PRODUCE COUNTRY

CLEVELAND -- Cleveland is not such an easy target anymore -- not for comedians, and not for retailers looking to muscle in on the produce turf guarded by its hometown supermarkets.The region is in resurgence, basking in the positive light given off by shiny new trophies like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Museum and the American League champion Cleveland Indians.Northeastern Ohio, including the two

CLEVELAND -- Cleveland is not such an easy target anymore -- not for comedians, and not for retailers looking to muscle in on the produce turf guarded by its hometown supermarkets.

The region is in resurgence, basking in the positive light given off by shiny new trophies like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Museum and the American League champion Cleveland Indians.

Northeastern Ohio, including the two urban centers of Cleveland and Akron, is a hotbed for competitive produce merchandising, an area controlled by strong local grocers fighting for shoppers' dollars in a market that demands high quality.

"It's an extremely competitive market, and it's been that way for years," said one local observer. It makes for some lively retailing, he said.

"The produce industry here has some real entrepreneurs, from the small independents to the large chains. Everyone takes a real sense of ownership," said the source. "People take a real sense of pride in their produce."

The field ranges from upscale independents such as West Point Market in Akron to mass retail giant Super Kmart Centers (a relative newcomer) to Finast, the market leader that has the financing muscle of its parent company, Ahold USA, behind it.

Fresh produce is considered a major weapon in their respective arsenals. One local industry source, for instance, pointed to the placement of produce in the lead-off position of most stores as evidence of the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables here.

One longtime retail player who asked not to be named said quality, more than price, is important to area shoppers. "This city is so unlike other markets," the retailer said. "Quality comes first. Price is not the driving force here."

But another retailer also pointed to overcrowding as a condition that makes the market tough. "This area is overstored," Russ Vernon, president of West Point Market, told SN. "It's highly competitive."

To support this assertion, Vernon noted the fact that two major operators, with stores almost in Cleveland's back yard, both withdrew from the market in recent years because of the heat. They are Meijer Inc., based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati.

To gain insight into the market, SN took the pulse of produce merchandising at stores in Cuyahoga and Summit counties, which together encompass Greater Cleveland and Akron, and interviewed retailers and other local industry sources about what makes the market tick.

The contenders are varied:

· Finast, Maple Heights, a chain with deep pockets and a major stimulator for stiff competition here. It operates 42 stores, most of them in northeastern Ohio.

· Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, which bills itself as the neighborhood supermarket and enjoys a well-established position as both a retailer and a wholesaler. It runs 38 corporate stores, five of which are under the Marketplace banner.

· Independents that have staked out niches on the upscale end of the market: Russo's Stop-N-Shop, Chesterland, with four stores; one-store West Point Market, Akron, and Heinen's, Warrensville Heights, with 11 stores.

· Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., Akron, an operator of 11 conventional Acme Stores and eight Acme Super Centers.

· Kmart, Troy, Mich., with less than a handful of Super Kmart supercenters.

Officials at Finast refused to comment for this story, but local observers said the chain, which is the market leader, also considers itself the leader in produce merchandising and sales.

At Finast stores in the towns of Stow and Strongsville, both of which opened in the last six months, produce was indeed the first major department in the traffic flow.

At the store in Stow, which opened last July, produce was flanked by floral at the entrance. The Strongsville unit, which opened in October, featured a coffee bar and a bank in the foyer. But at both stores, produce stands squarely in the front to greet shoppers as they enter.

Both units offered some the essential elements of the "farmer's market" atmosphere -- a look that is being exploited, to different degrees of effectiveness, in supermarkets throughout the market.

Finast lined up slant tables in the middle of each department, with bushel baskets holding product overflow. Blackboards featured chalk illustrations and such descriptive names for sections as the "Pepper Patch."

At the Stow store, the first major display in the produce department was seasonal; at the time, it had a holiday theme, featuring gift baskets.

The next large display at the Stow unit featured prepackaged salads -- off ice. The lack of refrigeration for the value-added salads seemed a major faux pas at such a new store, especially considering the extensive upright refrigerated cases that lined both sides of the department.

Exotic produce received big play at both units. Each featured flags from countries around the world to emphasize the variety.

For the uninitiated, shelf-talkers offered explanations of unusual items. A local food business source told SN that retailers have been putting extra emphasis on specialty produce in the area.

"The market has gotten more sophisticated," said Susie Heller, who owns a Cleveland catering business. "There's a demand growing for specialties."

