EAGLE RIVER, Wis. -- Bonson's Pick 'n Save is dishing out convenience and picking up sales with a customized meals center that brings everything together. All the ingredients for a quick meal, borrowed from departments throughout the store, are on display in a hard-to-miss location.
The 16-foot-by-5-foot self-service island case, positioned at the front of the store, combines space for refrigerated, hot, frozen and dry grocery items, and virtually every department in the store is represented on it.
The idea is to snag customers with a meal idea and offer them everything they need to put the meal on the table, with as much or as little preparation as they want to put into it, officials said.
"Sales are very much incremental. The hot foods from the deli are doing particularly well, but it's creating additional sales for all the departments involved," said Charles Bonson, owner of the two-unit independent.
The display, always built around an ethnic or seasonal theme, includes fresh meat and sometimes seafood and value-added items, as well as ingredients, for those who want to do some of the preparation themselves.
"We're appealing to different customers, including those who just don't know what to have for dinner tonight, and the weekly shopper, too. People are getting used to it," said Terry Hart, the store's manager.
Indeed, the concept is so successful the company will roll it out to its second store next spring.
Bonson and Hart both stressed that the specially designed display case itself is a major key to the center's success. Another key, they said, is dedicating responsibility for the meals center to one person -- a full-time, in-store merchandiser.
The combination of those factors makes it possible to keep the center looking good, and to rotate themes frequently, Bonson said.
"These displays are not built to carry full cases of product. You just have a few units of each item, so you're constantly rotating and restocking. The merchandiser is bringing out two and three cartloads, brimming, several times a week just from grocery and dairy. Bakery and deli, and the other fresh departments, are responsible for bringing their own products up each day."
The Mexican theme is by far the best sales generator, Bonson said. Next best is Italian. That's probably because they lend themselves to include a particularly wide variety of products from around the store.
The Mexican case set, for example, may feature ground meat and sirloin strips from the meat department for making tacos and fajitas, respectively. Dairy, among other items, would contribute corn tortillas and flour tortillas and sour cream. From the deli there might be burritos and chili, both hot and refrigerated. Hot peppers, onions, lettuce and tomatoes from produce, for making tacos, and a large variety of salsas, sauces and beans from dry grocery would be part of the grouping. So would taco chips and taco shells.
Bread and desserts from the bakery department are always part of the display, no matter what the theme.
The island case includes a four-foot, four-tiered hot section in the middle of its long side, and a four-foot, four-tiered frozen section on its opposite side. One end and wraparound wings is devoted to dry grocery, the other to refrigerated products.
"We have a department manager's meeting every Monday just like everybody else does and there we get together on what the next theme is going to be," Hart said.
"When the Bears and Packers game was coming up we decided to flip themes from Mexican and go with a Tailgate Party idea with a lot of cheese platters and veggie trays. Rotisserie chicken and wings on the hot side of the case," he added.
Emphasizing the case design and the expertise of the company's in-store merchandiser, Hart pointed out that the turnaround took only one morning. And that includes putting up props to call attention to the display. That's always a component.
"Like for 'Back to School,' we put two antique school desks up there on top of the center," Hart said.
Using interesting props with displays is not new to the retailer. In fact, the store stands out for its innovative displays, Hart said. One recent produce display incorporated a 1927 Hudson truck loaded up with apples right in the aisle. Hart went on to explain that creativity is encouraged at the weekly manager's meeting where everybody throws in their ideas.
One of those ideas that worked well this summer was spurred by a quirk in the weather.
"It was very warm and humid up here and that's unusual for this area, so we did a 'Beat the Heat' theme for meals for a couple of weeks. For that one, we had a lot of cut-fruit trays and thirst quenchers."
Cold items like chilled soups and submarine sandwiches from the deli were spotlighted on the display, too.
When deer-hunting season opened Thanksgiving week, the theme was a no-brainer. Hunting jackets, pine trees, and the like were the props and chili took center stage.
"Deer hunting is big in this neck of the woods. Some of these guys are out for the whole week. It's usually very cold up here by this time, so they like hot, spicy foods to take the chill off," Hart said.
Hot chili and refrigerated chili from the deli were offered in different-sized cups and then the fixings for chili -- the ground meat and spices and onions and canned tomatoes -- were also featured.
"Turkey dinners, too, because they might miss Thanksgiving dinner or they might want a quick meal when they come home at night," Hart said.
Bonson's contracted with Barker Co. and launched the meals center this past June, just a year after Bonson had seen a similar concept presented at the Food Marketing Institute show in Chicago.
"That was the catalyst. In separate departments, we had done a lot of things [with cross merchandising] but when we saw that exhibit it made us think about pulling the various parts together at a central location," Bonson said.
In fact, the company was preparing to renovate and expand the store from 40,000 square feet to 62,000 square feet so the time was right for the meals center debut, Hart said.
"When we were re-doing the store, it was quite the challenge to make sure we had the right kind of power for the meals center," he said. So was the location.
The case is located in the middle of the store, up front. It's positioned perpendicular to the entrance area so its short end is toward the front of the store. From the beginning of the traffic pattern on the right side of the store, customers can see its long side and part of its short side.
"As you enter the store, you walk through our floral department. If you look to your left, you can see half the meals case. But we were afraid people were missing it in the beginning. We thought people might be pulled down the aisle to deli and bakery without seeing it," Hart said.
That's exactly why frequent rotation of themes is a must, he said. Demos, too, create activity at the center that draws attention. A yellow neon sign high on a post over the center that says, "Let's Eat!" is hard to miss.
Even without radio advertising or much notice in the store's ad circular, the center has been generating sales all along that have beat projections, Bonson said.
"Some of the themes are better than others. Mexican and Italian are the best. The others fill in between, but sales have been good for just about every department."
The exception is the frozen section, which will be eliminated in the second store's meals center.
"I don't think frozen fits well into the quick-meal concept. It has been the weakest component. We'll devote more space to dry grocery and double space for hot food from a four-foot section to eight feet. We haven't finalized how the second center will look yet, but it will be similar," Bonson said.
He said the case is the secret to several successes.
"We designed a case so we could do this and it has given us additional sales, shown our customers we're thinking about them and has our department managers working together, looking at the big picture."