STICKER LOCK

Today's generation of labels on fresh foods does double duty. On top of the mandatory product identification, price and weight data, labels raise brand awareness, offer cooking and serving tips and -- in a growing number of markets -- show consumers, dollar for dollar, the value of a loyalty card.Indeed, labels have evolved. Like other promotional vehicles, they play a part in the merchandising of

Today's generation of labels on fresh foods does double duty. On top of the mandatory product identification, price and weight data, labels raise brand awareness, offer cooking and serving tips and -- in a growing number of markets -- show consumers, dollar for dollar, the value of a loyalty card.

Indeed, labels have evolved. Like other promotional vehicles, they play a part in the merchandising of fresh foods, retailers and other industry observers told SN.

The sky's the limit when it comes to label design. Done up in bright colors, featuring high-impact graphic images and expanded text messages, the new labels are eye-catching.

Labels "have become an extension of the sign," said Jack Gridley, director of meat and seafood for Dorothy Lane Market, the three-store Dayton, Ohio, independent. "The label is becoming another tool to communicate with the customer," he said.

Technological breakthroughs by scale manufacturers and information system improvements on the retail level laid the groundwork for sharper-looking labels. Over the last decade, networking of individual scales within the same store enabled data sharing. While associates used to program information into individual scales, they now program it into networks. Data management software eliminates the need for manual inputting of information from store to store, and makes changing data uniform across the entire department.

The enhancements developed by the scale industry work in tandem with upgraded, in-store computer systems.

"We use the store's existing network infrastructure to facilitate the communication flow," said Jim Fenker, product manager, retail, for Mettler Toledo, which has U.S. headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

"As the IT environment changes in the store, we try to change with it to benefit the retailer," Fenker said. "As we improve the technology in terms of communication, it opens up the capacity to send more information down."

Right now, retailers appear to be clamoring most for dual-price labels. These decals serve to underscore the savings customers enjoy when they present their loyalty cards at checkout.

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle will install new scales that print dual-price labels within the next 10 to 12 months, a spokeswoman for the 210-store chain told SN.

Officials at Dorothy Lane plan to roll out the labels in the coming months. "It's on my priority list," Gridley said. "It would be nice to reinforce that savings."

Advocates say these labels clear up any question about price that arise when customers see signs in front of the product featuring the loyalty club price, and labels on the product with the regular store price. Dual-price labels do the math for card-carrying consumers -- and that, in turn, can drive additional sales.

Consumers appreciate dual-price labels, according to officials from scale manufacturing companies, who noted the loyalty card trend has helped their business.

"By having the [loyalty card] price on the label, it provides more customer convenience," Fenker said.

"People want to know what it's going to cost" before they head for the checkout line, said Bob Schuller, general manager for the weigh/wrap product line at Troy, Ohio-based Hobart. With the new labels, "they can see it's a good deal. They eliminate confusion and give clarity."

From produce items to baked goods to packages of fresh meat, dual-price labels appear on every product promoted under Green Hills' frequent shopper program.

A 22,000-square-foot, single-store independent, Green Hills competes with a diverse mix of food retailers, including Wegmans, Aldi, Wal-Mart supercenters and P&C, a Penn Traffic banner. The independent also serves a diverse group of consumers, including hospital workers, middle- and upper-income families, Syracuse University students, and employees and Native Americans from the Onondaga Nation reservation nearby. A store official described it as a cross between a conventional supermarket and an upscale gourmet shop, with a large selection of organic and international foods.

Soon after rolling out dual-price scale labels about three years ago, company officials saw the payoff. Sales went up on the discounted products bearing the labels.

"I'd say we probably saw about a 20% increase in movement of card items," John Mahar, director of operations for Green Hills, told SN. "The scale labels are tremendously effective. It was confusing before."

Customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. "We had customers thanking us," Mahar recalled. "Customers don't want to do the math in their head."

In retail meat departments today, commodity items are losing favor, while branded products are starting to proliferate. Therefore, it can make sense for departments to use secondary labels on the branded items.

The little stickers stand out on the meat packages at Green Hills. In bold red-and-black tones, labels feature the oval-shaped Smithfield Lean Generation Pork logo, and let customers know the meat is self-basting, with a solution of water, sodium lactate, salt and sodium phosphate.

"Aged Black Angus Only at Green Hills" is printed on the beef labels, with the initials GH scrawled over an image of a steer in the background. Aged Black Angus is the only beef Green Hills sells.

New for the meat department, the additional labels help build brand awareness and store recognition, Mahar said.

"If it just said Black Angus New York strip steak, it would look like any other supermarket," he said. "We're committed to building a branded environment."

One year ago, store associates began using the secondary labels, applying them by hand, Mahar said. But that became too labor-intensive. Officials worked with the company's scale manufacturer, providing them with the artwork for the labels. Now the weigh-wrap system at the store applies the preprinted labels, saving time and resulting in neater, more uniform-looking packages, Mahar said.

"With us selling a premium product, presentation is important," he said. "People aren't buying our product based on price."

Labels can be part of an effective merchandising scheme, designed to make a retailer stand out among his competitors down the street, said Fenker of Mettler Toledo. As a promotional tool, labels "are very effective," he said.

"In many cases, it's the only label on the product and the only opportunity on a prepackaged product for a retailer to differentiate one product from another sitting in a case, and products in that store from a competitor's store," he said.

"The better looking the label, the more attractive the package is to a consumer."

Once home, consumers may find the label worth saving, especially if it answers their questions about cooking. About six years ago, Hobart started printing preparation tips on scale labels. Now cooking instructions are standard data on many meat packages.

"One thing people in meat departments will tell you is they spend an awful lot of time telling consumers how to cook something," said Hobart's Schuller. "Kroger does a good job with cooking instructions. They put cooking instructions on almost every cut of meat. H.E. Butt is probably the most progressive in printing cooking instructions. It's been successful for them."

Unlike recipe cards on racks and pegboards in meat departments, labels with cooking tips are low maintenance. "You have to maintain so many [recipe] cards," he said, noting the time and labor required in stocking and keeping the display neat. "It's cumbersome for retailers, and customers, too."