Like its rival Finast, Riser Foods relies on produce as the lead department and image maker for each of its company-owned stores. That strategy reflects the department's drawing power, according to Chuck Rego, vice president of produce for the chain.

SN visited the two more upscale of Riser's three formats: a Rini-Rego Stop-N-Shop in Mayfield Heights and a Rini-Rego Marketplace in North Royalton.

The Rini-Rego Stop-N-Shop had several carts set up in the middle of the front aisle to merchandise apples and citrus.

Value-added fruit products, including melon chunks, watermelon halves, fresh-squeezed cider and juices, topped ice beds placed early in the traffic pattern.

Overall, a healthy mix of bulk and wrapped fresh products was available. The produce department used bushel baskets liberally to merchandise products. Indeed, the farmer's market atmosphere of the department was so heavy that it spilled over to the rest of the store. The second store, under the Marketplace banner, is the chain's most upscale unit, Rego said.

It took the farmer's market look of the Stop-N-Shop unit one step further, with considerably more bulk produce merchandised on wooden slant tables.

The selection was bigger and deeper, with assortments within categories, such as nine stockkeeping units of mushrooms.

The Marketplace featured a separate section of organics, with red stickers identifying all organic items. Refrigerated cases along the wall, meanwhile, held value-added items and refrigerated salad dressings. The store also featured an exposed back room with a pink neon sign overhead reading, "Rini-Rego Garden Produce."

Russo's Stop-N-Shop, a customer of Riser Foods' wholesale arm, offered an upscale selection of produce on a much smaller scale than the other operators.

The Shaker Heights unit that SN visited is the smallest of Russo's four stores, according to Sal A. Russo, treasurer, who described the store as nontraditional. "It was designed by a home design specialist, not a supermarket designer," he said.

In any case, produce was designed to be the lead department. With no room for slant tables, the department sported refrigerated cases, lining each side of the front aisle. The store offered a section of fresh herbs, with leeks, bulk fresh parsley and ginger root. A salad bar hugged the front wall, with some fresh-cut melons merchandised there.

At Heinen's Mayfair Village store, produce was situated in the back corner, while bakery and deli took the place of honor as the lead departments.

Heinen's featured refrigeration throughout the department. Upright cases along the back wall merchandised wrapped produce and loose greens.

The store featured an open preparation area on the sales floor. Displays of fresh-squeezed juices, a salad bar, a section of bananas and a specialty produce section surrounded the open prep area.

A sign identified the small exotic produce section, which held a limited selection highlighted by peeled garlic, shiitake mushrooms and mangoes.

Produce is up front at both the formats under the Acme banner operated by Fred W. Albrecht Co.

The department sits in the front left-hand corner of the Acme Super Center in Montrose that SN toured with Pat Quotson, the chain's produce director.

The department is nearly entirely refrigerated. Its assortment fits a ratio of bulk to bagged of about 50-50, Quotson said. The Montrose store featured a small organics section. "We have organics in about 10 stores," he said. "Some people look for it." He described the store's clientele as middle to upper middle class.

Across the street from the Acme unit sat a Super Kmart, one of the first of the mass merchant's supercenter entries in the market.

The store had two entrances, one leading into the general merchandise area, and the second to the supermarket side. Produce, however, was tucked into the back of the supermarket section.

Several local sources said the supercenter has been struggling with its produce department. One observer, however, said Super Kmart has had a bit of a turnaround in the last six months, apparently owing in large part to a renewed focus on its produce merchandising. Kmart officials were not available for comment.

SN's visit to the Montrose store confirmed that both views are correct: The chain may have come a long way with produce, but it still has a ways to go.

While a sign promised that "We offer more variety than other markets," observation did not bear that out. And a quick look through the value-added case revealed at least one prepackaged salad, from a major name-brand company, turning brown days before the "use by" date. On the plus side, display tables in the center of the department were generally well filled, with a mix of wrapped, bulk and bagged items.

At the upscale pinnacle of the northeastern Ohio market is West Point Market, a single-unit operator in Akron.

Produce is a key part of West Point's strategy, according to Vernon. "It's healthy and colorful, and provides theater, drama and beauty," he said. "It's also a profit center."

At West Point, produce is located not at the front, but in the center of the store, in such a way that customers following the normal traffic pattern will need to go through the department twice, Vernon said.

The product variety is wide. The tomato section included hot house, on-the-vine, sun dried and hydroponic varieties. "We dominate the category," he said. A juicing machine was set up in the front of the department as well.