NEW YORK — The Fresh Market employs neither digital signs nor digital ordering kiosks in its stores, preferring more old-fashioned — and labor-intensive — solutions such as extra staff in the deli and handwritten chalkboards.
“We want that customer interaction,” Marc Jones, vice president of merchandising and marketing for the Greensboro, N.C.-based operator, said at the National Retail Federation's 100th Annual Convention this month. “We'd rather have more people working in the deli to provide service than use a kiosk.”
The 100-store specialty chain, which had an initial public offering last year, seeks to focus on three “planks” of its platform for growth, he explained: a neighborhood atmosphere, outstanding food quality and superior customer service.
“We're really focused on delivering a different shopping experience,” Jones said. “When you are in the store, it should be a pleasing atmosphere.”
He spoke on a panel that focused on using store design to communicate a brand's message. It was moderated by Joseph Bona, president of retail at branding and design firm CBX, and also included a presentation by convenience-store retailer Wawa.
Jones said The Fresh Market stores, which average about 20,000 square feet, seek to emulate to some degree the traditional neighborhood butcher shop, with a high level of service and customer interaction. The Fresh Market employs several methods to get customers to linger and “experience the food” — its company tag line — in its stores, including playing classical music, paying careful attention to lighting and creating places to linger and disrupt the “straight-line” shopping trip.
Stores might offer coffee as shoppers enter the store, for example, and shoppers also pass through the floral and expansive produce areas to begin their shopping experience. Service areas like meat and deli are also key to the stores' concept.
“Human interaction is important — you have to interact with a human being if you want to buy meat in one of our stores,” Jones said. “If you want a steak, you interact with the butcher — it's important to build that connection with our customers.”
The store design is also meant to give customers sight lines into other attractively merchandised departments as they shop. In addition, the stores are designed with an area in mind for managers to stand so that they can view both the checkout and the service departments to monitor customer service in those areas.
The Fresh Market stores seek to “lead with their strength,” Jones explained, which means not only do customers enter the stores through the perishables departments, but they also often are greeted by perishables outside the entrance to the stores as well — displays of Christmas trees and wreaths in the winter or tables of peaches and watermelons in the summer, for example.
Inside, the floors are often terra-cotta or wood — “it's all designed to slow people down, and maybe capture the attention of shoppers in a way that supermarkets normally do not,” Jones said.
The same goes for the hand-drawn chalkboard signs, he explained.
“Maybe that's not as efficient as using a printed sign, but again, it tells people to slow down. The fact that someone has taken the time to write this sign by hand communicates an attention to detail, and harkens back to the way people did it before they had laser printers.”
Item selection is also critical. Although The Fresh Market seeks to offer a full grocery shop, Jones admits that the stores “don't carry every size box of Cheerios,” and nonfood items are limited to a handful of SKUs of food-related items, such as paper plates, napkins and gift baskets.
“Compared to my experience in regular supermarkets, we spend a lot of time not just determining what we are going to sell, but also how we are going to merchandise it and present it in an attractive way to the customer,” Jones said.
The company also shuns the use of loyalty cards, he noted, saying that they could complicate the shopping experience for customers and take their mind off the sensory experience the retailer seeks to create.
Asked about what other retailers The Fresh Market looks to for inspiration, Jones said the company not only examines some product specialists, such as Murray's Cheese in New York City, but also some nonfood retailers that have distinctive service and merchandising flair, such as computer retailer Apple and fashion retailer Anthropologie.
EFFICIENCY AT WAWA
The experience at The Fresh Market contrasts in many ways with that of convenience-store retailer Wawa, according to Lisa Wollan, head of consumer insights and brand strategy at the Wawa, Pa.-based chain, who also was part of the NRF panel.
The 580-store chain's mantra is to “satisfy immediate needs quickly,” she explained. The layout is deigned to maximize throughput, particularly during the high-volume breakfast and lunch dayparts.
Wawa, known for its “hoagies,” or submarine sandwiches, sees its competition, Wollan explained, not so much as other c-store chains but as quick-service banners like Starbucks and Subway.
As the chain, which currently operates in five states, seeks to expand to new territory, it is challenged with bringing customers past the “not-so fresh and inviting” areas outside the store, like gasoline pumps, and getting them to accept the food-focused parts of the store like its high-volume coffee and sandwich programs.
The company recently did a thorough evaluation of its image in preparation for its expansion, and will seek to roll out stores that look more “homey” and less like those of a giant retail chain, Wollan explained.
“We make sure we have visual cues for the quality of the food,” she noted, adding that the chain seeks to be “trusting for food and beverage.”
To that end, the company recently rolled out a new coffee program, using thermos carafes instead of glass coffee pots, and also recently added a smoothie offering.