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CLEVELAND -- When it comes to doing business in Cleveland these days, nothing seems as important as Cleveland Indians baseball. Indeed, even in supermarkets, displays of Indians T-shirts, hats and pennants are everywhere. SN visited the Cleveland market last month during the height of the Tribe's run for sports immortality to see how area chains handled what is arguably the most valuable player in

CLEVELAND -- When it comes to doing business in Cleveland these days, nothing seems as important as Cleveland Indians baseball. Indeed, even in supermarkets, displays of Indians T-shirts, hats and pennants are everywhere. SN visited the Cleveland market last month during the height of the Tribe's run for sports immortality to see how area chains handled what is arguably the most valuable player in supermarket grocery aisles -- baby food.

None of the stores visited displayed the jars in bins as retailers do in some other markets. Truth is, one store's baby food department was remarkably similar to another's. It appears 16 feet is all you need for the section in Cleveland, since just about every store devoted that much space to the youngest sports fan's dietary needs.

But, of course, there were some differences.

For instance, unlike in the majority of U.S. markets, Gerber plays second fiddle here to Heinz, based in nearby Pittsburgh.

"Gerber is No. 1" in the United States, said Ron Rupp, an account executive with Karklin-MacLellan-Harris, a food brokerage company based in Shaker Heights, Ohio, "but Heinz is No. 1 here, in Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Some of that might be due to location near Pittsburgh." There was only one retailer who housed more Gerber items than Heinz -- a new Super Kmart Center located in Brooklyn, Ohio, just south of the city line. There was also only one retailer -- Heinen's -- that didn't stock Heinz products. Gerber was carried by all the stores visited by SN.

Kmart offered nearly 100 stockkeeping units of Gerber baby food products and about 80 of Heinz. Beech-Nut was not available.

While the store, which opened in August, is complete with a grocery store sector, baby food is located in the mass merchandiser zone. That's right. After picking up their prerequisite produce, paper goods and Pudding Pops, consumers have to walk past the kitchen appliances, floor care, ladies apparel, home fashions, rugs and furniture departments before they get to the baby food.

But once they get there, it's a veritable baby smorgasbord, all under the "Baby Mart" banner. If consumers are looking for a one-stop baby shop, they find it at Super Kmart, where all infant and toddler items are grouped together toward the back of the store.

Along with baby food, there are also diapers, formula, strollers, baby bedding, infant/toddler apparel and toys.

Finast, which has the most stores in the market, offers all three major brands of baby food. Heinz, the clear leader, occupies about half of the 16 feet.

In the chain's newest store, in Parma, shelf tags suggested shoppers compare Finast's price on Heinz stage two product with Stop-N-Shop's. At the time, Stop-N-Shop was running the product at five for $2, while the Finast store product retailed for 37 cents.

But unlike its competitors, Finast's baby food prices fluctuated from store to store. For instance, the store in Parma (a close-by southern suburb) retailed Gerber's first stage baby food for 38 cents. In Beachwood, an eastern suburb, the price was 39 cents, and a few miles north, at the Hilltop Plaza store in Richmond Heights, it was 35 cents.

Finast, based in Maple Heights, Ohio, declined to speak with SN. However, John Churchill, manager-supervisor of Russo's Stop-N-Shop, was a bit more forthcoming. Russo's is a Chesterland, Ohio-based operator of three -- soon to be four -- upscale stores.

About six months ago, Russo's brought on Earth's Best. And the organic baby food has taken off, according to Churchill. "That's probably my best-selling baby food now, or at least it's equal with the major brands."

At the company's Cleveland Heights store, Churchill stocks 22 SKUs of Earth's Best. At the smaller Russo's store in Shaker Heights, he carries a dozen items.

During SN's visit to the Shaker Heights store, it became immediately evident the unit, with its low ceilings, black gondola shelving, red neon lighting and elegant strains of classical music, isn't your run-of-the-mill supermarket.

