NOW PLAYING AT RALEY'S

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Longfellow wrote of "The Children's Hour." Raley's is bringing the idea to life.With its innovative Play Care program, Raley's has been able to boost its customer count and store sales by offering parents a chance to shop unencumbered by fast little feet and tiny grabbing hands.Presently, six units of the 81-store operator based here feature a Play Care Center with two more

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Longfellow wrote of "The Children's Hour." Raley's is bringing the idea to life.

With its innovative Play Care program, Raley's has been able to boost its customer count and store sales by offering parents a chance to shop unencumbered by fast little feet and tiny grabbing hands.

Presently, six units of the 81-store operator based here feature a Play Care Center with two more immediately ready for installation, according to Joel Barton, director of merchandising and marketing.

"Basically, the Play Care Center concept came from our customers asking for this type of service. And as a result of that -- and also some earlier experiments we conducted in our Bel Air stores -- it seemed to be a nice marriage for some locations.

"It's a convenience. It's easier for the shoppers to have their children under supervised play and be able to go through the store," said Barton. "It's a priority to the shoppers. And we're trying to meet their needs. That's how we view it."

During an interview with SN at the chain's Elk Grove location, Barton explained how the Play Care program effectively reels in the most important of all supermarket shoppers -- the young mother.

In short, a parent can check a child between the ages of 2 and 8 into Raley's Play Care Center, which, besides colorful toys, features a TV for video and cartoon watching. The parent can then shop for roughly two hours unmolested.

Sound like child's play? Yes and no. As simple as the concept is, Raley's has taken great pains to make sure the centers operate at the highest level, including a security video camera that monitors the center's activity at all times.

"We talked with the county and state officials to make sure we were just in the guidelines of it being 'supervised play,' " explained Barton. "If the center gets too big, then it requires restrooms and all that kind of stuff.

"We also talked to the local police for the best way for improved security, and from that we've developed our manual of operation for our Play Care Center."

When bringing a child to the center, parents must fill out a registration card, which requires a driver's license as identification. Then both child and parent receive identical hand stamps, which later can be seen with an infrared light.

"We use an alphabet," explained Blaine Mendiola, drug manager of the Elk Grove store and overseer of the Play Care Center. "And because we only take 15 kids at a time, there's never going to be two kids with the same stamp.

"And if the stamp doesn't match, the child doesn't leave," he added.

Raley's also will not release a child to anyone other than the person who dropped off the child.

Three part-time staffers are assigned to the play center, with one there at all times, and sometimes two, said Barton.

Mendiola pointed out the extreme importance of running a sanitary operation. Twice daily, first thing in the morning and before closing, "the attendants sterilize all the toys and wipe all the windows down. A service comes in and sterilizes the floors. All day long they're cleaning and keeping everything sterilized for the kids."

Barton also noted, "If the children are obviously sick, we ask them not to come in. If a child gets sick while they're in the center, the parent is called to take them out."

Generally, children are allowed to play for up to two hours. But Raley's is flexible when it comes to the time limit -- "as long as it's not being taken advantage of," said Mendiola.

"I've heard from parents shopping that this is their time to be alone. They'll go over to [the coffee bar and sit-down area] and have a cup of coffee. It's the one time in the week where they can spend 10 minutes together."

Of course, there's always the possibility that some folks may drop off their kids at Raley's and conduct their business at other outlets in the shopping center.

But that hasn't been a problem, said Barton. "We ask them not to do that. They have to remain in the store. If there is a problem, we have a procedure and policy on paging the parent after a certain time limit.

"When we went into this, we thought the worst of everything. But we found out people are so appreciative of the service, they want to protect it to make sure it stays."

Indeed, during SN's visit, one young mother juggling an infant and a toddler commented: "I absolutely love it. Even though Raley's is a little bit more expensive, to me it's worth shopping here because they have the Play Care. The kids love coming here, too. They begged me to come here, even though I only had to pick up a few things."

But the most beautiful music to Raley's ears is the fact that this mother said she was not a Raley's shopper prior to the installation of the Elk Grove Play Care Center, which opened last October.

The center, said Barton, is an operational feature Raley's "shouts about in its localized ads for the stores that have one. And it's very warmly received. It shocks most people, because they've never heard of it. But when they see it, it does change people's shopping habits."

It's this conversion of customers that has had a positive effect on the company's bottom line, and not just in the baby and toy aisles, said Barton.

"They're not just buying baby goods; [increased] sales are spread throughout the store," he noted.

The chain doesn't use the Play Care Center as a means to hand out coupons or promote certain child-oriented products. "Basically, we see it strictly as a customer service, as a convenience, and we haven't tried to commercialize it at all."

The sales of baby-aisle products do come into play, however, when it's time to decide which Raley's or Bel Air store will get a Play Care Center.

"We get a lot of demographic information from our vendors and our own surveys," explained Barton. "If it's a remodel, we look at the sales of baby goods, whether they be dry grocery or drug center items.

"We do a demographic study to see if a [neighborhood] can support a Play Care Center. It's an expense that we're willing to put up front, but it doesn't work in every area.

"We say, 'How many children per household, young mothers and things of that nature. And it just so happens we're surrounded here in a growth area," said Barton, speaking of Sacramento's middle- to upper-income Elk Grove-Laguna community.

The only glitch with the program so far is that an occasional tot gets to having too good a time and won't leave peacefully, said Barton.

"But really, we've had no incidents with the kids. They've loved it and it's gone very smooth. We have the right toys -- they're all soft they won't hurt [the kids]. It's all quiet-type play and our Play Care attendants keep a close eye on things."