A TASTE OF ITALY

Italian food presents retailers and consumers alike with a host of convenient, colorful meal solutions. Grocery merchandisers in the Center Store are taking advantage of this opportunity, using the entire store for the occasional special promotion, while cross merchandising within the segment as a daily draw for shoppers looking for the simple and economical.The prosaic comfort of spaghetti and sauce

Italian food presents retailers and consumers alike with a host of convenient, colorful meal solutions. Grocery merchandisers in the Center Store are taking advantage of this opportunity, using the entire store for the occasional special promotion, while cross merchandising within the segment as a daily draw for shoppers looking for the simple and economical.

The prosaic comfort of spaghetti and sauce appeals to consumers on many levels, and the category continues to grow across the board.

"Everyone's familiar with it," said Debbie Leland, a natural and specialty foods buyer for Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn. "We've grown up with it."

"It also appeals to the health-conscious consumer, being low in fat and possibly non-meat."

Yet the versatility and variety of the category also makes Italian meals a popular choice for those who like to be more adventurous in the kitchen.

"As a cook, you can be very creative with Italian," said Steve Sorensen, grocery category manager for Lund's Food Holdings, St. Paul, Minn. "You can really show off your culinary skills."

While pasta is more of a cold weather food -- with barbecue and picnic displays getting most of the attention during the hot months -- most agree that it never really goes out of season. At Andronico's Market, Albany, Calif., Italian foods are featured on a regular basis throughout the year, according to Jessica Willet, a grocery merchandiser for the chain. "Of course there's an awareness boost during the winter months; however, pasta is really a destination item in our stores and you can expect to find it on ad or display at least two weeks out of a month," she said.

Willet said her stores cross merchandise Italian as often as possible, building displays that go beyond the standard pasta and sauce combination. Frequently, a balsamic vinegar or an olive oil, perhaps even a bottle of wine, will be brought into play. The chain also makes use of additional departments, cross merchandising in ground beef, fresh basil or whole cloves of garlic.

"We've become very resourceful when it comes to taking an item out of the produce section and putting it on a grocery display," she said. "We want to offer the customer a full meal."

Grocery products may appear with the complementary fresh item in the produce department, but Willett generally avoids using that space for additional display as it tends to slow traffic and makes the area hard to shop.

Displays are usually of the standard endcap variety, although the chain will occasionally work with manufacturers on flashier projects. Still, it is hard to make the space given the modest size of the stores, and that kind of massive impression is hard to work with, said Willett.

At Kowalski's, all of the ethnic foods are found in the same aisle, creating a fixed-meal solution stop every day, Leland said. In addition to pasta and sauce, all the appropriate Italian trimmings can also be found here: pestos, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, bread sticks, oils and vinegars. The chain also makes use of endcaps and the like to tie these items together.

The bakery department is well suited for an Italian arrangement, and Leland said her stores commonly cross merchandise in this space. For example, bread dippers -- herb-flavored olive oils made specifically for dipping -- or a spread, such as bruschetta, are popular Italian specialty items to place near the baked goods.

On evenings and weekends, Kowalski's features a cooking station called the Chef's Block, another medium the retailer can use to highlight convenient recipe ideas, complete with recipe cards. Willet mentioned meatballs as a possible Italian theme.

The growth in specialty foods has worked well for the Italian segment, particularly for a store like Kowalski's that caters to the higher-end consumer. Leland noted a marked growth in the pasta arena, centering around novel cuts and imports. She has also seen a rise in sauces using unique flavors, such as portabello mushroom or walnut.

All natural and organic pastas and sauces are keeping pace with the overall trend in processed foods, although Leland doesn't think consumers are fully aware of these options. However, she has seen an increase in the demand for wheat-free pastas -- such as rice pastas -- and similar products geared toward people with food allergies and other health concerns.

Andronico's Willett has seen much the same in her stores, with especially strong growth on the import side.

"The competition between vendors and different importers is amazing," she said. "They've really realized what a market they've got here."

Lund's and Byerly's also take advantage of this handy category on a regular basis, Sorensen said.

"We cross merchandise this segment quite often, especially on the grocery side," he said. "We're always cross merchandising an oil to a pasta. We frequently use the bakery as well."

At the newest Lund's in Plymouth, which opened July 14 of this year, the register space typically devoted to magazines and candy is being used as a solution-selling space comprised of distinct "culinary statements," according to Sorensen. This is the only store currently operating with this arrangement, but the possibility for future growth definitely exists.

"We are very happy with what we're seeing so far," said Sorensen. "Especially in our cross-merchandising efforts."

These mobile displays will be rotated on a seasonal basis, and make the most of both food and non-food items. The store was recently using popular summer themes such as margaritas and chips and salsas. The store was also running an Italian motif offering specialty oils for dipping alongside bakery products. That theme could be expanded to include upscale pastas, or perhaps a unique sauce found exclusively at Lund's.

According to Sorensen, visual merchandising always plays a prominent role in Lund's and Byerly's cross-merchandised sets, perhaps using traditional Italian colors or a flag to dress up an Italian display. The company employs visual merchandisers, and a culinary specialty gifts and goods buyer to make a complete team.

"Plymouth was our first showcase, but we do a lot of visual merchandising and cross merchandising by theme," he said.

While well-suited for everyday thrift and convenience, Italian food can become a holiday unto itself as retailers host storewide celebrations of penne and parmesan.

One example would be the chainwide Taste of Tuscany event, held in support of a food and wine show sponsored by Lund Food Holdings in the Twin Cities in 2000. According to Sorensen, entire stores took on a Tuscan cast, replete with grape vines. Demo tables were set up throughout the stores featuring all manner of Italian fare and abiding by the grape leaf motif.

Circulars and fliers can also play a colorful role. At the Byerly's stores, the Byerly Bag -- a monthly newsletter -- will often work in conjunction with in-store themes, featuring ads and recipes.

Bueler Foods, Wooster, Ohio, holds an annual Italian promotion for a week in the fall, Ron Amstutz, a buyer for the chain, told SN. This year the event will be called 30 Minutes to Italy, offering complete meals in under half an hour. According to Amstutz, the whole store participates in the promotion, which includes appropriate decoration and display.

"We tie-in the ground chuck from the meat department, olive oils, cheese in the deli, mushrooms, wine comes into play. This is something the whole store can tie into. I don't think there's a single department that can't get involved," he said.

Nonfood items, such as cheese graters, are also tossed into the merchandising mix. Families are one of the primary targets of this promotion, Amstutz said.

"Pasta and sauce happens to be a very economical meal if you've got three or four kids," he said. "So we run that extremely hot on the front page of our ad and try to sell them something else that we make a little money on."

While the brand offerings may vary, the type of pasta run during the promotion is always the same: one plain spaghetti and one elbow macaroni. In addition, the stores will pick one pasta sauce to feature below cost.