Because the roughly 8,000-square-foot store is smaller than those of its competition, Russo's has allotted only 8 feet of space for its baby food department. But the Earth's Best products stretched along the entire section at eye level, giving the appearance of an Earth's Best-dominated section -- when, in reality, there were many more SKUs of the major brands. What Churchill likes most about Earth's Best is its profitability. "There's a lot of new consumers out there," he said, "but baby food is a category where you don't make any money.

"Earth's Best has a little bit of [promotional] money every once in a while," Churchill said. "But since the company is small, it doesn't have the money like Heinz would to throw around. And with so few stores carrying Earth's Best, I don't have to give it away."

While Earth's Best products are more expensive than Heinz, Churchill contends that "if the other baby foods were priced with the same profit margin as Earth's Best, then the [retails] would be closer."

As it stands now, "when it comes to the national brands, we advertise baby food about once every six weeks."

In some of its Rini-Rego stores, Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, offers Earth's Best as well. According to a source close to the chain, it's not available in all units, just ones where demographics dictate that the upscale, organic baby food may sell well.

SN found about 30 SKUs of Earth's Best in Riser's Brooklyn store. However, the Earth's Best products weren't merchandised with the national brands in the baby aisle. It was housed in a separate

health and natural foods aisle, complete with green packaging galore.

In addition to the 69 cents-a-jar baby food, Riser also carried a 32-ounce Earth's Best apple juice for $3.49.

Heinen's, based in Warrensville Heights, also carried Earth's Best in its baby food section. However, it bucked the trend by not carrying Heinz. Instead, it offered Gerber and Beech-Nut in its retro-looking stores.

Heinen's offered more than 20 SKUs of Gerber's Graduates toddler food products as well. Like other area retailers, Heinen's also featured a smattering of junior food items such as Beech-Nut's Table Time and other microwavable cup products.

The source close to Riser Foods said the toddler foods have met with only marginal success because, by the time children are old enough to eat these products, their parents are already feeding them table food.

Nevertheless, because of baby food's importance to the overall bottom line, it remains a category that is promoted often, he added.

"Different segments are promoted on a monthly basis," Rupp of Karklin-MacLellan-Harris explained. "One month could be strained food or building block two. The next month could be junior food, which is building block three. Then, after that, you could have building block for beginners and juices. So what is advertised varies.

"Or you could have temporary price reductions," he noted.

Indeed, at the Brooklyn Rini-Rego, Gerber's stage two product is sporting a TPR of five jars for $2.09 through Dec. 25.

As far as displays are concerned, Rupp continued, "baby food is not conducive to displays because of the number of varieties. But you do have a lot of ads. And the thinking there is to draw in the young consumer who has a family and spends more than the average couple."

Tagging Up

Here's how Cleveland-area retailers priced selected SKUs of baby food from the major brands on Oct. 12.

Heinen's Rini-Rego Super

Product Finast Stop-N-Shop Center Kmart

Gerber 1 $.38 2/$.79 5/$2 $.37

Gerber 2 $.43 2/$.91 5/$2.09* $.39

Gerber 3 $.63 $.61 $.63 $.59

Heinz 1 $.31 NA 3/$1 $.31

Heinz 2 $.37 NA 5/$2 $.37

Heinz 3 $.52 NA $.59 $.49

Beech-Nut 1** $.43 2/87 2/$.88 NA

Beech-Nut 2 $.43 2/87 2/$.88 NA

Beech-Nut 3 $.58 $.59 $.59 NA

* TPR until Dec. 25, 1995

** 4-ounce jar

These price checks were taken at: Finast #44, 6825 Snow Road, Parma, Ohio; Super Kmart Center #4966, 7700 Brookpark Road, Brooklyn, Ohio; Rini-Rego Stop-N-Shop #10, 7200 Brookpark Road, Brooklyn; Heinen's #4, 2100 S. Green Road, University Heights, Ohio