As trends turn toward fresh, made-to-order and take-home dinners, some retailers focusing on service are installing highly visible restaurant equipment. And whether it's giant flaming rotisseries, hearth ovens, Brazilian churrasco grills or flashy prep stations, they are finding that equipment can help convey fresh perceptions, facilitate interactions between customers and staff and, ultimately, boost sales.
“Retailers that are utilizing these very dramatic display cooking units and the high-speed cook units, such as the TurboChef ovens, are doing so because they see the value of serving consumers with better fresh perceptions, better quality perceptions and better speed,” said Tom Miner, principal of Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm.
“And one element that is true in all of this is that food-service consumers continue to be an area of growth sales for supermarkets and retailers,” he added.
Jennifer Ochoa, retail project architect at Los Angeles-based Shook Kelley, an architectural design firm with a focus on leveraging consumer perceptions, agreed.
“The obvious main goal of the retailer is to improve its overall sales in the service departments, which typically result in a higher profit margin,” Ochoa said.
“In utilizing these pieces of equipment, they improve their overall interaction with the customer, and hope to improve the customer perception — that they are receiving a commodity product with increased value.”
United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, has hearth ovens for pizza service in its new Market Street stores, as well as visible rotisseries showing chickens being roasted.
“When you walk into the food-service area, you see big, beautiful hearth ovens, as well as chicken rotisseries with the flames behind so it looks like your chickens are roasting nice and beautiful,” said United spokeswoman Michelle Owens.
“Of course, all of this just gives the guests a perception of freshness and the feeling of home-cooked food — which is really where all prepared foods are going in the first place, toward home-cooked, but fast, healthy and fresh.”
Owens agreed that showy food-service equipment is becoming more popular.
“We want to be very visible to the guests,” she said.
“I think long gone are the days of behind-the-scenes prepared foods. I think we want the guests to see what we're doing, to know that it's fresh, healthy and readily available.”
Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn., decided 10 years ago that it was extremely important to have rotisseries out front, Terri Bennis, vice president of perishables operations, Kowalski's, told SN.
“It's interesting — before, the rotisseries were kind of in the back, and they weren't a showy unit,” Bennis said.
“This one has flames that shoot up the back of it and put a nice finish on the bird, and I really do believe that helped increase sales. I can't give you an exact percentage, but I would say roughly our chicken business doubled.”
Due to demand, many stores now have two rotisseries out front, right behind the hot food-service case and well in the customer's view.
Kowalski's has also added panini grills to all the stores in the last six months, which have been very successful as well, Bennis said.
Cheese specialists have all been moved to cutting stations on the floor, along with scales and wrapping stations.
“That's created a dramatic increase in our imported cheese sales,” Bennis said.
Ochoa also noted the service island trend.
“More recently, we have seen many stores bringing these services out onto the sales floor in service islands in order to truly interact with the customer,” Ochoa told SN.
“We have also seen attempts by retailers to improve upon the visual image of the equipment itself, and also their overall environmental image with the customer. This has been seen in terms of improved energy-efficient cases, improved lighting — LED, fiber optics, ceramic metal halide — and custom colors and materials that dress up the standard cases.”
Kowalski's other equipment includes the Deli Buddy Rail system, where slicers and scales are mounted facing the customer so that associates never have their back to the customer.
“You have constant communication going on, even while you're slicing their order, and I think it enables you to do more selling and more education,” Bennis said.
“I think it has made a dramatic difference in how we approach service.”
Kowalski's equipment plans for the future include a machine that allows you to grind your own peanut butter or almond butter. Bennis said store space still needs to be evaluated, but the grinders would be in the peanut butter aisle.
Retailers are using more dramatic displays of functional equipment in response to consumer preferences to see more that's new and interesting, according the report “How America Shops 2006: Swiftly Spinning the Retail Planet,” by WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based marketing consultancy.
“Retailers are trying to make the functional things more interesting, because consumers are just surrounded by sensory stimulation everywhere they shop, so when they get into a supermarket, it sort of folds down in comparison to some of the other places they shop for entertainment,” said Candace Corlett, principal, WSL Strategic Retail.
According to the report, when asked what makes a store their favorite, 49% of women surveyed said it's a great place to spend time browsing, 43% said it is because the store has new and interesting items, 49% said it's because they can accomplish a lot on one trip and 47% said they like the overall appearance of the store. The report surveyed 947 consumers, 761 women and 186 men, drawn from a nationally representative online sample.
“What the supermarkets are doing is satisfying the consumer's passion for fun things while keeping the entertainment on theme,” Corlett told SN.
“Sometimes this whole concept of retail as entertainment gets off track — it's about being entertaining within what you do that's appropriate for you. For a supermarket to show the chickens roasting, or to stack the fruit and pay attention to the color combinations so you get a beautiful sense of color when you enter the produce department — attention to those details is entertaining, but it's also strategy. Putting in machines that the kids ride on and bubble gum machines — that's entertaining, but it's not strategy.”
Ochoa agreed, saying that retailers see it as a way to stand out over the increasing competition, but she noted that service- counter personnel are also part of the equation.
“By evolving to provide these additional services and offering a variety of innovative products, they hope to attract new, and keep the interest of existing, customers,” she said.
“The equipment is obviously the most visible part of the attraction; however, the equipment is not the sole player in what the retailer is trying to accomplish. The equipment and displays can provide the initial draw to the customer by enticing them with smells and sights, but the sales staff and employees have an additional role of participation to complete the full services being offered.”