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MENLO PARK, Calif. (FNS) -- Consumers downsizing dessert portions have markedly upsized the amount of their bakery ring as shoppers increasingly select individually portioned dessert items and pastries, retailers report.These individually decorated jewels customarily require special care and refrigeration to command the price tag and the treasured repeat purchase."There is a definite consumer trend

MENLO PARK, Calif. (FNS) -- Consumers downsizing dessert portions have markedly upsized the amount of their bakery ring as shoppers increasingly select individually portioned dessert items and pastries, retailers report.

These individually decorated jewels customarily require special care and refrigeration to command the price tag and the treasured repeat purchase.

"There is a definite consumer trend toward individual servings and lighter items," said Becky Peters, bakery operations manager of Draeger's here. "The refrigerated case lends an environment to the department and gives us a place to show off the selection. You have to have elegant cases for elegant desserts."

Particularly in the bakery department, where impulse sales reign, aesthetics are critical to success, and depend on the support of racks, shelves, tables and display-case components that comprise the area.

"An appealing department creates consumer comfort," said a Midwest retailer, who declined to be identified. "They spend more time in the area picking up their usual weekly items and exploring the other possibilities."

Most operators know that fine pastries require a service presentation to garner good sales. More than anything else, the refrigerated display unit serves as the workhorse of the department by protecting the retailer's investment and providing the proper forum for associate-customer interaction.

"You have to have a conversation with the customer and tell them about the product," said Peters. "Self service cheapens the product. It may be suited for bread, but service is the way to go with pastries."

At Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets' newest unit, in Hinsdale, Ill., the service bakery case is situated first in the shopping pattern adjacent to the coffee and juice bar and the food-service area. Pastries are positioned in a 6-foot section of three to four shelves.

"Pastries represent a majority of sales and are best merchandised in a service format," said Darrell Vannoy, food-service director. "Customers do appreciate the service and we see pastry as an expanding category for us. There is a new emphasis on single-serve and portioned-for-two items. Minitarts, cream puffs and small servings of tiramisu and cheesecake all have a place in our case."

Vannoy additionally pointed out that some consumers are seeking small portions to keep within a comfortable price point.

"While a $29 pie may be out of their reach, a $3 slice may fit within what they want to spend or how much they want to eat. In smaller households leftovers may be an issue in the size of the dessert customers want," he said.

At all Wild Oats units, the refrigerated bakery service case serves as a destination within the department and ties visually into the deli to present a cohesive look.

"We use the bakery case as an opportunity to do special merchandising and as a focal point," said Vannoy. "We put emphasis on it, visually and operationally. The bakery service case could be an avenue for shrink, not sales. It could stand as a loss for the department if not handled and managed."

In the new store, nonrefrigerated items are presented on tables across the aisle from the pastry case in front of the food-service department. Bread is also presented within the department flow.

"As customers enter the store we want to create a shopping experience," said Vannoy. "We want them surrounded by fresh product."

Refrigerated cases accomplish more than merely merchandising individual upscale pastries. According to Brian Salus of Salus & Associates, a consulting firm in Richmond, Va., the cases complete the retailer's entire bakery presentation.

"Consumers do not comprehend a difference between refrigerated or nonrefrigerated within the scope of the department," he said. "A service pastry offering, backed up with an appealing bread rack behind the display, serves as a focal point for the department."

Fine pastry displays can create a springboard effect within the department, given the proper presentation, retailers say. The display must be eye-catching and appealing. After all, consumers eat with their eyes.

"Pastries are very compelling," said Keith Mathewson, owner/chef of Framboise Dessert Co., Seattle. "When retailers showcase their higher-end pastries they create a very visual department."

"If it doesn't look good you can't sell it even if it tastes good," added Peters. "We strive for taste and over the years we have honed presentation."

Bakery executives say that the refrigerated cases serve as the backbone for pastry presentation -- and that backbone must be strong.

