SHORELINE, Wash. (FNS) -- Every which way is fish at Town & Country Markets' newly opened Central Market format here. Whether fillets, steaks, live shellfish, ready-to-cook offerings, individually quick-frozen items or whole fish, customers can find them in the unit's extensive seafood department.But of them all, bulk IQF items are the cornerstone, and have an impressively high profile.Overall, the

SHORELINE, Wash. (FNS) -- Every which way is fish at Town & Country Markets' newly opened Central Market format here. Whether fillets, steaks, live shellfish, ready-to-cook offerings, individually quick-frozen items or whole fish, customers can find them in the unit's extensive seafood department.

But of them all, bulk IQF items are the cornerstone, and have an impressively high profile.

Overall, the Central Market format has given free rein to the expanded department, which, along with meat and produce, comprises 21,000 square feet of selling space, roughly one-third of the entire store. Departments are presented as shops or markets within a greater farmer's market-style perishables area.

The format was originally developed four years ago on Bainbridge Island, home of the independent. This new 56,000-square-foot unit replaces a much smaller unit the retailer operated under its Shoreline Thriftway banner. The old store was closed for four months during the expansion and remodeled this winter. In the new footprint, seafood takes center stage and is positioned at the unit's entrance.

"It's real in-your-face merchandising," said Ron Nakata, vice president of the six-unit chain. "Seafood here is the best department to showcase, since it has a real expression of 'fresh and perishable."'

Choice is the hallmark of the department, where the operator features:

Whole fin-fish selections on an ice merchandiser. On the day SN visited the unit, mussels were used to artfully divide species.

Fin-fish fillets, steaks and roasts in the service case with shellfish and signature salmon selections in an iced lip tray in front of the service case.

Preseasoned, oven-ready offerings, smoked items and ready-to-eat selections in a self-service multideck merchandiser. Cioppino is ready to ladle adjacent to the service case.

Live fish, crabs, lobsters, clams and mussels in 20 tanks.

Individually quick-frozen seafood items in a self-serve bulk section.

"We want to offer a great mix," said Denise Menton, seafood department head. "From bulk to live to fresh on ice to frozen at sea, we want to give customers a choice in not only the species but the form of their selection. For example, we have found it better to sell frozen items as frozen to the customer, giving them the choice of when to defrost it."

Within the department, merchandisers are sized to accommodate variety and selection. The bulk section occupies 32 feet, while the self-service five-deck case is 16 feet. There are 24 feet of service case with an additional 24-foot section of ice bins in front of the service case. This already impressive selection is topped off with the 20 tanks brimming with live shellfish, fin fish, crabs and lobsters.

The IQF selections were initially introduced in self-service guises a year ago at the Bainbridge Island Central Market, where nearly 30 items were introduced. When plans were on the boards for the new Shoreline unit here, customer demand caused the retailer to rethink and expand the bulk IQF seafood section, according to Nakata. The added space of the unit allowed the selection offered to increase to 60 items, including shrimp, crab, orange roughy and Arctic cod.

"Customers can take what they need," said Menton. Using tongs or gloves, customers select items and put them into polybags. Self-service scales at each end of the merchandiser are used to weigh out the product. Shoppers must punch in the bin number to receive the unit price, the item price and a printed, scan-ready UPC label.

"No one is surprised and has sticker shock at the front end. The customer is in control of their purchasing," she added. Should customers need assistance or need to ask a question, the service-counter personnel are just a few feet away and ready to come over to help.

On the day SN visited the store, counter personnel readily came over to ask customers peering into the frozen bins if they were finding everything they needed or if they had any questions. On several occasions, customers with bagged product pondering the scale and posted instructions were helped along by department staff who patiently walked the customer through the steps. One staffer even pulled out his wallet and weighed it, to demonstrate how the scale works with the keypad and printer. Nakata pointed out that, even though the bulk area is technically self service, there is plenty of opportunity for interaction.

"The act of selecting the items involves customers in the shopping experience," he said. "It is so much more than grabbing items and tossing them into a cart. It adds a sense of adventure and discovery."

During SN's visit, 51/60 Tiger Prawns were on special for $6.97 per pound. They were merchandised on the endcap of the bulk-seafood section. Also featured were crab cakes in three varieties. The regular lineup of IQF items includes crack-and-eat crab legs, snow crab clusters, king crab legs, broiler claws and shrimp ranging from 26/20 to 250/350. Steaks of halibut, swordfish, pompano and tombo, along with whole smelt and slipper lobsters, were available, as were vacuum-packed seabass, king salmon and talapia fillets. Breaded items are limited to oysters, coconut shrimp, popcorn shrimp and scallops.

"We didn't want to have fish sticks and fries in the bulk bins," said Menton. "We sourced high-quality products that would give us repeat sales."

To introduce customers to the concept, items are often featured at the seafood demonstration kiosk positioned inside the store's front door. This kiosk, one of several action stations situated around Central Market, serves as a gateway to the fresh-foods side of the store, officials noted. It is also adjacent to a frozens endcap, and makes merchandising products being demonstrated very easy. The aroma of cooking food lures customers to take a sample as they enter the store. The kiosk, along with others in the produce and meat departments, all play to the unit's "Celebrating Fresh" theme.

"Celebrating Fresh is really our vision for this store," said Nakata. "I believe it says it all. With the demonstration kiosks we want to offer customers a sense of adventure and discovery. We want to emphasize education of our customers and have them feel a part of our celebration. We want to introduce them to new items or items they may not have had the opportunity to try before."

Teams of culinary specialists are charged with coming up with the demonstration six-day "menu" and, working with department specialists, with planning special events. Some of the special events are centered around a cookbook author, a vendor or total-store celebrations. These store-wide celebrations have included Cinco de Mayo and Strawberry Days. The culinary specialists prepare and serve the item of the day from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and have recipes and tips available for customers wishing to duplicate the items at home. They are also available to answer questions about specific items or cooking techniques.

Also adding drama to the seafood department are the unit's live-tank presentation. Inside the front door is the first set of live tanks. Here, tilapia, lobsters, crabs and catfish actively swim and scurry in the walk-around merchandiser. Within a few feet, a divided display tank showcases oysters and clams. Both sets require customer assistance. Any of the items can be chosen and cooked by store associates.

The operator also focuses attention on a Northwest favorite -- salmon. One signature offering available at Central Market is the Bruce Gore-branded salmon. This fish is line-caught in Alaska by a handful of independent fishermen. The fish are flash-frozen at sea within 90 minutes of being caught. During the local salmon season the operator sources directly with fishermen.

Sourcing plays a key role in the freshness, variety and selection of the department. Menton was quick to point out that the department does not carry farm-raised product, opting instead for ecologically minded pond-raised offerings instead.