STORE OF A DIFFERENT SHAPE

BOSTON -- Shaw's new flagship store at the Prudential Center here is, in supermarket terms, an odd bird.It's spade-shaped instead of rectangular -- three levels when most supermarkets are one. If that weren't distinction enough, the store has the Massachusetts turnpike running directly underneath it and a grassy park sprouting from its rooftop.But Shaw's executives feel confident that its sophisticated

BOSTON -- Shaw's new flagship store at the Prudential Center here is, in supermarket terms, an odd bird.

It's spade-shaped instead of rectangular -- three levels when most supermarkets are one. If that weren't distinction enough, the store has the Massachusetts turnpike running directly underneath it and a grassy park sprouting from its rooftop.

But Shaw's executives feel confident that its sophisticated design and emphasis on premiere foods will quickly turn this odd duck into the swan of the 185-unit chain.

Paul Gannon, Shaw's president and chief executive officer, took SN around the new store, which opened April 25 after four years and an $8 million-plus investment. While he wouldn't divulge financial specifics, Gannon said the company "does not undertake projects it can't make profitable within a year."

Deutsche Bank analyst Edouard Aubin, based in New York, estimated sales at $750 per square foot, generating annual sales of $42 million.

Located across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue and ringed by high-rise apartments, the 57,000-square-foot store replaces a 20,000-square-foot Star Market formerly serving the complex.

It's also the first step of the West Bridgewater, Mass.-based company's overall plan to create stores shaped by market demographics, rather than using a one-size-fits-all format in every town.

"It's one of our strategies to differentiate ourselves," Gannon said. "We want to be the best at tailoring our stores to their communities."

Aubin noted that parent company, U.K.-based J Sainsbury, manages a diverse portfolio of stores abroad, with sizes ranging from 10,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet.

Shaw's new approach "varies from what we've seen in the U.S. so far, but it's more common overseas," he said. "Safeway was talking to me about potentially adopting the same strategy."

Since the Prudential Center opened, Shaw's bowed customized stores in Providence, R.I., and South Burlington, Vt. The former is geared toward ethnic communities with its bilingual signs, wider aisles and more promotional space, while the latter has a front-porch facade signaling a New England heritage.

The Prudential Center, in contrast, is modeled on distinctly urban households, with single-family homes and an $80,000 median income. Inside, the store speaks to a metropolitan sensibility: brushed chrome accents, an exposed ceiling, an emerald-green polished concrete floor, and liberal use of tangy orange paint on walls.

Gannon, an architecture buff who can reel off the pedigree of Boston's gems, wanted the store to hold its own along a corridor containing I.M. Pei's Hancock tower and Henry Hobson Richardson's Trinity Church.

"The original design called for a flat roof, but we decided to go with a 38-foot atrium to give better interaction with the street," he said. "In an urban environment, it's important to have a lot of views into the store."

The rooftop park, complete with benches, was a concession to local residents who wanted a replacement for the park demolished to build the store.

Inside, the store caters to customers who are more time-conscious than cost-conscious. Accordingly, of the 25 checkout lanes, all but five are express. Shopping carts are fewer and smaller. Hand baskets are bigger and stacked in multiple places in the store. The store is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight.

A check of traffic one weekday morning revealed Shaw's has done its homework: Most customers were young professional women carrying one or two bags.

The store will also service office workers and tourists, particularly at mealtimes. Duckboats -- brightly painted amphibious vehicles used here for sightseeing on the Charles River -- will line up in front of the store, depositing hundreds of tourists at Shaw's doorstep daily during peak months. The store will service 50,000 people per week, exceeding the 30,000 average metropolitan customer base, according to store manager Bill White.

Shaw's has beefed up staff to 325, about double the manpower of the old Star Market, and has tapped some of its best department managers for duty.

"This is the flagship of the company, the jewel in the crown," observed Ken Hoffman, market director for Shaw's 17 Boston-area stores.

In this setting, the La Carte prepared-foods department is expected to sparkle. It exceeded its sales projections the first week in business, and is projected to become the most profitable La Carte in Shaw's chain, Gannon said. Combined, service deli and prepared foods are expected to produce 9% of sales.

The department functions more as a cafeteria than supermarket, with daily specials listed on boards and offerings ranging from pizza to crab cakes. There is a carving station and a large case of single-serve cold drinks. The tiled backsplash gives it a "warm feeling, like an urban restaurant," noted Jim King, partner with retail designer Perennial Inc., Toronto, which is working with Shaw's to create community-focused stores. Plans call for a cluster of tables outside La Carte's entrance.

The area also has several cooler cases, holding various-sized portions of main and side dishes suitable for mix-and-match dinners.

"We wanted to really separate La Carte from the rest of the store, to give it more focus and presence," King said. Referring to a second entrance beside La Carte and its proximity to four self-checkout lanes, he added, "There is a clear choice for customers who want to shop or just want to run in and pick up a meal."

Upscale presentation and gourmet flavors are found throughout the store, from the 400 varieties in the cheese department to the bakery where lamps keep self-serve loaves warm.

The produce department, located right off the atrium entry, carries every stockkeeping unit available through Shaw's network -- some 700 items. It's expected to produce 15% of overall revenues, and was on track to do so by the second operating week. Selection emphasizes small pack items, such as a set of six mini bell peppers.

The Shop the World department stocks 2,000 ethnic food items, focusing on Brazilian, Italian and Jamaican as per local demographics. Flowers and some 1,000 varieties of wine are stocked on an awkward mezzanine level, itself braced by a steel retaining wall that suspends the store over the Massachusetts Turnpike tunnel.

"There is a lot of personal and emotional connection to this store," Gannon said, surveying the scene. "I used to work at the old Star Market in high school."

He's not the only one feeling sentimental. Ross McLaren, who retired as Shaw's CEO in November and used to live in the neighborhood, was ambling through the store on a recent morning.

"Don't want to be a nuisance," McLaren said, brushing off inquiries with a broad smile. "Just admiring my baby."