MISSOULA, Mont. -- The Buttrey Food & Drug Stores Co. unit here uses locally made products, ethnic foods and natural and organic choices as points of difference to appeal to customers in this college town.
As part of its undercover series, SN late last month visited Buttrey's 50,000-square-foot unit here, the largest supermarket in this city. Buttrey is headquartered in Great Falls, Mont.
Posing as a newcomer to the area, SN's reporter asked to be shown around the store. The assistant store manager conducted a personal tour -- which is not part of the chain's regular marketing plan.
The reporter told the manager she had recently relocated from New York, so he was quick to point out items made locally and to show her where organic, natural and specialty items might be found.
After a quick look at the produce section, the tour first stopped in the snack aisle, where SN observed five stockkeeping units of organic chips. Garden of Eatin's Blue Corn tortilla chips, Red Hot Blues and Black Bean chips rounded out the tortilla chip selection.
A brand of organic potato chips, Childer's, was merchandised next to the Garden of Eatin' products. Organic items were clustered together rather than being merchandised in their categories and were on two 4-foot shelves at the bottom of a gondola and closer to the front of the store.
As the tour moved toward the next aisle, a 12-foot wall facing the back of the store caught SN's attention. The shelving unit, which ended up being the backside of the health and beauty care section, held individual bottles of water products, iced teas and other bottled juice drinks, such as Snapple.
"This is all the natural [beverages], basically water or natural drinks. Snapple is considered to be part of that -- iced teas and orange juices, too," the manager said.
At this point, the manager called the reporter's attention to different kinds of shelf tags in the store. One of them, a green, white and black sign, read "Savings on the Spot." He explained that Buttrey usually carries about 200 of these unadvertised specials each week.
"Basically, the only things that come out in our circular are the sale items, or the things we run on ad. ['Savings on the Spot'] target some of the [staples] and give you a break on them," he said.
Buttrey raises awareness about its specials and promotions with shelf tags and the in-store circular, which comes in the local paper each Wednesday. Additional support comes from ads in the newspaper, radio spots and television ads, he said.
"We honor all our competitor's coupons. We match everybody's price," he added.
As the tour moved onto the baking aisle, SN noticed fat-free cake mixes were at eye level, so the reporter inquired about a fat-free section.
"Those [items] are intermingled," the manager said. "What we do is run the main item and then the fat-free next to it, normally to the right of it, so you don't have to search all over the place."
In this aisle he called attention to several organic flours. Typically, a shopper might find one item, but here SN observed about five stockkeeping units. Three were made at a Montana granary.
Toward the front of the aisle, jams and jellies were merchandised across from baking items. The manager noted Smucker's Simply Fruit as a sugar-free option and then showed SN some locally produced jam, Montana Mountain Fruit, saying he thought it was organic -- but the product had no organic certification.
Other natural jelly and jam options included Bonne Maman, a line of spreadables made in France. SN noted about seven SKUs of natural jellies, made without preservatives.
Moving to the next grocery aisle, the tour paused at an endcap to discuss how often endcaps change and what kinds of products customers will find on them.
"This is a permanent end," the manager said. During SN's visit, stacked boxes of Nabisco's Toastettes products were on the endcap. "This end will change on a weekly basis, but it stays Nabisco. The rest of our ends also change weekly. That's where you'll find your sale items; everything that's on-ad," he added.
Down the aisle fronted by the endcap, SN noticed an 8-foot section allocated to Asian foods. She asked if there was a large Asian population in the area. The manager replied in the negative but noted that "We do carry a lot of ethnic food, and we sell a lot of it."
Adjacent to the Asian food was a substantial mix of Mexican items, including a pegged area of about 36 spices and ingredients under the El Toro brand name. The 12-foot section merchandised Goya brand products, as well as unique items such as sopapilla mix and salted plums.
The manager told SN, "That's a pretty good selection, comparable to anybody in town.
"Because our aisles are so much bigger than the rest of the Buttrey stores, we can carry a wider selection. We have the space to carry extra things," he continued.
The end of the aisle segued into a beer and wine department located in the back perimeter. A walk-in beer cooler housed some specialty and mainstream beers. To the left of the cooler entrance, microbrews were merchandised in an 8-foot open cooler.
Since microbrews abound in Montana, there were a number of local brands available. Missoula is home to the Bayern brand, which makes an Octoberfest and an amber, among other brews. Whitefish, Mont., about a three-hour drive north, boasts Black Star brews, and Marion, Mont., has bragging rights to a line of beers with an aviation theme under the Lang Creek Brewery label.
"We can special-order any microbrew or wine you might like," the manager said. "If you buy it by the case, then you get a 10% discount. In fact, you can get a 10% discount for basically anything in the store that you buy by the case," he noted.
The wine section consisted of a back wall where cheaper jug and boxed wines were stocked, along with some California wines. Facing the wall was a 12-foot walkaround fixture that held higher-priced specialty wines. They were organized by variety, so all the cabernet sauvignons, merlots, chardonnays and so forth were grouped together. Once again the manager pointed out a local product -- Mission Mountain.
SN asked about chilled wine, since the manager had mentioned that the chilled-wine section had been replaced with chilled microbrews.
"We have a wine chiller," the manager replied. This was a machine with a water-filled bucket attached. The shopper could plunge his or her bottle into the bucket, set the timer based on degree of preferred coldness and continue shopping. Within a few minutes the wine would be ready to serve.
Upon leaving the wine and beer department, the tour passed through the cracker, cookie, juice, candy and cereal sections.
In the cereal aisle, the manager indicated where shoppers could find granola, since the store did not have a bulk food department. The products, in cellophane packaging, were labeled as all-natural. The store stocked about eight to 12 SKUs on three shelves in a 4-foot space.
Malt-O-Meal bagged cereal was merchandised in wire bins along the bottom of the gondola, and SN noticed that three bins were completely empty. When asked why, the manager said the store was having a problem stocking these highly popular items since Albertson's had taken over the chain.
"We're having a problem getting out trucks as far as supply with this turnover. We lost a whole Buttrey warehouse when Albertson's bought us out, so right now we're having trouble getting certain products," he said.
He had mentioned Albertson's before, qualifying many of his statements about variety of products with uncertainty that Albertson's would be able to maintain the assortment once the larger company finally took control of Buttrey stores.
One of the things he was unsure about Albertson's continuing was the Value Aisle.
"Buttrey's came up with this a year ago. We try to run everything that's on special in this aisle," the manager said. According to him, the selection varies almost daily. As products sell out, others replace them. When SN visited, graham crackers, coffee, beer and potato chips were among the items on special.
Most items in the value aisle were larger sized packages. However, 4-foot sections of club packs could also be found in almost every other aisle, about halfway down its length.
Buttrey also strove to be a one-stop shop, with adequate pet and baby sections. Food for fish, small animals, birds, dogs and cats was available, as were diapers, baby food and baby wipes, SN noted.
Additionally, if shoppers wanted fat-free, low-sodium or sugar-free foods, they could probably find what they needed not only throughout the store, but also in a 16-foot "healthy foods" section. Also found here were products specifically for diabetics. Some items in the healthy section included soups, cookies, vegetarian foods and organic juices and pastas.
Meal solutions tied to Center Store products were not emphasized by Buttrey. When asked about it, the manager said to try the frozens department, but that department had no signs or meal ideas, other than Green Giant's Create-a-Meal product.