RICHMOND, Va. -- Here where Civil War battles once raged, the fighting spirit lives on as supermarkets vie with each other for meals customers.The primary battle lines in this much-coveted turf are drawn between hometown chain Ukrop's Super Markets, and newcomer Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine. Meanwhile, the other major competitor here, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., is reinforcing its presence

RICHMOND, Va. -- Here where Civil War battles once raged, the fighting spirit lives on as supermarkets vie with each other for meals customers.

The primary battle lines in this much-coveted turf are drawn between hometown chain Ukrop's Super Markets, and newcomer Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine. Meanwhile, the other major competitor here, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., is reinforcing its presence with fresh measures to get a bigger portion of the meals business.

SN's market study of the metro-Richmond area included in-store tours and on-site interviews with supermarket executives and was augmented by analysis from local observers, including fresh-meals experts and allied industry representatives.

"The real hot competition is between Ukrop's and Hannaford because they're going after the same customer. Food Lion targets the price customer," said a local industry source.

The fact that Ukrop's got into the business early has helped put it at the top, but so has the dedication of the chain's owners -- James and Robert Ukrop -- who are very customer-conscious, said Jackie Legg, vice president of solution shopping at the 26-unit independent.

"We certainly respect the competition, but we do our own research and try to give customers what they want," Legg said, explaining that constant change at Ukrop's reflects response to customers, not to competitive forces.

One local source sees the evolving Ukrop's as a key force in an emerging fresh-meals network that he said could be a model for other areas of the country.

"I think Richmond itself is an epicenter for meal solutions. It's the closest thing we have in this country to the U.K. system," said Brian Salus, president of Salus & Associates, a supermarket consulting firm based in nearby Midlothian, Va.

Salus referred in part to partnerships that Ukrop's has forged with local suppliers and to its efforts to "push labor-intensive preparation steps back upstream." And he pointed out that, with its central kitchen capacity, Ukrop's itself could supply other retailers with prepared foods.

As director of food service at Ukrop's, Salus was part of the team -- along with Legg and Kevin Hade, now Ukrop's vice president of manufacturing -- that got the chain's meals program off the ground in 1989. He helped shepherd the program until he left to start his own business in 1992.

Not surprisingly, officials from all three of the major chains here said quality was their major focus. Indeed, it was the quest for a high-quality, consistent product that drove Ukrop's to build its own central kitchen 10 years ago, Legg told SN.

Then, shortly afterward, officials saw the potential for sales from the self-service case, Legg said.

"In the beginning, we devoted too much space to the products in our service cases. When we realized that, it changed the way we did business."

So did a heat-sealed, windowed package developed for Ukrop's by the consumer packaging division of Westvaco, based here.

"That opened the door for us to move into central packaging. We partnered with Westvaco to produce it. We actually put up some of the money," Legg explained.

Now, the majority of the chain's sales of chilled, prepared foods comes from shop-around self-service cases.

Meanwhile, Ukrop's has cut its service display of prepared foods from 20 feet to no more than 8 to 12 feet.

Instead of bowls upon bowls of prepared foods, much of the service case now shows off such things as heaping platters of freshly made panini sandwiches in six varieties. When customers order one, it is freshly grilled.

"That's one of our most successful programs," said Nancy Wingfield, Ukrop's category manager of prepared foods, as she pointed to the panini at a year-old store near the chain's corporate offices.

At that store, the panini display stands adjacent to a hot pasta station that is in-line with the grill. In earlier incarnations, the grill was contained in an island. Bringing it into line at this newer store was a labor-saving move, Wingfield said.

Perpendicular to that combo is a hot foods case that effectively illustrates that "less is more." On a flat, black-and-white, hot-tile surface, just four pans show off fried chicken, wings, tenders and jo-jo potatoes. Hot meatball sandwiches are displayed there also.

Fried chicken is big at Ukrop's, big even for the South. Wingfield said that sales of that one product make up 2% of total store sales chainwide.

At some high-volume units, hot food, chilled fare from Ukrop's kitchen and traditional deli sales together can comprise up to 15% of total store sales, she added.

Dinners for Two, a destination item, has a prominent spot in the chilled, prepackaged display. It's not uncommon for a store to sell 50 of those in a day, a store-level source said.

While Ukrop's has long enjoyed the title of front-runner in the Richmond fresh-meals race, it's no longer a walk to the finish line. Since Hannaford Bros. moved into the market after acquiring the Wilson's supermarket chain in 1993, it has won the respect of shoppers and the industry.

"When good competition like Hannaford comes in, it keeps the established supermarkets on their toes," said Win Davis, president of Win-Formation, a brand-positioning and communications company located here.

But Davis and other sources said Ukrop's paved the way with its high standards.

"Thanks to our competition, consumers here have an understanding of the category," said Marty Greeley, category manager for the meal center for 154-unit Hannaford Bros. Hannaford's mission now is to communicate to Richmonders "the value represented by our fresh, ready-to-heat and ready-to-prepare products," he said.

To help do that, Hannaford has established a "meals center" that ties its chilled prepared-foods display into a hot-foods program that's built around fried and rotisserie chicken.

Here, customers get a chance to try some of the prepacked items at a fixed, fully equipped demo station, though this is just part of the strategy. The larger goal is to attract their attention to that part of the store, to give the meals section an identity of its own, Greeley said.

