ROCKVILLE, Md. -- "We're tight on space, but we try to give the customers what they want," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president of Magruder here, when speaking of his frozen food sections.
In fact, that could be the slogan for all the employees at the 12-store independent chain, which has units located along the Beltway, the highway that surrounds Washington.
"We use a lot of Vaseline and shoe horns," Polsky said during an SN visit to Magruder's Falls Church, Va. store. Despite space restrictions -- the average store size is about 20,000 square feet -- Polsky finds a way to offer a selection comparable to that of a much larger store.
"We may not be able to offer as many sizes as somebody else, but we still have a lot of variety," Polsky said. In frozens, that's done through the use of coffin cases with as many as four shelves atop them. "What we've done is gone in and replaced a lot of old coffin cases with multi-decks to get a little more packout. In fact, that's what we did here about a year ago," he said.
When shoppers enter the Falls Church store, frozens is one of the first things they see. After walking behind the registers, they turn the corner at the end of checkout and step straight into an aisle that houses half of the frozens section.
Temporary price reduction signs help draw attention to sales items throughout the department. "We do a big job with that. It took us about two years to get customers used to the red tags. On top of that, we use preprinted shelf talkers," Polsky said.
Will coffin cases be replaced by doors at Magruder? Not while Polsky is around.
"I don't like frozen doors, especially in smaller stores. If you don't have big stores, when you open that door up, you block the aisle. The door comes out to here, and you can't do anything," he said. Pointing to the store's coffins, he said, "These cost a lot more money to operate, but they're much more conducive to shopping."
Although smaller stores have precluded the use of upright freezer doors for Polsky, they've created a need for category management.
"We've done [category management] without really realizing we've been doing it. We've tried to thin out the different sizes, but in some areas we just can't do it because the movement is there," he said, citing vegetables as an example. "Everyone buys frozen vegetables. We try to turn around and delete sizes, but we can't because they sell equally as well. As a result, we have to carry a lot of sizes."
Vegetables, Polsky said, are among the best-selling items in his frozens departments. "They don't represent a big dollar figure because it's not a big dollar ring, so it's not a big percentage. But vegetables are very strong. Our people don't buy canned vegetables. They buy either fresh or frozen."
Plain varieties sell better than vegetable blends, he added. "We deal with a lot of ethnic people. If they can't get the fresh, they get frozen. They want plain vegetables because that's what their recipes call for. They don't need the other items that come in the blends.
"Frozen vegetables are easier to cook with," he noted. "Take a big bag of frozen vegetables, throw it in the soup and you're set."
The area's ethnic mix becomes obvious as one walks down a Magruder frozen food aisle. Polsky said that's helped the company carve its niche in the market.
"A customer can go anywhere and get a can of pork and beans and pay about the same price. We need to have areas where we can be a little different. If we can carry some different frozen items, some ethnic items, then I think we're a step ahead."
Polsky said Magruder's is still getting its feet wet in terms of learning the demographics of the market. "There's a tremendous Hispanic population in this whole area. But it's not just one kind of Hispanic. There's Mexican, there's Cuban, there's Guatemalan. There are a number of differences, and we're learning." Goya's frozen line will be introduced in most of the stores, he added.
Phyllo dough is a hot-selling ethnic item in certain stores, Polsky said. "It depends on the location and demographics of the store for the selections of what we carry."
Club packs have become another important fixture in Magruder's frozen food sections. "We don't do warehouse packs for the sake of doing warehouse packs. If it's an item that we feel is going to sell on its own, we'll bring it in." he said, citing 4-pound bags of fruit as some of the best-selling club packs.
Vegetables are the top club pack items, he noted. "I put them in about four or five years ago because I thought it was neat. It was kind of on a hunch. It's been far and away better than we ever thought."
Fish and pizza, however, are not setting the world on fire, Polsky said. "We don't do that big a job on fish, and we do just a fair job on pizza. I don't know what it is. Our clientele just doesn't do it. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that you call Domino's and they bring you a pizza. You don't need a frozen pizza."
However, Tombstone is the dominant frozen pizza brand in Magruder's stores "because they take care of their own space and they work with us on ads and what not. They're there, and they're easy to work with."
Frozens plays a key role at Magruder, Polsky said, noting that the department accounts for about 6% of the company's sales.
"It's extremely important. It's probably on a par with dairy and, in our operation, right behind meat and produce, produce being No. 1 and then meat behind it."
Frozens has its own niche, which helps it compete with other departments, Polsky said. "If a product is good, then a frozen product will stand up against a fresh product. Most of the fresh bakery is frozen at one time, anyway."
Industrywide, frozens has not received the attention it deserves, he noted. "It's a part of the business that's probably been neglected over the years by most everybody. It's just in the last five or six years starting to come into its own. I think it's going to continue," he explained.
"We've had little brainstorming meetings, and we've said, 'Maybe we ought to put in a frozens store instead of a perishable market, a frozens market with some other tie-ins with it -- a frozen food store.' We've talked about it. I don't know whether we're going to do it. It's just something that's come up in conversation."
Polsky finds conversations with store personnel provide an effective means to help decide which products to carry.
"I kind of make up my mind halfway, and then I meet with a small group that have been with us a long time. I do that because I'm not out in the stores that much and I don't have the real feel for it. So I need some people who are in the stores and know what's selling and what's not. That's different than just looking at movement of categories."
Category movement has been helped recently through increased frozens advertising, Polsky said.
"We try to run five or six items a week. Again, it's difficult to do more than that because of space constraints. Our philosophy is we don't normally put a good item in the newspaper and just try to sell it off the shelf. We need display space. So if we don't have enough display space, we just have to cut back on the items." Coffin cases in the front and back of the aisle house sales items.
Ice cream, on the other hand, is housed on the other side of the store. "We've done it for a lot of years," Polsky said. "I guess mostly because ice cream is normally a [direct store delivery] operation and most of our frozen is warehouse. The frozen food guys work at night, and the dairy people work during the day. So the ice cream just ties in better."
Although Magruder hopes to add one or two more stores as well as continue a remodeling program, Polsky said, the company doesn't pose much of a threat to the two chains that control the lion's share of the market's sales.
"Giant and Safeway are so big in this area they're really not competitors. They control the market," he said. "We're here along with them. There's plenty of room for everybody. We've got our little niche, the people we cater to, and that's what we're trying to do. We're certainly not going to take business away from the Giants and the Safeways of the world."