It's no secret -- appealing fresh food departments can help small independents compete effectively against bigger supermarket chains.
Small supermarkets have found it also pays to have signature products. Whether it's freshly picked sweet corn grown by a local farmer or jumbo shrimp steamed fresh in the deli, unique fresh foods can enhance a store's brand image and foster loyalty among customers.
The grocery aisles of supermarkets often look alike, so having exceptional fresh departments is absolutely essential, a longtime retailer noted.
"My box of Cheerios is no different than Jewel's box of Cheerios," said Dave Lencioni, president of the Blue Goose Supermarket, St. Charles, Ill. "Perishable departments are everything in differentiating yourself from the big chains, even the regional chains."
Lencioni describes his market as "overstored," with several Jewel-Osco stores, a couple of Dominick's Finer Foods, a Wal-Mart, a Sam's Club, a Meijer store, the first SuperTarget in the state and a Butera Foods operating in the suburban market west of Chicago.
The produce and meat departments in particular help the Blue Goose stand out. Meat sales contribute nearly 18% of overall store sales, Lencioni said. The department has a service counter and several veteran meat cutters who don't shy away from chatting or offering cooking tips to customers.
About three years ago, the store switched from USDA Choice grade beef to Certified Angus in an effort to upgrade red meat offerings and improve product consistency. Lencioni couldn't be happier with the results. The switch didn't help the store's bottom line so much as prevent erosion of sales, he said.
"People expect to get the best meat from us," Lencioni said. "We sell a lot of meat. Certified Angus solved a lot of our buying dilemmas, as far as getting top choice and consistent quality. It solved a number of problems."
Lencioni is the third generation of his family to run the store. The Blue Goose was opened by his grandmother in 1928. Lencioni's father was a "produce guy" who traveled to the South Water Terminal Market in Chicago three times a week to purchase produce. Today, the store's produce buyer continues that tradition, purchasing fruits and vegetables directly from the terminal market. That practice allows the store to offer extremely fresh, top-quality produce, Lencioni said.
Around the first of July every year, regular customers start asking for Tom's sweet corn. Local truck farmer Tom Halat has supplied the 20,000-square-foot independent with produce, including corn, for close to 40 years. Buying from local growers also helps the produce department stand out in the market.
"Our buyer knows what our standards are," said Lencioni, noting produce sales contribute 14% to overall store sales. "If something isn't adequate, he knows not to buy it. We also buy locally, from a local truck farmer. When we have Tom's sweet corn, we promote it. He's a reliable local grower."
Top-notch fruits and vegetables are also the main attraction at Zagara's Marketplace, an IGA retailer in suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Like the Blue Goose, Zagara's has a buyer who travels to the local terminal market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables directly. The produce buyer makes the short trip to the Cleveland Food Terminal in the pre-dawn hours five days a week.
Associates at the 47,000-square-foot store comb through the produce department every morning and afternoon to pull the fruits and vegetables that are past their peak but still suitable for cooking. In the store's kitchen, cooks whip up the macaroni and cheese, meat loaf and other comfort foods that are sold in the fresh prepared foods area. For the holidays, the menu includes a handful of more upscale items.
"It's a matter of using our own product to keep everything turning over as fast as we can," said John Zagara, who opened the store, which replaced a smaller store in the area, in 2002. "We turn inventory faster to keep it fresher. What we're trying to do is reduce product before it becomes unsaleable."
After produce, the meat department is the store's prime draw. Combined, produce and meat contribute about 25% to overall store sales. What makes the meat department special is variety, including a selection of natural meats and poultry. Zagara said the department's large assortment of cuts makes it appealing to the store's diverse clientele, and helps the store compete with the big chains that operate in the area, including Tops Friendly Markets, a unit of Ahold, Giant Eagle, Heinen's Fine Foods, Wal-Mart Stores and Target.
"We may have cuts of meat you won't find in a chain store," said Zagara, whose grandfather, Charles, established the business in 1946. "Even with their larger size, they do a lot of duplication."
Sales of prepared foods in the deli are also a growing part of overall sales for the Mid-Towne IGA in St. Charles, Mo. Comfort foods including pot roast, fried catfish, and fried and roasted chicken are among the top-selling items, said Bob Dampier, one of the store's owners. Up to 15 salad varieties are made in-store, too.
A relatively small section, seafood is part of the deli at this 23,000-square-foot store. In the back of the store, the seafood section carries from 10 to 14 items, and consists of a 6-foot service case and a self-serve frozen case that stretches across 8 feet.
To keep up with the competition, the store rolled out a seafood cooking service to appeal to shoppers who don't want to bother cooking fish at home. Cooks in the store's kitchen pan fry, poach, steam, bake -- just about anything customers want -- at no additional cost. The service required no additional investment, since there already was a fully equipped kitchen in the store and staff with cooking skills, Dampier said.
"I can say we probably do an additional $75 to $100 a week because of the fact we cook it for people," said Dampier, who owns the 23,000-square-foot store with his wife, Julie, father-in-law, Roy Kohrs, and brother-in-law, Scott Kohrs. "This time of year, we steam shrimp for people. That takes the smell out of their house.
"One person I know migrated from Dierbergs because we're more convenient and a smaller store," he said. "The cooked seafood got her in here. She buys lunch and dinner here."
Dampier has seen the competition for food dollars grow steadily in the nearly 20 years he's owned the store. In addition to Dierbergs, the independent competes with Sam's Club and Schnuck Markets in the state's fastest-growing county. Restaurants are competitors, too, Dampier said.
"When we bought the store, there was no deli," he said. "It had a bakery, meat and produce. We've totally revamped all those departments."
The upgrades have paid off. Sales in the meat, seafood, bakery, produce and deli departments contribute 37% of overall store sales, and the rate is growing, he said.
Keeping up with competitors remains a constant challenge that gets a little harder with each passing year. Dampier is a big believer in delivering good basic service and offering consistently high quality merchandise.
"Whenever you do something, make sure your customers will benefit," he said. "You earn your customers' business. We've built trust with our customers. My produce people, I tell them I want a blind person to be able to shop the department, pick up anything and know that it's good."