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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The innovative fresh-meals merchandising techniques at Wegmans' latest prototype may be sexy, but produce is clearly still at the heart of the retailer's fresh-food strategy, judging from the department's prominence in the 130,000-square-foot replacement store here.Built on the site of Wegmans' first unit, the store embodies some significant refinements to the configuration and,

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The innovative fresh-meals merchandising techniques at Wegmans' latest prototype may be sexy, but produce is clearly still at the heart of the retailer's fresh-food strategy, judging from the department's prominence in the 130,000-square-foot replacement store here.

Built on the site of Wegmans' first unit, the store embodies some significant refinements to the configuration and, in certain cases, the merchandising elements of the fresh-food departments.

Executives at the 56-unit chain's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., declined to be interviewed, but SN visited the store and gathered reaction to it locally and from the industry at large.

The design of this store will be essentially replicated at a new Wegmans to be built from the ground up in Princeton, N.J., some time in late 1998. The Princeton location will represent the chain's first foray further south into the busy New Jersey market. (See the accompanying coverage on Page 17 for a detailed account of the Pittsford store's fresh-meals innovations.)

In produce, some categories have gained display space and merchandising emphasis. There is a more prominent representation of specialties, for example a fresh-squeezed juice bar offering exclusively new products and a section of organics more distinctly set apart from conventional produce than at some other Wegmans units.

In addition, fundamental changes to the total store's design in this prototype offer the possible dividend of making produce stand out even more distinctly than usual.

The typical Wegmans design features a main entrance that puts produce up front and immediately adjacent to some prominent component of Wegmans' massive prepared-foods operation, such as a sub station, pizza shop or service prepared-foods case.

The new Pittsford prototype, however has three entrances to distinct parts of the market -- one of them being produce.

On the left of the building is the entrance to the Market Cafe, a more than 23,000 square-foot chunk of the store that contains most of the fresh-foods departments -- food service, prepared foods, bakery, coffee bar, meat and seafood, deli, kosher deli and specialty cheese -- and forms an imposing power aisle set off from the rest of the store by a tall partition.

At the right corner of the store, another entrance allows access to W Pet Shop, a segregated retail operation offering pet specialties, including superpremium foods not available in supermarkets.

Smack in the middle is the entrance to the store proper where the focal point is produce. The doors open into a wide and deep farmer's market of fruits and vegetables, extending almost to the back of the store. The traffic pattern is set by six large merchandising tables of product running horizontally and flanked by cases on either side running straight back.

"Wegmans has really thought through the evolution of the layout in this store," said Neil Stern, partner, in McMillan/Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail consulting firm. "The store does signal a change in direction, in that produce is now more segregated from other fresh foods," he commented, "but even though prepared food now has its own entrance, probably 80% of shoppers will still pass through the main entrance, and the message there is clearly that you've entered a place that is really serious about produce. The department holds up really well on its own."

The last of the six "aisles" in the middle of the department is actually a production island, while the others are refrigerated tables with mostly bulk produce piled neatly but abundantly atop them.

In general, product was uniformly high in quality, with virtually no sign of blemished or imperfect fruits or wilted vegetables. All the produce bases were covered, from fresh-cut vegetables in a multitier, dairy-style case, to fresh-cut fruit on ice and prominent displays of exotics and organics.

But before shoppers get even a few steps beyond the entrance lobby, they find themselves faced with a produce sampling station. On the day SN visited, a gregarious produce associate was slicing fresh mangoes and offering them to each newcomer.

Behind and on either flank of the sampling station were slanted tables and bins holding the eight weekly specials: squash varieties for 39 cents a pound, on-vine tomatoes for $2.49 a pound, pomegranates for 99 cents a pound, broccoli for $1.69 a bunch, pink grapefruit at five for $1.99, mangoes at two for $4.00, clementines and tangerines at six for $1.99 and Washington red or golden delicious apples for 99 cents a pound.

Just to the left of this cluster of merchandisers is a stand set aside for locally grown produce. It was filled at the time with New York State Jonamac apples in 3-pound paper bags.

Also to the left, and just beyond the first few merchandisers, is a cooking demonstration station, part of Wegmans' "Make It or Take It" meal solutions program. A cook was there making escarole soup with tiny meatballs, from a 15-minute recipe that was available at the station.

The cook told SN the station was regularly used to demonstrate recipes using ingredients from the produce department, and she also said that similar demonstrating goes on all around the store.

The samplers were not the only Wegmans employees busy in the department. Between six and 10 clerks at a time were out on the floor, handling product and making themselves available for questions from shoppers.

Two of them were working at the fresh-squeezed juice station on the department's right flank. The station was equipped with several juice machines, and they were cranking out citrus juices.

Adjacent to the work station was an upright dairy-style cold case holding the fresh juices in 8- and 16-ounce plastic bottles. A sign pointed to the carrot and pear juice bottles, identifying them as "exclusively Pittsford." Also merchandised in the case were apple juice, apple cider, orange juice, lemonade and a few blends.

Other produce associates hovered around an attractive display of bulk exotic mushrooms, also along the department's right side. The section offered portabella mushrooms for $2.99 a pound, shiitakes for $6.99, chanterelles for $12.99, Hedge Hog mushrooms for $12.99 and small Italian brown mushrooms for $2.99.

And to top off the mushroom array, tiny, dark-hued truffles were enclosed in a thick Plexiglas case that was padlocked shut and mounted in the middle of the display. The price: $199 a pound. The truffles were not being sampled.

The department placed special emphasis on variety in a number of categories, and also called more attention than usual to specialty groupings such as Asian items and tropicals.

"Flavors of the tropics," for example, gathered 18 tropical items onto a slanted table. They included coconuts, mangoes, avocados, horned melon, feijoa and cherimoya.

The store laid out 18 varieties of bulk apples side by side across two tables; plus nine stockkeeping units of bagged apples. The tomato category sported 11 varieties, from beefsteaks and romas to hothouse items such as cherry and teardrop tomatoes. A nearby pepper section had 19 varieties of hot peppers, accompanied by a sign depicting a hotness meter shaped like a volcano, topped with habanero.

An organics section, set just on the fringe of the produce department, forming a bridge between it and the Nature's Marketplace, Wegmans' store-within-the-store offering of all-natural foods, vitamins and other products typical of health-food stores.

The organics display featured 36 fruits and vegetables. In addition, a sign explained that organic bananas, grapes, onions, potatoes, carrots and promotional items are available adjacent to their nonorganic counterparts, in "conventional locations."