ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Earth Fare, a natural-food supermarket here, has found that making the right connections -- between its self-service fresh-meals section and its cafe -- pays off.
Sales of prepacked items from the "Healthy Meals to Go" case have climbed significantly since last October, when the company began to offer some of the products displayed there at the cafe's hot buffet and salad bar, said Risa Shimoda Callaway, marketing director for the three-unit independent.
Signs at the hot buffet were also posted to point out that many items offered could also be found in the fresh-meals display case. The cafe menu items and the signs were added at all three stores.
"The cafe creates a sampling device. Customers try an item there and then they won't hesitate to buy it from the home-meal replacement case because they know it tastes good," Shimoda Callaway said.
Examples of menu items that originally were offered only at the fresh-meals section and now are also available in the cafe are orzo salad, several varieties of lasagna, chicken salad and sushi.
After those items were added to the cafe's hot buffet and salad bar, total fresh-meals sales began to climb, Shimoda Callaway said, declining to be more specific about the sales boost. The company is so pleased with the results that it will continue the strategy at all new stores and will probably introduce any new menu items first on the hot buffet or salad bar.
"Having the item in both places reinforces that it tastes good," she said. "If they eat salmon in the cafe, customers know what it will taste like when they buy it from the HMR case to take home and heat up."
The "connections" strategy is not necessarily aimed at underscoring freshness or on-site preparation, because Earth Fare's loyal customers already assume everything is freshly prepared in store, and new customers are usually attracted by word-of-mouth advertising, Shimoda Callaway said.
While the strategy has certainly created more fresh-meals sales, some credit is due to sushi for attracting more customers to the self-service case, Shimoda Callaway said. This fall, for the first time, the company ran ads in local consumer newspapers touting its sushi, she explained.
Earth Fare officials, optimistic about the fresh-meals category, are planning to devote more space to prepacked items at new stores, the marketing director said. The company is set to open two new stores during the second quarter of this year: one will be in Columbia, S.C.; the other, in Athens, Ga.
Currently, an 8-foot reach-in case in each of Earth Fare's stores is dedicated to fresh-meals products. The case is no more than 10 feet away from the hot buffet, and one set of cash registers serves both cafe customers and take-home customers.
Shimoda Callaway stressed that fresh-meals sales have increased steadily over the past three years, as Earth Fare has instituted changes to reflect what the customer wants.
"For example, we're devoting more facings to the more popular products, like lasagna. I think we were limiting sales by limiting the facings," she said, adding that the company has doubled its display of lasagna from one or two facings to at least four.
She also said tweakings in the fresh-meals case reflect the fact that customers want a variety of price points.
"We sell everything by the pound, and we have just two sizes of packages, but we're making an extra effort to package some smaller amounts of product so there will be a variety of items under two dollars," Shimoda Callaway said.
The company also discontinued a complete meal for two that was "hitting the $12 to $14 range." Movement of that item was slow, Shimoda Callaway said.
"I think it was the price points. We're packing them as single meals now and selling more. And we're not offering as many complete meals. Overall, we've found that selling the components separately works better."