CHICAGO -- Theater and live action are tools supermarkets can use to combat the dullness of shopping, according to a panel of industry experts at the Food Marketing Institute's Industry Convention and Educational Exposition here.
The panel said that many supermarkets, intent on attracting and keeping customers, are using innovative store designs to customize food-service areas, for example.
One approach to the customization, said the panel, is moving activities traditionally relegated to the back room up into the front service area, such as placing work-area elements in a forward position so that they are visible to customers.
"We have found that people use display kitchens because people like to see the activity going on," said Malcolm Knapp, president of Malcolm M. Knapp Inc., a marketing research and analysis company based in New York. It's this "entertainment" that can keep customers coming back.
"The space has to have entertainment value," he said. "People are looking for energy. They want to be energized."
According to Dale Riley, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., there's a new priority for retailers building food-service departments to maintain consumer interest.
"People don't like to shop," said Riley. "[Retailers] need to create an experience."
Riley said that retailers must take chances and design new concepts, even if some portion of the customer base is resistant.
"Regardless of the change, you're going to affect some of your customers, but you're going to have to be willing to make those tough decisions," he said. " [Just] be sure you are making those changes for [good] reasons."
These types of considerations led Lunds and Byerly's to remain independent of each other following their merger two years ago, he said. He explained that they put themselves in the shoes of their customers and decided to allow the stores to retain their separate identities.
"Don't change the feel of the store," suggested Riley, noting that it's not the same as altering the physical plant. "We have changed a lot of the physical layouts of the stores, by adding new services, and [customers] have responded favorably. You're still going to have some customers that are disappointed. But, if you explain to them you're doing it to offer new services and additional products, most [customers] are OK with it."
Joanie Taylor, director of consumer affairs for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, said that a grill presently being installed in one of its units has already begun generating interest among customers.
"Even in the midst of the construction phase, it's become a gathering area and a real topic of conversation," said Taylor.
She said that its consumers typically like to see the fresh foods they're buying prepared in front of them.
"You see something as simple as a hamburger being grilled and just the fact that you're seeing how the chef prepares it is a great opportunity for the customers to be involved in the process," she said.
Knapp agreed, saying, "it reinforces that idea that food is being made on the spot for them by skilled people and, in turn, increases the score [they] give the food."
At Schnuck, the units are designed to appeal to a wide base of diverse customers, said Taylor. Incorporating various elements that are pleasing to the largest number of shoppers requires commitment and creativity.
"There's no cookie-cutter customer; they have different needs and wants," she said. "Having a passion to market to that particular customer is really critical. Even in an urban market there's still a passion in serving the inner-city customer's needs. The end result is the same, it just requires a different strategy and a different understanding."
Riley suggested that retailers can also bring in established branded items, like Chinese, pizza or coffee vendors as another way to keep customers interested.
"Bringing in different brands, having people see what's going on in the back room, I think that is the theater," he said.
Still, Riley said that he can't solely depend on the units' food-service chefs to satisfy customers because, in the end, it always comes down to the way the food tastes.
"We have been focusing on the quality of the products and the delivery of high-quality service," he said.
Even though a chef may bring credibility to the food-service program, he said, it's the product that brings success.
"Design can't carry the [program], the chef can't carry the [program]," he said. "It's got to be the execution and the delivery of quality products."