made.

"When we added a self-service case just below our panini grill, it had an obvious, positive impact on sales," said Jarret Peppard, food-service manager for 100-unit Kash N' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla.

Peppard said the panini program was just introduced three months ago in two stores. A third -- with the self-service case alongside the service grill -- was launched last month in a remodel.

Kash N' Karry's self-service case is a three-shelf, multideck case, spanning six feet. Peppard declined to give details about panini sales, but the impact on volume was dramatic enough to persuade the chain to include a self-service case in all new operations.

"If we're having trouble keeping up with volume during the busiest hours, customers can just grab a panini sandwich without waiting at the counter," Peppard said. "It also allows me some flexibility with staffing the grill."

For Kash N' Karry's chef-prepared meal components, Peppard is switching to a flat-bottomed self-service island case in the aisle in front of the service deli. Before, the meal items had been displayed several feet away, nearer the front of the store, in a multideck island case.

"The location is key. Sales are much better in stores where we have these products displayed in easy view of the service deli, which has the same products on platters," Peppard said.

The benefits of connecting self-service prepared foods of all types to the service counter are leading more operators to take the plunge, said Howard Solganik, president, Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio-based consulting firm.

"At a new Roche Bros. [Supermarkets] store, they're using a low-profile, multideck self-service case with a service case right above it. It looks great, and seems to be very effective," Solganik said.

Tom Pierson, professor of food marketing at Michigan State University, East Lansing, said he believes the most successful retailers have "blurred the lines between service and self-service when it comes to prepared foods."

He cited Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., a chain recognized as an industry leader in the home meal replacement arena.

"Ukrop's has a very high level of self-service, but the appearance of service is there. And it's pretty clear you're getting the same product in the self-service case as you do at the deli counter," Pierson said.

He said Ukrop's accomplishes this feat in two ways. "First, the self-service case is either adjacent to the service-deli counter or right across the aisle, depending on the store. And what's just as important is their associates replenish the self-service cases in small batches. They don't roll out a cart with 500 pounds of packaged food on it. They carry out eight or 10 packages in a basket. That way, customers see the case being restocked constantly," Pierson said.

He pointed also to an Atlanta unit of Harris Teeter as a trend-setting location.

"There, you have an absolutely beautiful service display case, but it's not that big. In the aisle, however, there are self-service cases with all kinds of prepared foods. It's a lot of self-service in a service environment," Pierson explained.

Most retailers told SN they're increasing self-service space for prepared foods. However, not everyone is going full bore with low-profile equipment. Other options are also being explored.

An executive at a large Midwest supermarket chain, who asked not to be named, said he's experimenting with two different types of self-service fixtures for meal components -- upright cases and coffin cases.

"We're testing this right now with the two different type cases in stores that have similar demographics. I think you can present product well in both, but the upright takes up less floor space. We'll see which the customer likes best," said the Midwest executive.

Meanwhile, Mike Eardley, senior director of fresh foods at D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., is experimenting too, and is letting customers have a say the process.

"We're taking the tops off some of our deli cases to make them self-service, but we haven't yet decided which cases in each deli to convert," Eardley said.

"The display cases we've bought most recently give us the flexibility of changing to self-service or back again to service easily, because we can remove the tops. We took the top off the first one a week and a half ago, and we want to see how our customers like it," he said.

"We did [the conversion to more self-service] a little differently in each of two stores," Eardley said. "At one store, the newly converted self-service case is first in the deli traffic pattern. In the other store, it's the middle case, between two service cases. We're not sure this is the right direction, but we'll let our customers tell us.

Experimentation has yielded telling results for one operator, at least. Sales of self-service prepared foods went up at Pay Less Super Markets, Anderson, Ind., when the chain switched from coffin cases to low-profile multideck cases.

"Sales contribution to total department sales is much greater at the two newest stores where we've put in the multideck cases," said Tim Kean, director of deli-bakery-seafood merchandising for eight-unit Pay Less. "I think it's because they make a better presentation. Customers can see what you're offering from further away because they bring the product nearer to eye-level."

Even as he spoke about his self-service case experience, Kean stressed the importance of having an attractive service case nearby.

"When we introduce something new, we do it at the service counter so associates can talk about it and customers can ask questions about it. Then, after customers have become familiar with the new item, we'll add it to the self-service selection," Kean said.

Pay Less uses European-style service cases because they present the food better, he added. "They do a better job of visually presenting the food, and that's the issue."

Carol Moore, retail food-service manager at Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, Akron, Ohio, agrees: "The back-to-front, rather than vertical merchandising, allows much more creativity. We're using a black mat and pedestals in our service cases. That fits in with our black and white decor."

Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., is going from a shelfless, European-style service case to one 10-inch shelf that runs the length of the case.

"We like the way that shelf helps us merchandise. We put the entrees on the bottom and then items like roasted garlic or marinated tomatoes -- specialty-type items -- on smaller bowls on the shelf," said Greg Dierberg, assistant store manager, who also oversees special projects for the 15-unit chain.

"We tend to use the shelf for items that need rotating more frequently, and the foods look great on it, too," Dierberg added.

He said all new and remodeled stores will get that type of case. "It's a great case for showing the food. There's no coil obstructing your view. You're just looking at the food."

Also, Dierbergs is changing its self-service cases to a new type that allows more attractive merchandising, Dierberg said.

"It's an 18-foot, one deck walk-around, not much different than the ones we had before, except that it maintains its temperature on its ends better," noted Dierberg. "We had to be careful what we merchandised on the endcaps in our former cases, because the temperature wasn't consistent, but these new cases keep their temperature consistent throughout the whole case."

That means that rather than hard cheeses, for example, the chain can now display colorful, chilled soups in mason jars, on the ends of the new island cases.

"The soups look great there. They definitely grab people's attention," Dierberg said. "The cases aren't too low," he added, explaining that it's important to keep products in the deli in the customer's line of vision.

"More than in other departments, the decision to buy takes longer in the deli, and that's especially true if it's a product the customer hasn't tried before. So you want it looking good, and fresh, and you want the customer to keep seeing it as he makes up his mind," Dierberg said.