ONLINE MEAL PLANS, WITH SALES ON THE SIDE

FRESNO, Calif. - Bentley's, a new specialty food retailer that's expected to open here by mid-August, will have limited selling space in its 13,000-square-foot store. But its owners hope to supplement their in-store sales with an online meal planning service.The service, from Monrovia, Calif.-based Food Magic, is designed to help specialty grocers drive shoppers to high-margin products by suggesting

FRESNO, Calif. - Bentley's, a new specialty food retailer that's expected to open here by mid-August, will have limited selling space in its 13,000-square-foot store. But its owners hope to supplement their in-store sales with an online meal planning service.

The service, from Monrovia, Calif.-based Food Magic, is designed to help specialty grocers drive shoppers to high-margin products by suggesting them in recipes and meal plans. The recipes and meals are based on profiles the shoppers fill out on the retailer client's website.

Sean McGrath, a part owner of Bentley's, said the service would augment the store's online shopping offering and help the store reach its target shoppers, who have sophisticated palates and are frequent Internet users. Bentley's also will use Food Magic to email suggested recipes to shoppers based on their food profiles.

"I think it's going to drive more traffic into the center of the store," McGrath said. "I also think it's going to expand our walls."

The meal planner service invites the user to create a profile based on such criteria as dietary restrictions, cuisine, cookware and event, such as a holiday. Food Magic uses those preferences to generate shopping lists and meal plans.

The shopping lists can steer shoppers to more profitable items and boost center aisle sales by suggesting specialty and private-label ingredients for the recommended recipes, which may be supplied by Food Magic or the retailer, said Jay Gleason, director of business development for Food Magic.

"It drives sales of their higher-margin items," he said. "Also, it engages the customer and bonds them to the store."

Food Magic also is introducing a feature that will let the retailer email promotions to users based on their online food profiles, he said. Another new program, called Lunch Club, is designed to drive traffic to retailers' prepared food departments by catering to business or social group lunch needs. It does this by aggregating individual online orders into a single order.

Other retailers operating Food Magic's meal planning service are Albertsons' Bristol Farms and Busch's in Michigan.

Dan Robinson, information technology manager for Bristol Farms, said the retailer has been testing the meal planner for Food Magic for about two years. Food Magic has been supplying the program as a free add-on to its online shopping service, for which Bristol Farms pays.

Robinson said Bristol Farms knows visitors are using the service, although it hasn't kept track of how many. "We were happy with that just because it's an added service for the customer," he said.

The goal of testing the service was to attract primary shoppers to Bristol Farms' online shopping service, said Craig Ogaz, director of operations development. In-store shoppers tend to cherry-pick special items, but the average online transaction is four times bigger than the average in-store one, he said.

"These shoppers, we found, are very loyal," Ogaz said. "Once we get an Internet shopper with us, they're with us. I just think it's convenience."

Since most of Bristol Farms' in-store sales come from the perimeter departments, the meal planner's positive impact on Center Store sales is negligible, Ogaz said. "But it is nice to know we get the word out to customers that it is an option," he said.