Draeger's Peters recalled a European-built case that slowly began to collapse in on itself, imploding with all the contents. After the damage was discovered, she found out that the manufacturer was no longer in business. There was no service support for the merchandiser, forcing the operator to seek other creative means of service.

"While we still look for the European look with all glass to showcase our low-volume presentation, we want structure and service," said Peters.

The chain looks for lower-density cases that offer less visible framework, a format that focuses the eyes on the case contents. Peters also looks for pull-out drawers and sliding shelves to keep associates' cleaning chores simple and the filling of customer orders tidy.

Wild Oats seeks tiered shelving with good lighting within the refrigerated case to best showcase the tiny treasures.

"I like to see high-profile cases," said Vannoy. "I want as much of the product presented at near to eye level as possible. I want the case to appear to be up off the floor."

At Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, mirrors are a favorite option of George Timms, director of bakery.

"I also look for glass shelves," he said. "Anything that shows off the product better. I don't want customers seeing the case. I want them seeing the products inside. Cases have come a long way."

All operators contacted by SN prefer the Euro-style cases because of their ability to appear invisible.

"The curve of the glass makes product just jump out and say 'Buy me!' The ability to open the front also makes it easier for associates to arrange and decorate the shelves, particularly with the pastry items," said Timms. "Cases opening from the front also allow easier and more thorough cleaning."

"We like the Euro-style cases," echoed Jim Baugher, store director for a Food Emporium in Mukilteo, Wash. "The access from the front to merchandise the product is very important."

This upscale market presents its bakery in three 8-foot sections with an additional 4-foot case dedicated to fine chocolates. Additionally, a customized, low-profile reach-in self-service refrigerated case provides a grab-and-go option. The case has been outfitted with steps so that consumers can visualize all the items within the case at a glance, a setup that helps eliminate over-handling of the items.

"The service case, however, helps us build sales," said Baugher. "Customers buy the same things all the time. The service staff gives samples and intrigues customers with different items than what they would normally select."

Merchandising fine pastries is only one aspect that bakery directors look for in choosing cases. They not only demand form but function, they stressed.

Cases with the lowest possible air movement are sought out by retailers, the executives told SN. Gravity-fed cases operationally fit the bill, since they are considered the least harmful to high-moisture content items like pastries. But the aesthetics of the cases do not match the fine detail of the pastries they hold, note retailers.

To get around the air-flow problem, most bakery merchandisers select fan-operated refrigerated cases, despite the system's dependence on moving air throughout the case, which can dry product if not carefully monitored.

"The less air movement the better," said Peters.

Key Tips for Top Displays

To keep items beautiful, retailers must minimize an item's exposure to air, it is said. Be sure associates fully close cases and minimize the number of times the case is opened. Items not on display should be kept in a sealed container in the cooler or covered in the back portion of the case floor.

Bakery operators must know what products sell best and the sell-through rate on each one. Not only will this reduce shrink and expand profits, it will eliminate out-of-stocks, operators noted.

Retailers need to be aware how many days a fine pastry has been under refrigeration. Even operators who receive frozen items from vendors need to account for product once it is put in a refrigerated cooler or in a refrigerated case.

Sales can be affected based on how the display looks. Even small cases can produce profits when laid out with specific intentions. Pastry and dessert sales are largely impulse sales. Experts suggest the smallest, most visual items be positioned on the top rack of the case, the 6- to 8-inch items in the middle and the 10-inch and larger items on the bottom. This system should leave the back third of the case floor for back stock of the small 3- to 4-inch items.

Be careful of item placement in refrigerated bakery cases, savvy retailers warn. Chocolates and marzipan items weep unless, as in Europe, a dehumidifier is used. Draeger's uses a case with a gravity-fed system for truffles and has a chilled shelf-system case for fine chocolates. In the bakery case the top shelf is slightly warmer, more accommodating for tortes and petit fours.