AKRON, Ohio -- West Point Market here has built a solid customer base with vegetable stacks, chicken bundles, pot pies and special-recipe cheese spreads.
Its chocolate raspberry suicides, peanut butter crazies, flat chickens, and lobster meat, steamed and pulled from the shell, bring customers back, too.
The aim at West Point is to make each of its fresh departments a destination by creating or sourcing at least one product that can't be found anywhere else in the area. It's a tried-and-true way to capture repeat business, one that could work for supermarkets as well, said Russell Vernon, president of the single-unit retailer.
"People try something, they like it, and then they have to come back here to get it because they can't find it anywhere else," he said.
Some afficionados of West Point's chicken pot pies -- one of its earliest signature products -- regularly travel here from out of town to get them.
"And if you buy one of our white chocolate raspberry creme brulees and get hooked, you'll be back," the West Point executive said.
Vernon, who describes West Point Market as a uniquely positioned specialty store, said he believes that supermarkets -- if they could break out of the mold of "traditional supermarket thinking" -- could make good use of a sales strategy like his.
Certainly some supermarkets have brought their marketing tactics down to neighborhood level and have developed signature products. Indeed, Vernon pointed out that some of his destination-product ideas have come from mainstream supermarkets.
One such example was to make a comfort food like chicken pot pie into an exclusive by giving it a special twist. "We got that idea from Schnuck's in St. Louis." The idea for a more recent launch, too, came from another supermarket. It's West Point's flat chicken -- a completely deboned, whole chicken, marinated and ready for cooking.
Vernon explained how a little creative thinking can put a best-selling spin on everyday fare.
"Just about everybody has some kind of prepared food, but how about a portabello tower? That's a little different, isn't it?" he said in describing using a large mushroom as a dish, and stacking it with pieces of eggplant, tomato, onion and cheese, and then baked.
"[A signature touch] can be something as simple as using finely diced red, yellow, green and orange peppers -- I call them gems -- as a garnish. We sprinkle them over our steamed asparagus. Or a fine julienne of squashes to garnish other foods in the prepared-foods case. We use finely shredded peppers sauteed in oil, and then drained, on top of our twice-baked potatoes. It adds color, freshness," Vernon said.
He added that when he's traveling he's always on the lookout for interesting products he could adopt as a West Point signature item.
"I noticed an oddly shaped muffin that was served at a conference I attended recently. It looked interesting, and I finally found what we needed to duplicate it in our bakery. It's a tall muffin, just a different configuration, but nobody in this area has one," he said. He pointed out, too, that even before reshaping the product, West Point was giving its muffins a look of their own.
"On a chocolate chip banana muffin, for example, we'll drizzle it with Belgian chocolate lace to make it special-looking."
Sometimes to make a product West Point's own, he doesn't even have to change it or embellish it.
"We started our 'Take Me Home' program [whose backbone at present is West Point's store-made entrees, frozen] with high-quality frozen hors d'oerves that we discovered at one of the food shows," he said. Repackaged, they became part of West Point's private-label program.
To create another attention-getter, Vernon recently combined a West Point-made, fresh product with a gift item. He took a white ceramic cup that he had admired in France and had a company in Cleveland duplicate the style.
"I'll use them for our special-recipe cheese spreads. They're all white. Our logo is on them, but it's glazed onto the bottom, so they're not really commercial. They're collectibles."
But creating and "cultivating" products into signature items doesn't come cheap.
"Our people, too, are expensive. We have a CIA [Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.] -trained kitchen manager and two CIA-trained pastry chefs, and we just hired a chief operating officer from the restaurant industry. He comes from Au Bon Pain," Vernon said. Vernon can't afford to lose sight of the bottom line in his zeal to set his company apart and he doesn't. For example, when he and his staff set about creating or adapting an outsourced product as their own, there's a prerequisite: it must carry a minimum 50% gross margin. Sometimes the retail of a product is set as high as three to five times its cost, Vernon said.
Not only that, but Vernon balances West Point's entire product mix to enable the store to maintain an across-the-board 40% gross margin.
While the emphasis at West Point Market is on fresh foods -- they account for 65% of total store sales -- specialty dry grocery products and even pricey gift items play a special role.
Ceramic roosters from Italy and fine linens are "high-margin items [that] help provide the dollars to sample freely, to promote aggressively, and to pay for the skill levels required to accomplish our goals," Vernon said.
Here's a case in point:
"Last Christmas we sold six Italian ceramic roosters for $350 each. Now that beats the daylights out of selling boxes of cereal, doesn't it?"
The same is true of West Point's gift shop, which features linens and lace. Coming next is a gift nook devoted to items from Provence, France.
Just as he keeps on the lookout for food products that would interest his customers, Vernon said, he sends his buyers far and wide to look for nonfood items that would be unique to the area and intrigue his customers.
"We constantly talk to our customers, asking what they'd like to see in our store or what we could do to make their lives easier."
Vernon has come to know his customers well over the years, he said. Almost all are busy business and professional people. Even retirees in the area lead active lives that leave little time to think about meal preparation, he said.
"In a few years, there won't be anyone cooking," Vernon said, noting that he's confident the demand for prepared foods will continue to grow in his market area.
"Of course, we'll have recreational cooks just as we do now. The woofers and tweeters for them are the extra virgin olive oils and the raspberry vinegars. They get great satisfaction out of finding a new type of mushroom. During the week, they pick up our prepared foods, but on the weekend, they have fun in the kitchen. And we try to make sure we have what they want."
While Vernon describes West Point Market as a specialty store, he also points out that its emphasis is on fresh foods, with 25% of sales rung up by the deli and bakery departments alone.
And what's more, both those departments carry a gross margin of more than 50%, he said.
Could a mainstream supermarket do the same?
"They can do it, but they have to break out of the orthodoxies they hold to be the truth -- like emphasis on low prices and bright lights and lack of service," Vernon said.