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MONTAGUE, N.J. -- At Big V Supermarkets' prototype format here, the produce catches you broadside as soon as you step inside the door.It is an aggressive merchandising effect that does more than draw the shoppers' attention; it virtually stops them in their tracks with the message that there is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables here.It is a message that Big V wants its shoppers to get, loud

MONTAGUE, N.J. -- At Big V Supermarkets' prototype format here, the produce catches you broadside as soon as you step inside the door.

It is an aggressive merchandising effect that does more than draw the shoppers' attention; it virtually stops them in their tracks with the message that there is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables here.

It is a message that Big V wants its shoppers to get, loud and clear. At the chain's store here, and at subsequent units it continues to open in the same mold, the message is broadcast not only by the placement of its produce tables, but also by the presence of greater product variety compared with other, older Big V units.

"What we've created here is a way to further emphasize and accent the produce department, and make it more highly visible," said Joseph V. Fisher, president and chief executive officer of 31-unit Big V, which is based in Florida, N.Y. Big V operates under the ShopRite banner and is a member of the cooperative wholesaler Wakefern, Elizabeth, N.J.

According to Fisher, the positioning is not a completely new tactic for Big V, "but to this extent, it is" the first store where it is given full expression. He added that the store's shape enabled Big V's planners to place produce so prominently in the middle of the fresh-food power aisle.

"The others will look like this, with produce like this," Fisher added.

By comparison, in the previous Big V prototype, a store in Vail's Gate, N.Y., the layout of the produce section is more traditional: up front, but set to the left, with merchandising fixtures arranged so shoppers are funneled straight through the department and deeper into the store.

Now, at Montague, consumers are encouraged to stop and consider the fresh produce before them. It is a tactic reminiscent of a few produce retail powerhouses, notably fellow New York chain Wegmans Food Markets, which is based further west in Rochester.

The 59,000-square-foot prototype store here, built to replace a 31,000-square-foot unit, showcases Big V's latest, full-blown version of its "Fresh Market" fresh-foods merchandising strategy, which was unveiled at the earlier Vail's Gate prototype and incrementally refined at two subsequent remodels, in Fishkill, N.Y., and Peekskill, N.Y., over the last year.

The Montague store is situated in a "fairly rural" area, yet attracts a high volume of traffic, Fisher said, given its site just off Interstate 84 in a spot that straddles the New York-New Jersey border.

"Rural" or not, the ambience of the produce department is not that of a farmers' market -- the chalkboard, shipping-crate and weathered-wood look so popular in the new stores and remodels of a growing number of retailers. Big V's latest produce blueprint sports a clean, modern decor.

Besides a revamped produce presentation, the store also showcases the chain's most advanced fresh-meals program. (See SN's Nov. 3 issue for details on the prepared-food merchandising strategy.)

There are some synergies between the two fresh-food merchandising thrusts, according to Fisher. For example, a display of exotic mushrooms at the end of one table stands directly across from the prepared-foods' self-service hot buffet.

That was a deliberate juxtaposition of two elements to send a message, Fisher said. The mushrooms, he said, are a visual reminder to shoppers of the freshness of products on the hot bar, and indeed throughout the store.

"All the fresh departments end up complementing each other," he said. "If you are good in all and have good quality and service and provide value, then the customer will shop between the departments. So they all have to be strong, particularly when it comes to quality and service.

"We want people to see produce, an attractive display of prepared foods and the pharmacy when they first come in. That's what we want them to focus on."

The mushrooms also speak of the extent of variety that characterizes the Montague produce section, he said. The expanded department sells more than 550 fresh fruits and vegetables, an assortment that Fisher said includes at least 75 more items than the Vail's Gate ShopRite carries.

Among the categories benefiting especially from the increased item count are dried mushrooms, fresh peppers and organics; but the wealth was spread around.

"We've added in just about every area. We're looking at our entire variety," Fisher said, "and saying we want to expand each variety. For instance, in dried exotic mushrooms, it wasn't just adding one, but maybe half a dozen."

Fisher told SN the expansion is also giving Big V freer rein to market local produce.

"We try to get as much local produce as is available. We think that's an important component in the quality equation for the customer. We're blessed that the local area we're in does have a lot of farming. The area our central office is in is one of the biggest producers of onions, potatoes, celery. It's black dirt country, black volcanic earth.

"The sources include farmers right in the immediate vicinity of some of Big V's units, many of which operate in rural and semirural counties. And in addition to that, we participate in the Wakefern New Jersey Fresh program. That's a very active program," Fisher said.

"Wakefern buyers go out lining up farmers very early in the year. We'll make commitments on production and then it still has to meet our overall quality standards before we put it into our stores or in the distribution system."

To determine how best to cater to its customers in produce and throughout the store, Big V conducted market research that included intercept interviews and focus groups, in search of clues to what consumers at each of its store locations want, Fisher said.

That research is reflected in the prototype that debuted here, and is influencing other replacement stores, the latest of which opened in Hyde Park, N.Y.; next is Mount Vernon, N.Y. It is a strategy put in motion for the next several years.

"We have a very planned program to replace, upgrade and expand our existing fleet, with merchandising systems and technology," Fisher said. "We'll constantly work with a prototype and tweak and adjust and listen to our customers, listen to the store, as well as our own ideas.

"Our overall growth strategy has various components to it. Not only are we putting in new stores in new market areas within our current trade area; we're also looking at sites outside our current trade area," he added.

At the same time, the operator will be careful to balance its sharper focus on fresh foods with other strengths Fisher says are embodied in the ShopRite banner.

"ShopRite has had and continues to have the No. 1 price reputation," he said, "so that, to me, makes a destination.

"But in my estimation, in the battle for customer loyalty you have to be more than single-dimensional. The other area that's extremely important is the perishable offering we have, the quality, the assortment. We believed there was a real need to develop perishables.

"If those are your two target areas [price and perishables], and you put it in a pleasant environment -- [and] shoppers say [food shopping is] an unpleasant task -- if you can make it more pleasant, you are that much ahead of the game."

That philosophy has also benefited the other fresh departments besides produce and prepared foods. The meat counter, for example, has become "Your Personal Butcher," with real butchers out in the open rather than inside an enclosed meatcutting room.

Fisher said Big V decided it was important that a "personal butcher" be more accessible to consumers than in the meat departments where the cutters are only viewed through a window. "The window is a mistake."

TAGS: Center Store