VEGETABLE STRIFE

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Tops Friendly Markets and Wegmans Food Markets -- the two dominant supermarket chains here -- give top billing to their private-label frozen vegetable lines.SN visited two Tops Friendly Markets: one International Super Center in the suburb of Greece and another unit here on Penfield Road. Also visited were the new Wegmans prototype store in Pittsford and the Ridgemont Wegmans in

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Tops Friendly Markets and Wegmans Food Markets -- the two dominant supermarket chains here -- give top billing to their private-label frozen vegetable lines.

SN visited two Tops Friendly Markets: one International Super Center in the suburb of Greece and another unit here on Penfield Road. Also visited were the new Wegmans prototype store in Pittsford and the Ridgemont Wegmans in Greece.

Wegmans is headquartered here, while Tops, a subsidiary of Ahold USA, Atlanta, has headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y. All the units visited were large supermarkets, ranging in size from about 78,000 to 130,000 square feet.

Private label appears first in the lineup of vegetables at both Tops and Wegmans. The emphasis is not surprising, given the fact that both chains have extensive private-label programs and exemplify the increasing presence of store brands across supermarket categories.

Indeed, plain vegetables are third in a ranking of private-label frozen category leaders, according to data compiled by Information Resources Inc., Chicago, and the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York.

According to the 1998 PLMA annual yearbook report, in supermarkets private label had a 44% dollar share of the frozen plain vegetable category in 1997, and a 53% unit share.

IRI data show that for the period ended July 19, 1998, the frozen plain vegetable category garnered $1.67 billion in sales in supermarkets, up 2.6%, while mixed vegetables had $608 million in sales, up 3.2%.

While figures were not available for all private-label plain vegetables, when frozen mixed vegetables were looked at, private-label lines were the No. 1 category.

At Tops International store in Greece, frozen vegetables are merchandised about mid-aisle, mostly in coffins. Tops uses a wide aisle for frozens that accommodates six banks of double-sided coffin cases. On either side of the aisle are frozens doors.

The majority of frozen vegetables are in 21 feet on either side of a coffin case, for a total of 42 feet. Seven doors nearby are devoted to frozen potatoes and boxed vegetables.

The category begins with the Green Giant and Tops private-label corn, four ears for $2.29 and $1.79. respectively. A compare-and-save sign on the private-label corn drew attention to the savings.

Tops mixed vegetables are next in line. The mixes are standard, but have interesting names. For example, Swiss Mix (broccoli and cauliflower), Dutch Mix (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots), Rancho Fiesta, and so forth. Mixed vegetables were in 16-ounce polybags and sold for $1.29 or $1.39.

Diced green and red peppers are next, on temporary price reduction at three for $2.

Fourteen stockkeeping units of plain vegetables and two SKUs of mixed vegetables follow. These items ranged in price from 99 cents to $1.39, and from 12-ounce to 16-ounce sizes. All were on TPR, three for $2.

Green Giant fills the next section, with four SKUs of plain vegetables and one mixed vegetable choice, with prices ranging from $1.39 to $1.99.

Most of the Green Giant products in polybags are SKUs of Pasta Accents and Create-a-Meal mixed vegetables with sauce packets. Four SKUs of Pasta Accents were on sale for $1.99, with signage that noted a 50-cent savings. Create-a-Meal came in five flavors, ranging in price from $3.18 to $3.59.

Birds Eye products follow, with Chicken Voila, the company's new meal solution that includes meat, first in the lineup. Chicken Voila came in four flavors.

Easy Recipe Meal Starters, Birds Eye's mixed veggie meal solution, follows. Four flavors were all priced at $3.29. Pasta Secrets were also available in four flavors and sold for $2.39.

Tops also carries Birds Eye "Baby" vegetable blends in 14-ounce upscale polybags. These vegetables, in 14- or 16-ounce bags, were priced at $2.59.

Some Farm Fresh mixtures and plain vegetables follow the Birds Eye products and finish off the section. SN noted three SKUs of mixtures and five SKUs of plain vegetables.

Tops reserves a few doors for prepared vegetables made with sauces or dressings and some plain vegetables, packaged in 10-ounce boxes. This section included Tops, PictSweet, Birds Eye and Green Giant brands.

Potatoes and onion rings are merchandised together in about four doors.

The second Tops store, on Penfield Road, has an almost identical selection, except that all the vegetables are merchandised in doors. Vegetables occupied seven doors, with potatoes filling four doors.

Private-label vegetables are even more dominant at the Ridgemont Wegmans in Greece, which is not far from Tops' International store in the same suburb. Here most of the vegetables are also merchandised in coffins.

During SN's visit, a storewide buy-one-get-one-free sale was just winding down, so many of the frozen vegetables were on special.

An endcap bunker at the front of the coffin bank was used to merchandise some BOGOs: Birds Eye corn, peas, mixed vegetables, green beans and French green beans, 16-ounce bags for $1.49.

Vegetables occupy 40 running feet and begin with Wegmans brand. All the packaging on the store-brand frozen vegetables carries Wegmans' "Food You Feel Good About" logo. The selection begins with Wegmans brand Hong Kong and Far East stir fries. On top of the coffin case, Wegmans brand Sweet & Sour, Lemon and Garlic sauces are cross-merchandised, along with some Campbell's soup.

These stir fries are in 20-ounce bags and sold for $1.79, as did the Italian style vegetables, in an 18-ounce bag. There were additional varieties of mixed and plain vegetables in 16- 18- or 20-ounce bags. Prices ranged from $1.39, for green peas or cut corn, for example, to $1.69 for cauliflower or broccoli.

Larger 40-ounce sizes of Wegmans vegetables are packaged in see-through polybags. These also had the "Food You Feel Good About" designation. Much of the packaging is also stamped with the slogan, "striving for five fruits and vegetables a day."

The larger sizes sold for $2.19 and included mixed vegetables, green peas, cut green beans and cut corn.

Green Giant and Wegmans corn-on-the-cob follow, with four ears on sale for $2.29 and $1.99, respectively, putting the Wegmans corn 20 cents higher than the Tops brand. Also on sale was the Green Giant brand, 24 ears for $5.19.

Wegmans also carries PictSweet vegetables. Sixteen-ounce sizes were on sale, four for $4, with the shoppers-club card. Selections included chopped collards and butter beans. Green Giant mixed vegetables, chopped broccoli and niblets follow, in 16-ounce polybags for $1.49. Pasta Accents came next, but here they were $2.49. Create-a-Meal varieties sold at the same prices as at Tops.

Similarly, Birds Eye Meal Starters, the Chicken Voila line, and Pasta Secrets had the same pricing as at the Tops stores. The Birds Eye section was completed with the Baby blends and some plain vegetable items.

Baby white corn, 16 ounces, was on sale at three for $5 with the shoppers-club card, as were 14-ounce bags of broccoli florets. Baby blends in any combination were also on special, at two for $4.

Wegmans also has some larger bags (16 ounces) of Birds Eye mixed vegetables, such as broccoli, corn and red pepper, and plain vegetables, such as broccoli cuts and sliced carrots.

Wegmans, like the Tops International Stores, reserves doors for boxed vegetables. But the Wegmans had a greater selection of Birds Eye and Green Giant prepared vegetables. Also in the doors were some plain vegetable packages of these national brands. The second Wegmans unit visited, in Pittsford, had almost the same selection in the frozen-vegetable department as the Ridgemont store. Both Wegmans stores merchandised most of frozen vegetables in coffins.