NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas -- At Sack 'n Save Warehouse Food Stores, the importance of frozen foods is crystal clear.
To increase product visibility, for example, the division of Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores installed expensive glass-walled coffin cases in its newest store here. The cases let shoppers see clearly, and virtually at a glance, what is merchandised straight down the coffin run.
That high-profile attitude runs throughout the chain's selling philosophy for frozen foods, typically not the most visually oriented of departments.
"Eye appeal is sell appeal. That is what we're trying to represent," Terry Stapleton, Sack 'n Save division director, told SN.
"The improvement of being able to see the product has got to be a real asset to the customer. She can stand in one spot and just about see anything that she needs or would like," Stapleton said. "The customers love our frozen food department," he added.
To further broaden its view on frozens foods, Minyard is expanding its perishables warehouse, increasing product offerings and using state-of-the-art technology to create an efficient, spacious, airy department that is easy to shop and service.
The chain's new focus on frozens can best be seen at its newest Sack 'n Save store, which opened in November in a strip center in this Fort Worth suburb. The store is near a Home Depot, a Wal-Mart, a Sears Homelife furniture store and Fort Worth Sports, and caters to a mix of upper- and middle-class and blue-collar customers.
At 70,100 square feet, the warehouse store is the second largest in the Sack 'n Save arsenal. Another unit in Waco is 88,000 square feet. However, the North Richland Hills unit does hold the largest frozen food department in the company, in terms of total linear feet.
In the new store, frozen food is placed prominently at the store front, where it is one horizontal aisle away from the cash registers. The department features glass door cases and glass coffin cases set apart by unusually wide aisles.
Orange and yellow banners suspended from the 30-foot-high ceilings make the department easy to spot from virtually anywhere in the store. The use of fluorescent lighting and white drop ceilings, coupled with a low-maintenance, treated concrete flooring throughout the store in place of tile, give the entire store a crisp, bright feeling instead of the dark cavernous feel of a traditional warehouse store.
Stapleton said that while the new glass-walled coffin cases cost about 20% to 25% more than a comparable standard coffin case, "over the long haul we're talking peanuts," because of the 20% energy savings and increased traffic the units are expected to provide." The cases are made by Kysor/Warren, Conyers, Ga.
"With the glass coffin cases, I can stand 12 or 14 feet away and see that there is orange juice over there. That is a definite benefit for the consumer," Stapleton said.
"The only concern we would have right now with the glass coffin cases is breakage from carts, but because our aisles are 12 feet wide, that should not be a problem," he said.
Not only are the new units expected to increase turns, they will save energy and help the product to stay fresher longer, he said.
"We've got to let the customer know that with the equipment we have in the store today, they can come and purchase the products and they are going to be fresh and wholesome and the quality is going to be in the package," Stapleton said. "If they get home with freezer-burned product, or ice crystals on the product, it is going to turn them off and they may make a different choice for their frozen food and pick something else next time, or maybe a different store," Stapleton said.
"This store is going to be the prototype of what we're going to be going with in the future, and that is basically because of the equipment system. Below the coffin cases is a tunnel, for air conditioning, return air and to gain access to the bottom of the cases. The materials and energy savings with this system amount to about $50,000 in material, labor and construction costs."
The frozen food department in the North Richland Hills store encompasses 512 linear feet of freezer space. In addition to the four large coffin cases, which are 312 linear feet, there are 68 Hussmann glass door freezers. Although they look new, they are actually six years old and were removed from a closed Minyard location.
An additional traditional large coffin case in the back aisle of the store holds frozen meat products.
The frozen food department is segmented according to meal occasion: Waffles are next to breakfast entrees and across from orange juice for a one-stop breakfast shop, while pies and cakes are across from the 21 doors of ice cream.
"The department is set up into segments for the customers' accessibility and ease of shopping. They can walk right to it. They can see the vegetables, potatoes. It is not all strung out across the bottom. They can make their choice and selection and move on down the aisle without frustration," Stapleton said.
Sack 'n Save prides itself on its selection of frozen food, with a total of more than 1,850 stockkeeping units, about 600 of which are from direct-store-delivery suppliers, including most ice creams.
"Variety is the name of the game. This is a big department, so we're ready to take on other items when they are presented to us," Stapleton said.
To enable it to increase its offerings of frozen foods and cut distribution costs, Minyard is improving frozen food storage capability as part of an expansion of its 324,000-square-foot Coppell grocery warehouse by 123,000 square feet. A total of 63,000 square feet of the expansion will be devoted to frozen foods. When the expansion is completed in March, Minyard will be able to close its smaller leased frozen warehouse in another part of town.
