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It has become increasingly obvious to retailers that there is no cookie-cutter approach to running a supermarket. Each store is frequented by a unique group of customers, so the products carried, and their presentation, must reflect the desires of that customer pool. This couldn't be more true than in the workings of a store's service departments.As a result, stores find they need to constantly re-evaluate

It has become increasingly obvious to retailers that there is no cookie-cutter approach to running a supermarket. Each store is frequented by a unique group of customers, so the products carried, and their presentation, must reflect the desires of that customer pool. This couldn't be more true than in the workings of a store's service departments.

As a result, stores find they need to constantly re-evaluate their service mix. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways; polling customers through Web sites, suggestion boxes or formal focus groups seems to be the most direct way to get feedback, retailers told SN. These direct lines of communication not only enable them to service points and product mix, but decide where to dedicate precious labor in today's tight market. In short, they have found that, by listening to their customers, they have been able to develop programs specifically suited to their needs, and have therefore kept their customers interested and satisfied.

At the Wayne, N.J.-based Grand Union Co. unit in Hackensack, N.J., deli manager Walter Bauer said the options the deli provides rely heavily on the convenience factor. The department offers a variety of service and self-service stations that offer everything from salad and fresh fruit to custom-made sandwiches and ready-to-heat meals. The service departments occupy virtually the entire first row of the store, led off by fresh produce. Throughout the aisle, shoppers can create a variety of meal options by combining items made in-store. The self-serve Salad Bar features greens and other fresh salad ingredients like tomatoes, broccoli, Bermuda onions and baby carrots. It also houses fresh fruit and dessert items, pasta salads, marinated vegetable salads, and creamy salads like tuna fish and egg. Cost for salad bar items is $3.29 per pound. Customers have the option of packing their selections into clamshell containers or filling pint- and quart-size deli containers. Complimentary accompaniments such as salad dressings, crackers and individually wrapped utensils can be found at the end of this station.

"Customers enjoy the freedom of selecting their own meals," said Bauer. "There is no waiting in line for service. They can choose what they want and how much they want."

Other self-serve features here include an Antipasto Bar that merchandises such Italian favorites as roasted red peppers, fresh and marinated mozzarella, and a variety of black and green olives. Items here sell for $4.99 per pound.

For the same price, shoppers can step over to the Hot Foods to Go counter and dish themselves a hearty portion of ziti or fish or chicken with a side of vegetables. Bauer said 90% of items in this department are priced by weight. Measurement is taken at the checkout. For the busiest consumers, a self-serve case against the perimeter offers pre-measured, pre-priced portions of many of the items found at the Salad and Antipasto Bars. Items like potato salad, fruit salad and rice pudding can be grabbed from the shelves in individual or family-size portions. The added bonus here is the pre-labeling, which subtracts from time spent at the checkout.

The same case also accommodates E-Z Meals and Meals for Two, the store's answer to ready-to-heat meals. Here, a customer can pick up individual meals like lemon grilled chicken with rice and vegetables or spaghetti and meatballs. Targeted at working couples, the Meals for Two come with a main dish, sides, and a dessert packaged together in a handled bag, complete with a scannable label.

Those looking for a little attention needn't go elsewhere, since there is a full-service deli as well as a sandwich counter at the end of the power aisle, where custom-order sandwiches are made right in front of the customers.

"Making the sandwiches in front of the customers has made a big difference," Bauer said. "They love being able to custom order a sandwich and watch it being made."

The section is completed with the Red Dot Cafe. A service counter has seating for eight, where customers can pay for and enjoy any of the items they selected from the aisle. They may also order pizza, which is made in-store and merchandised here. While the toppings vary from day to day, the lunch special is a slice of pizza and a soft drink for $2.92. The cafe operation also features a television for the customers to enjoy.

"We get a lot of people who come in and eat lunch here," Bauer said. "It's very convenient for people in the area."

Mona Doyle, president of The Consumer Network Inc., a Philadelphia-based shopper-polling group, said service is not really a complaint these days. "The people who are asking for service are typically saying nice things about it," she said. "They are also typically of that tier that warrants that kind of attention and can afford to pay for it."

The self-serve hot and cold food bars are heavily trafficked at Stew Leonard's in Norwalk, Conn. The stations offer myriad options for customers hosting small get-togethers or just trying to provide a good meal for their families when time doesn't allow for home cooking. For larger orders, however, the catering department steps in with options.

"Customers looking for servings of 5 pounds or less will typically go to the self-serve counters," said Betsy Gilberti, assistant catering coordinator for Stew Leonard's. "Larger orders are usually handled by the catering department."

The self-service bars feature everything from salads like tuna, Caesar and pasta cruda -- a mixture of penne pasta, cheese and tomato -- to deli meats and hot pasta dishes. Self-serve fare is paid for by weight, and is currently $3.79 per pound.

For a slightly higher price, customers can hit the gourmet bar, also self-serve, which offers items such as artichoke hearts, gourmet cheeses, snap peas and olives.

"We provide enough selections [so] that it is more beneficial for customers to walk around, take a look at everything and then put together their own ideal meals from the hot and cold bars," Gilberti said.

She added that the self-serve bars also carry meal accompaniments such as salt and pepper, salad dressing and slices of cake. Items from any of the food bars are weighed at the checkout register where customers receive utensils and napkins to complete their meals.

Customers will find the variety is just as diverse at the catering department, according to Gilberti.

Party planners can host an Italian feast, for 10 to 12 guests, for less than $50. A chopped romaine salad, complete with bread, will run $20 and a tray of lasagna costs $25.

Also available are marinated filet mignon and poached and smoked salmon platters -- popular choices for celebrations like the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Gilberti said the salmon platters, trimmed with the traditional hard-boiled egg and red onion, are very popular.

The store recently prepared a cookout menu for a local Boy Scout troop, keeping the per-person cost to $2.80. Gilberti said the department will sometimes even supply a cook to head out to the site and do the grilling for the customer.

"People's lives are different today, careers take up a lot of time," she said. "They want their families to eat well and we try to help them do that without having to make the meals themselves."

Doyle agreed, saying that consumers today appear to be more concerned with the quality of food that they are purchasing, "especially the more value-conscious customer. They expect quality goods for their money."

While many stores seem to be focusing on building their self-serve offerings, West Caldwell, N.J.-based Kings Super Markets is doing just the opposite.

"We're putting more of a focus on service," said a store-level source. "We're trying to restamp the ideas we've always stood for: quality, service and sanitation."

In keeping with this, the store is training its food-service staff to help a customer plan a menu. They should have the knowledge to suggest side dishes to accompany the desired protein or vice versa.

Main meal components include fresh roast turkey breast, seasoned pork tenderloin, and Kings own recipe meat loaf. All items are made in-store and pricing is determined by the cost of the protein and the serving size.

While service is the main goal here, it was agreed that the pre-packaged, self-serve meal trend is growing and Kings does packagel meal items for a self-serve display within the department, which is always located next to or across from the deli.

According to the source, the 22-unit chain works closely with its customers to determine what features and products will best suit their needs. In addition to a consumer hotline, consumer panels meet quarterly to voice their opinions about recent store happenings and future developments.

"Our consumer panels are a way for us to keep in touch with our shoppers," said the source. "We listen to them, we discuss product launches with them, we respond to them. We take them very seriously."

This attitude rang true with all the retailers SN spoke with. The consensus was that only the customer can tell what the customer truly wants.