PRODUCE PROMINENCE

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Produce is moving up in the supercenter merchandising hierarchy at Wal-Mart Stores here.The department is playing a more pivotal role, in concert with other fresh departments, in the retail giant's food strategy. And that role is reflected in what the chain is calling its next-generation supercenter, nine of which will already have been opened by this week.While always an important

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Produce is moving up in the supercenter merchandising hierarchy at Wal-Mart Stores here.

The department is playing a more pivotal role, in concert with other fresh departments, in the retail giant's food strategy. And that role is reflected in what the chain is calling its next-generation supercenter, nine of which will already have been opened by this week.

While always an important part of its supercenter format's fresh-food presentation, produce in Wal-Mart's latest prototype sits at the head of the food-shopping traffic pattern, and is closely tied to the chain's more intensive effort to target the fresh-meals business.

Just inside the food entrance of the first such new prototype, the 202,000-square-foot supercenter in Fayetteville, Ark., the 3,500-square-foot produce section sits directly beside the deli and prepared-food offerings as the spearhead of a larger Fresh Market umbrella section, which also includes bakery and the meat and seafood shops.

To make the connection between produce and the meals program more pronounced, value-added vegetable and fruit products are merchandised directly across from the new meals center, making the inclusion of produce in a consumer's take-out meal solution more convenient than ever, according to Bruce Peterson, vice president of produce merchandising for Wal-Mart Supercenters.

"We are taking all the packaged salads and anything that is considered value-added, and moving them to the front of the traffic pattern," Peterson said in an interview with SN.

"They have been in the middle of the traffic pattern in previous layouts. We have moved them up front because we have also moved the deli to the front of the store, and all the home-meal replacement types of items are right there as soon as you walk in the store," he explained.

"You walk through the deli's HMR area, and then as you walk across the front of the produce area. The first thing you see are the packaged salads there, and you make that connection right away.

"Consequently, a customer can come through, get all those products at once, including produce, and get through the registers very quickly."

The value-added produce selection, for the most part, is merchandised in a multideck refrigerated case of its own, although some items, such as prepacked salads with protein ingredients, are allocated a central position in the multideck meals case nearby.

Wal-Mart's produce meal-solution presentation in the prototype amounts to more than just salads, Peterson added. "The move of the value-added products up to the front includes both vegetables and fruit; in that regard, we have not had a merchandising set yet where we have had fruit in an adjacency to a value-added vegetable item, per se. Here, you incorporate that not just as a commodity issue, but as a value-added section, if you will, an entire category."

Another, even more visually striking change to the department is the refrigerated cases themselves: Wal-Mart is making more of a commitment to multideck merchandising, which in about the same footprint gives produce a stronger presence than flat racks.

"We are going with a 77-foot run of multideck refrigerated casing all the way across the department, as opposed to a flat rack that is in our typical configurations," said Peterson.

"The multideck is obviously the first significant thing you see. There is no difference in terms of square footage of floor space, but when you go to a multideck you, get about 217 additional linear feet, because you are vertically merchandising now, so we do pick up linear footage. It looks like you did pick up square footage, but you didn't."

Indeed, the stockkeeping-unit count is the same, he said, although the impression is one of increased abundance.

"When you go into a multideck, you are able to get a lot of that same variety into additional linear footage, which then allows you to widen out your allocations on your dry counter and side-counter areas, so the displays look much more massive. And the interesting thing about the variety is that everyone that has seen this set thinks we have more variety, even though we don't. It is because you can see that variety so much better."

Peterson said the changes look like they will pay off. "I can't talk in terms of numbers, but the response, both internally and from everyone coming into the store, has been extremely positive," he said.

Another development worth noting inside the prototype department is that Wal-Mart is testing value-added items behind doored cold cases. "That is new in value-added salads," the produce executive said. "We are displaying some other products behind glass doors in other stores, but not the whole value-added section."

Peterson said that the prototype pulls together many such merchandising experiments. "Both in what we are doing in food and in general merchandise, it includes a lot of approaches that we have tested, in minor ways, in other places throughout the country. We have brought a lot of our best thinking into this prototype.

"But it is still a learning experiment. Initially, response has been very positive and we are pleased and proud of the box, but we still have some things we want to learn about this the customer response to it. I don't mean to suggest that what we are doing here is all cut in stone going forward, but we are feeling pretty good about it right now."