In putting together the shopper-friendly store, retailers are becoming increasingly sensitive to appearance and atmosphere. While products and employees have the most to do with that, store equipment is playing more of a role, especially as the variety and styles of equipment blossom.
So even in these cost-conscious times, supermarkets contacted by SN said they are installing equipment that has a creative element. But functionality still counts, too. Manufacturers said that the most recent models of equipment -- from checkout lanes to display cases -- are being designed with both appearance and efficiency in mind.
Shelving: Paint It Black
At Fresh Brands, Sheboygan, Wis., which operates and supplies Piggly Wiggly and Dick's Stores, the color of equipment is a strategic tool. For example, "we use black shelving for the shelf and background in the wine and liquor section," said Dan Genson, director of store engineering and maintenance. "This provides a unique presentation." In the organic food section, Fresh Brands uses a colored shelf insert to cover the traditional beige face of the shelf, as well as green shelving, he said.
On the practical side of the ledger, one trend is for shelving that also serves as a place to store high-end, small items such as lipstick or beauty products, said George Hoffman, product development manager at Hubert Co., a manufacturer in Harrison, Ohio. "The storage unit is built directly into the shelving," he said.
Retailers also want greater control of products on the shelf, said Hoffman. So shelves are configured to keep the product facing and moving toward the front. "Studies have shown that sales can increase by 30% if items are up front," he said. "Shelf management is good for high-end, hard-to-manage items such as vitamins, baby food or bagged salads." To add interest and variety, some retailers are incorporating six-foot to eight-foot refrigerated and lighted gondola islands, said Hoffman. These gondola islands, positioned around the perimeter, may be used for cheese, appetizers, desserts, salads or prepackaged meals.
One retailer with a well-earned reputation for embellishing its store fixtures and layout is Jungle Jim's International Market, which operates a 170,000-square-foot store in Fairfield, Ohio. Jungle Jim's expects to complete its latest store expansion by February or March of next year, enabling it to explore new designs. "At Jungle Jim's, we build around the fixtures, which is the reverse of what other stores do," said Phill Adams, director of development. "We acquire the fixture and then buy the food."
Recent displays introduced since last November include a 1952 Ford fire truck suspended above the hot sauces gondola. There is also a 30-foot-high tree called Sherwood Forest -- complete with Robin Hood -- that is designed to highlight the English foods section of the international foods department. "The tree is located in the furthest point of the store from the entrance, so it helps us meet our goal of getting people to visit the back of the store," said Adams. In the seafood area, there is also a new dock-like structure from which customers can look into the seafood holding tanks.
Saving Energy in Cases
The latest refrigerated cases have been designed to attract customers as well as improve energy efficiency.
Jungle Jim's Adams said that as it expands the international foods department, the company plans to add a 20-foot-high refrigerated case for its provolone cheeses -- trying to create its usual stir. While this may fall into the realm of the unusual, Adams expects it will achieve the goal of highlighting deli products at his store.
Fresh Brands' refrigerated cases also focus on the presentation of product. Currently, about 75% of all of Fresh Brand's refrigerated cases contain a black interior -- all but the horizontal "coffin" cases, which are white. The company continues to install black cases in new and remodeled stores and when replacing dairy and produce cases. "The black interior highlights the packaging and design of the product," said Genson.
But energy efficiency of refrigerated cases is also important to Fresh Brands. Genson said his company uses Hussman products, which include energy-efficient fan motors and evaporator coils. For lighting, the cases employ energy-efficient T-8 lamps with slim line bulbs. "These come with an SP-35 color designation, which is the closest to natural daylight to enhance the product color, such as green for lettuce, red for apples, etc.," he said. In addition, T-5 lamps, shaped like a cigar, are used to a limited extent as Fresh Brands waits for them to become a standard in the industry.
The equipment taking the checkout lane by storm is self-checkout, enabling shoppers to scan, bag and pay unassisted. Giant Food, Landover, Md., has used self-scan units for over two years, and interest in them continues to grow, according to Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs. The chain is installing units in most new stores and major remodels.
Currently, about 20% to 25% of Giant stores have the self-scan units, with an average of four units per store, or about one-fourth of the total lanes. "With these types of checkout lanes, efficiency increases significantly," said Scher. "Customers can avoid chatting to cashiers and also can avoid the embarrassment of checking out personal items through cashiers."
In the conventional checkout lane, ergonomics continues to be a key concern. "Each [retailer] has its own operational philosophy for the front end," said Rick Steen, national sales director of Borroughs Corp., a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based manufacturer of checkout lanes. "However, overall there is more emphasis on ergonomic expectations and standards. In addition to ergonomics, we also look at productivity, cashier comfort and throughput."
Also, Steen said that stores are moving back to a "scan-and-bag" approach for cashiers after practicing "scan-and-pass" for some time. "Scan-and-bag is of great interest due to competition in the marketplace and a shortage of labor," he said.
Another area of interest lately includes carousels -- a group of bag racks on a turntable -- that "provides more selectivity for the cashier," said Steen. There is also interest, he said, in movable conveyors, which can be in place for peak times as scan-and-pass, and moved in slow times to scan-and-bag, he noted.
Fresh Brands is installing innovative signs in both the exterior and interior of its stores, working with a local Wisconsin firm, Kieffer Sign. Outdoor Piggly Wiggly signs, which are between three and five inches thick, are mounted in open-faced, rectangular metal "cans," and the neon is blown to the size of the can. Kieffer provides a white design for the interior of the can, which "bounces the light and enhances the sign," said Genson. "It is uniformly lit and 'burns' through the exterior metal."
In addition to the improved appearance, the Piggly Wiggly sign is also easier to install, said Genson. In the past, he explained, each letter would have an electrical connection core drilled through the building, but that is unnecessary because Kieffer mounts the letters in the rectangular can or "raceway." For example, the word "Piggly" only needs one electrical connection instead of six. He added that Fresh Brands is also close to considering LED display lights, which generate more energy-efficient signals.
At Jungle Jim's, Adams said indoor signs are designed to break the store down into parts that correspond to the store map. The store has installed new 15-foot-long orange pylons that hang from the ceiling, to go along with hanging, orange-dotted aisle markers.
Other signage at Jungle Jim's is used just to promote the fun atmosphere, like the Crazy Charlie's Seafood Shop sign that hangs above the live seafood area. Plus, the store is looking at implementing multilingual signage to accommodate its large ethnic clientele.
Carts Become Child's Play
The latest shopping carts, geared toward families with small children, are designed to keep children amused while they are in the supermarket. In August 2001, McCue Corp., Salem, Mass., introduced the Bean, a cart fronted with a child's car intended for children between the ages of 2 and 6.
Dan Ballou, vice president of products and services at McCue, said that in addition to long checkout lines, the other aspect of going to supermarkets that people dislike is shopping with children. "Customer-friendly equipment such as the Bean helps to solve the latter problem and is part of the solution to keeping customers loyal," he said.
Giant Foods is using Bean shopping carts at 90 stores (about half of the total) and plans to add them to the remainder this year, except for older stores where aisles are too narrow to accommodate them. Giant currently uses between four and six Beans in each store, according to Scher. Because their children are amused, "the customer does not feel as rushed, and thus has a more pleasant experience," he said.
Adams said that along with Jungle Jim's emphasis on animation and visuals, the Bean is a large draw for children. Another child-oriented shopping cart that Jungle Jim's began using last year has two seats in the back instead of one, including seat-belt straps that secure the children.