"We've taken the position that we need to establish an entity within the store that customers begin to recognize as something different than they're used to seeing in a store," Greeley said.

"Then, hopefully, they'll notice that the products there are different than the typical supermarket fare," he added. Referring to the nearby hot-food section, the service deli and the demo station, Greeley said it's important to keep some action and preparation in-store to underscore freshness and quality.

Early in its evolution at Hannaford, the meals-solutions department, with chilled, packaged items, was a freestanding department at the front of the store.

"But we moved it back to the deli to give it some relationship to the traditional deli categories," Greeley said.

The tiered display of chilled, fresh prepacked food is situated in-line at the end of the right-hand wall in most of Hannaford's stores here. Greeley pointed out that the display features both fully cooked, prepared items and ready-to-cook items such as kabobs and stuffed pork chops. They're set in rows side by side.

"It has worked well for us to have them delineated, but adjacent to each other in that same case," Greeley said.

Since Hannaford doesn't have a central kitchen, the company has experimented with different ways of sourcing meals products, such as total in-store production and total vendor-supplied items, Greeley said. Now, the chain uses a blend of both.

"The real critical part for us is our vendor relationships. We've decided, based on economics, that we need to form strong partnerships with manufacturers and we've recently committed ourselves to strengthening the relationships we have," Greeley said.

"We have more of our products prepacked by our vendors now. When we first came into this market, we brought prepared product in from vendors, but in bulk. It was packaged in-store then."

The company at this point has one main supplier for chilled prepared foods, "but we deal with a total of seven or eight and we have a couple of suppliers for value-added meats as well," Greeley said.

The chain's major fresh-meals supplier is in New England and others are located in the Southeast.

Even Ukrop's, with its central kitchen, sources some entrees from outside. It buys a variety of fresh, prepared seafood entrees -- also packed in the Westvaco heat-sealed packages -- from Dickie's Seafood Co. here.

"It made sense for seafood entrees because we didn't sell enough volume of them to make it cost efficient for us to do them," Legg said.

In most Ukrop's units, Dickie's prepared entrees, which include such items as shrimp and scallop fettuccine, are displayed in two spots -- in the seafood department and with other chilled, prepacked entrees in the deli department.

Secondary displays and cross merchandising are also hallmarks at Food Lion, since it implemented a whole new meals-merchandising program. It's a total-store approach, incorporating value-added perishables, frozens and center-store items merchandised in brand-name kiosks, which also include recipe cards and related time-saver information.

But, the core of the program lies in the store's deli/food-service department, a manned island of cases that display items ranging from hot fried chicken and featured meals of the day, to prepacked salads and submarine sandwiches, all under the chain's recently adopted Food Lion & Fast motto.

"We see these foods, even our hot food, as items people want to take home. Our business is grab and go," said Bruce Dawson, vice president of operations for the Northern division of 1,207-unit Food Lion, which has 38 stores in Richmond.

SN interviewed Dawson at a new store here where the deli/food-service department is situated at the front of the store, heading the fresh-foods aisle.

"We're really out to take the business back from the fast-food industry. We want to capture the shopper while they're in the store. Maybe they'll buy our prepared food instead of going to a fast-food restaurant on the way home," Dawson said.

He said Food Lion's new stores and remodels have a separate register in the deli/food-service department, which has been moved up front.

"We've done a lot of research over the last two years, and we found that customers do want the deli near the front of the store," Dawson said.

At the store where SN interviewed Dawson, the hot special of the day, salisbury steak, with two side dishes and a roll, was $2.99.

While some chains are backing away from offering hot foods because they say it's so hard to control the quality and keep shrink down, Food Lion has retooled its hot program, adding variety to a rotating menu. Dawson explained why.

"We've been successful with hot foods for a long time because we do them on a scale that allows us to be profitable and also create customer satisfaction."

He pointed out that fried chicken and chicken tenders are the only constants on the hot menu. In addition to those and five or six side dishes, one other entree such as roast pork or meat loaf is offered each day.

"We also concentrate on offering pricing that's attractive enough to sell the product through. Naturally, we don't make much money on a $2.99 special, but that drives sales in the rest of the department," Dawson explained.

While other entrees are sourced in bulk in boil-in-bags, chicken at Food Lion is prepared in-store and so is a huge array of sandwiches.

"This is a very good sandwich market. You can tell by the space we have to give here to salads and sandwiches that we sell a lot," Dawson said as he gestured toward a 15-foot, tiered self-service case that displayed hero sandwiches, half-pint and pint-sized salads and fried chicken pieces in colorful "Food Lion & Fast" boxes.

Dawson pointed out that Food Lion has arranged with its supplier to provide innovative packaging for deli salads. On the top of each container, a plastic fork is attached, completely covered by the label. How do you know it's there? The label, with an illustration, tells customers a fork lies underneath.

"That came out of our research. Consumers said they loved being able to get a single-serving but they didn't carry forks around with them," Dawson said.

While he wouldn't divulge percentages, Dawson said the salad category has seen increased sales since the new packaging was introduced.

"The convenience factor is so important. We've tried to marry up salads and chicken and chips here in this case so customers can get everything they need for dinner," Dawson said.