OLD WORLD MEETS NEW IN MARSH PROTOTYPE

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The new Marsh prototype supermarket here may be dubbed a "new lifestyle" concept by the company, but its design is actually a blend of the old and the new.Incorporating some ideas from old-style European marketplaces with modern touches like digital display screens, Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, has developed a bold concept that emphasizes its expertise in perishables and utilizes

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The new Marsh prototype supermarket here may be dubbed a "new lifestyle" concept by the company, but its design is actually a blend of the old and the new.

Incorporating some ideas from old-style European marketplaces with modern touches like digital display screens, Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, has developed a bold concept that emphasizes its expertise in perishables and utilizes its skills as an electronic marketer.

The store features a central courtyard-type area with a coffee bar, while the individual rooms around the perimeter each house a different department reminiscent of old-fashioned butcher shops and bakeries. Between departments are MyMarsh electronic kiosks where customers can swipe their Fresh IDEAS loyalty cards to earn customized discounts, which are automatically deducted at the register.

In his speech to customers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony here earlier this month, Don Marsh, chairman and chief executive officer, said Marsh was the first company in the country to use the technology, which was developed in partnership with NCR Corp.

"I think you'll see it sweep the country in very short order, after we test it here at Marsh," he told the crowd of several hundred shoppers who arrived hours early to be among the first to shop at the new store.

He said Marsh has exclusive rights for the use of the technology in several areas, including Chicago, Indiana and parts of Ohio. Other modern touches include LED screens on the walls that can display either Marsh promotional messages or advertising. Two large digital display signs also flank the Marsh marquee above the front entrance.

Marsh went on to describe the layout of the store as "very unique. It's laid out in a pattern that makes sense for the way you shop."

Jordan Mozer, president, Jordan Mozer and Associates, Chicago, which worked with Marsh to create the new format, told SN the layout of the store was meant give shoppers an Old World-market type of experience, in which each department was seen as a boutique unto itself.

"The typical supermarket is a big, random box that no longer expresses the expertise of the retailer in buying fish, for example, which they've been doing for 50, 60 or 70 years," he said. "Customers may know it, but it's not expressed in the store."

By creating individual "boutique" rooms for each department, Marsh and Mozer sought to convey the impression of small, artisan shops situated around a courtyard.

"They have amazing expertise," said Mozer. "The people who buy their produce are very good at it, and the people who buy their meat are really good at it, but the problem is, 80% of the store is not produce or meat."

By combining center store items into each of the perimeter departments -- baking mixes in the bakery department, for example -- Mozer said the store is attuned to the way people think about buying their groceries.

Paul Weitzel, vice president, Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill., said although he has not yet seen the new prototype, he applauds Marsh for its effort to make the shopping experience more exciting for consumers.

"We think there's a need to liven up the center store without destroying productive shopping," he said. "If they can balance excitement with productivity, then they may have a winner."

He said his only concern about the format is whether or not shoppers can get through it quickly.

"If it significantly slows down the speed of the shopping trip, then that's something they'll have to watch. What we're hearing from some retailers is that traditional, straight-run gondolas are still the best way to get consumers through the store very quickly."

Jodi Marsh, spokeswoman for Marsh Supermarkets, said customers appeared to be shopping the first prototype in Noblesville, Ind., in one of two ways: either they hit the central produce area first, and then make side trips into the various perimeter departments; or they enter the perimeter racetrack, and shop their way through each of the departments in a circuit. She said that although customers are spending more time in the store than they typically do on a grocery shopping trip, feedback indicates they do find the new layout convenient and easy to shop.

Mozer said the store was designed so that customers can find what they want quickly if they are in a hurry.

"You have the power to go wherever you want in the store," he said. "When you walk in, you can see it, and go right there."

In fact, the high visibility of the store is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. Most of the tall gondolas are placed against the walls of the perimeter rooms, with lower displays in central areas of each room.

Mozer, whose firm has designed restaurants and department stores, had never worked on a supermarket project before this one.

"We came at this with very fresh eyes and very different perspective," he said. "We started to look at not the way things appear, but at the way things function. We started to question the things that were taken for granted in the food industry."

Mozer credited John Turek, vice president of construction for Marsh, with making the design affordable and for allowing him to create something out of the ordinary.

At the center of this experiment in food retailing is a coffee bar, complete with chairs and couches, with the books and magazines department located adjacent to it.

"It's kind of along the lines of a Starbucks," said Mozer. "It's a lifestyle experience."

Freshness also is heavily emphasized in the store, with the company's new tag line, "Experts in Fresh," displayed under the Marsh logo on the front of the store. The freshness theme continues as customers enter through the floral department, which then opens up into the fruit and vegetable displays that occupy the front half of the central part of the store.

There are no aisles of tall gondolas visible, and the traditional fluorescent lighting found in most supermarkets has been largely replaced with natural light and individual light fixtures over each display.

"Most of the light that is used in grocery stores doesn't make people look good, and it doesn't make the food look good," said Mozer. "Natural light gives it a nice glow, and it takes the flatness away from the room that is kind of typical for a grocery store."

All around the perimeter walls are the store's individual departments, with the product categories contained inside clearly labeled. Each department has its own decor package: the wine room has a textured ceiling and dimmed lights; the baby department has brightly colored floor tiles and a toy train design on the ceiling; and the seafood department is brightly lit with slate-gray floor tiles.

Within each room, all products related to that department are merchandised, so that the seafood room, which measures about 1,500 square feet, contains not only fresh fish -- including live lobsters -- but also frozen fish sticks, canned tuna, breading and "tuna helper" products, and accessories such as lobster forks.

Marsh also places a heavy emphasis on service in the store, with a full-time wine steward on hand and a heavy schedule of cooking demonstrations. Sampling is done throughout the store.

"They are a good operator, and they have a good research department," said Weitzel of Bishop Consulting. "They really study consumers, and I'm sure they've done a lot of homework to get this done."