"Right now frozen food is out of house, in another warehouse we rent. We're expanding our Coppell facility for all perishables and going with 32-foot-high racks from the 25 feet we are currently using. "Putting frozens on-site is going to help us, regardless of what time of year it is. It is kind of hard when you have ice over in another sector of town and it is the Fourth of July," Stapleton said, adding that the warehouse expansion will allow the chain to place an even greater emphasis on frozen foods.
"The expansion will give us more variety and stockkeeping units in the future. We already have just about everything that is on the market today," he said.
Stapleton said Sack 'n Save stores carry the full assortment of items available in the warehouse, while the company's Minyard and Carnival banner stores often carry smaller selections because of space limitations.
He said the North Richland Hills store offers a broader presentation than other units.
"There are going to be more facings and the product is going to be more presentable in this store. We also have more expanded lines for DSD. In the pizza section, we're going to have everything that Tombstone carries, everything that Red Baron carries. We're going to get some more market DSD-type items," Stapleton said.
Sales in the frozens department are constantly monitored to maximize efficiency, Stapleton said.
"What our buyers do is review product movement for the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, SAMI reports, Nielsen, and things of that nature, and they make decisions based upon movements of products and introductions. And they really have to put their thinking caps on today because the test markets aren't out there like they used to be years ago," he said.
"And our merchandisers also sit in on those new-item, decision-making and planning meetings and say which items we have room for, which have slowed down or should be reviewed and possibly cut back or eliminated," Stapleton said.
He said Sack 'n Save's best-selling frozen item, in stock turns, is ice cream, followed by juices, pizzas, vegetables, and dinners and entrees.
"Blue Bell ice cream is the No. 1 drawing card in the frozen food industry in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. People buy this stuff like crazy," Stapleton said, adding that it is frequently used as a featured item.
"We coordinate the ice cream by company, then round cartons, then we have the fat-free, the ices -- the TCBYs and other yogurts are grouped together in categories -- and then the novelties. We have the Borden ice cream in a 5-quart pail. It is a club item that they package for us. We carry it because of Sam's. That is not carried in the Minyard stores," he said.
"It seems like the fastest growing commodities right now are going to be the health-conscious items, such as the Healthy Choice. In this particular store, however, the Swanson items sales far exceed the old standbys, simply because they pitch the microwave and because if people are going to eat a frozen dinner, they want a quality dinner," Stapleton said.
"Frozen juices are always a very good bargain for the customer and it is something that they don't have to worry about dating. They can stick it in the top of the freezer and make juice for the morning or the week. It is a segment that is still growing in our company," he said.
Stapleton also said Minyard/Sack 'n Save does strong sales with private-label frozen products. For example, the North Richland Hills store devotes 4.5 doors of freezer space to private-label vegetables. Minyard's private-label brand is Hy-Top, manufactured by Federated Foods, Arlington Heights, Ill.
"Hy-Top does extremely well for us, and we continue to see strong growth in the label," he said.
The chain has also been placing a greater emphasis on club and bulk packs of frozen foods, devoting an entire side of a coffin case to them.
"With bulk we're trying to pick items that can prove their weight, and then decide if we're going to keep them or not. We have not done real well with some of the food-service entree items, or some frozen melons, and they are being deleted," Stapleton said.
Bagged ice is a popular seller, and is merchandised at the end of the aisle, and at the front of the store. Sack 'n Save has taken great pains to try and eliminate lawsuits that may result from customers spraining their backsides by slipping on spilled ice, he said.
"You have to be a little smarter these days when it comes to liability issues. We have a cute sign that says 'I'm melting!' and plastic bags to put the ice in, along with a red floor mat and a roll of paper towels to absorb spills, and a yellow cone warning of a possible wet floor."
Sack 'n Save, which uses a mixture of everyday low pricing and high-low specials, merchandises the frozen department through individual store-tailored circulars and in-store signs.
To keep the department looking uncluttered, yet still lend promotional emphasis, this store has a plastic strip along the top of the freezer cases where signs for sale items, temporary price reductions and in-store specials are advertised, with the limit of one sign per freezer door.
"From what we see, the strips are more bold and eye-appealing. It is better to have one item per door vs. trying to flag the whole system," said Stapleton.
While the store's grocery departments are stocked after midnight when the store closes, frozen food is continually stocked during the day because of its high department volume.
"We have freezer vaults in the back of the store for storage. Even the 113-degree Texas summers won't affect us because the product comes in right out of a freezer into a vault and then it is put in the cases. We don't let it sit out in the back room. Now if it gets too cold the refrigerant doesn't work real well, but that is a systems problem, and it usually doesn't get that cold here," Stapleton said.