TOWN & COUNTRY CELEBRATES FRESHNESS AT NEW UNIT

SHORELINE, Wash. (FNS) -- Organic produce is being put to work to punctuate the theme "Celebrating Freshness" at Town & Country Market's newest unit, here, just north of Seattle."It is so important to understand what we put in our bodies," said Don Nakata, president. "With this store we are celebrating fresh food, presenting new products and introducing customers to good, wholesome fresh foods. Organic

SHORELINE, Wash. (FNS) -- Organic produce is being put to work to punctuate the theme "Celebrating Freshness" at Town & Country Market's newest unit, here, just north of Seattle.

"It is so important to understand what we put in our bodies," said Don Nakata, president. "With this store we are celebrating fresh food, presenting new products and introducing customers to good, wholesome fresh foods. Organic produce is something customers are looking for. With this store we are working to be a destination store with our fresh approach."

The 56,000-square-foot Central Market unit replaces a modest 29,000-square-foot unit that the Bainbridge Island-based Town & Country group operated. Adjacent retail space became available which made the expansion possible. The original unit, operating under the Shoreline Thriftway banner, was closed for four months to make the remodel possible.

"The size has allowed us to consider putting in our Central Market format," said Ron Nakata, vice president and operations director. "We are able to express the concepts of freshness and perishables with our 21,000 square feet of meat, seafood and produce."

Town & Country's Central Market format was originally installed in Bainbridge Island four years ago. "We have been waiting for the right location and the right size," he added. "Shoreline has a great density of population and great demographics."

The unit's exterior gives customers a clue as to what is on the inside. A silo-type structure houses a working coffee and beverage stand, and routinely, associates bring store merchandise outside. Props, such as a tractor, are used to punctuate the farm-fresh feeling inside. Customers enter through automatic doors or, in good weather, through garage-style doors.

"The site needed a landmark, one that connects people to the farm, the source of all that is fresh," said Ron.

Inside, the design is reminiscent of a farmers' market. Each fresh department is designed more like individual shops, an atmosphere that fosters interaction between store staff and customers. And, changes from one area to another can be quite noticeable. The ambient temperature in the produce area is 60 degrees Fahrenheit, while the rest of the store is climate-controlled at 74 degrees.

Education is a cornerstone with the "Celebrating Freshness" theme, according to Nakata. Six demonstration kiosks provide a schedule of cooking classes offered on the sales floor and tastes of innovative recipes and specialty items. The two kiosks that are reserved in the produce department have also been used as an educational center at times when growers come to promote their crop. A recent beet demo promoted organic gold, chioggia and red varieties with recipes and taste samples. Another demo involved a local leek grower who came to talk to customers about organics and his farming practices. Demos have the ability to triple an item's volume, said Jim Foley, produce department manager.

At the Central Market between 150 and 200 SKUs of organic produce items are available for customers to select from, according to Sue Persinger, organics specialist. All the organics are grouped together along 24 feet of three-deck wet racks and an additional 50 feet of dry-rack space. Specials are given center stage on endcaps or an the store's entrance. On the day SN visited the unit, organically grown berries were positioned at the store's entrance.

There are very few double facings of identical conventional and organic produce items. For example, if oranges are offered in both guises there may be a sizing or variety difference. Generally when there is no clear price advantage in offering conventionally grown produce versus an organically grown item, the organic selection is offered. Using this strategy, an organic selection will replace a conventionally grown item when the organic price meets or beats the price of conventionally grown items, said Foley.

"We substitute when we can. Price and quality are in constant flux with commodities and we know when to substitute and when not to substitute," he said. "It's not easy to manage, but we work on it every day."

The operator has developed a system to make it easier for the front end to manage these rapid market shifts. First, pink identifiers are positioned on items in the form of a tag, tab or banding tape. Next, the same PLU is used for identical conventional and organic items, though a single digit is added for organic selections. Finally, the unit offers customers the use of produce bags with "organic" emblazoned on them to help front-end recognition of produce items and home separation of product.

Organic sourcing is done through the operator's buying group, Associated Grocers, as well as local specialty produce distributors and with farmers themselves.

The operator also employs space and labor-saving racks to not only provide display flexibility but to reduce shrink and enhance sanitation throughout the 10,000-square-foot produce department.

Stainless steel display tables are designed for easy cleaning. The fitted plastic trays merchandising produce can sit atop ice, or used dry. Tubing at the bottom of the rack connected to a floor drain directs run off and keeps it off the floor. All the display tables, along with several refrigerated merchandisers, are on wheels.

A green leaf merchandiser looks more like a bread rack system than a produce fixture. The rack offers efficiencies that contribute to product integrity, said Foley. The product is handled only at trim, and positioned into a tray which, when full, is slid onto the 5-tray rack slots. There is no stacking of product and when a tray needs to be reworked, it is brought back to the unit's work area for handling. A misting system runs above the racks to keep the greens moist. A drain below the rack collects runoff.

"Product is rotated up," said Foley. "As an eye-level tray empties, we move a lower rack up and restock the empty one. The racks have given us flexibility, changed how we do things and help give the department a different look every day."

All of these racks and tables give the operator total flexibility in changing the look of the department or altering the shopping pattern. They also allow for easy movement during floor cleaning, he added.

Even the misting nozzles fit into the department's flexibility. They can be adjusted to aim high, low, left or right, and to regulate the amount of mist applied. Customers are warned the misting system is about to activate by an audio thunder clap.