ORLANDO, Fla. -- While major national chains like Publix and Winn-Dixie battle it out for total grocery market share here, local produce watchers here say it is the homegrown Gooding's chain that's leading the produce merchandising agenda, with high quality, selection and a home-field advantage.
Of the top four chains that have stores in the Orlando area -- the venue for this year's United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association convention taking place this week -- Gooding's Supermarkets, based in nearby Apopka, Fla., is the only chain with its headquarters in the market.
Market observers said that, store for store, Gooding's sets the standard for merchandising in a department that many consumers say is the bellwether for overall food freshness and quality in a supermarket.
As a chain, Gooding's does not, however, lead in total sales. Pulling in the largest percentage of total market share are Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., and Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., which are ranked first and second respectively, according to published reports on market share. Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, pulls in the third-highest share.
Gooding's is ranked fourth in total market share in the Orlando area, which includes Seminole, Osceola, Lake and Orange Counties. Published reports say Gooding's pulls in about 9% of the total grocery market share.
Gooding's, with about 12 stores in the market area, stands in the shadow of several monster chains that have stores in markets across the country besides Orlando. Publix boasts more than 50 stores in the region, Winn-Dixie has about 43 and there are roughly 17 Albertson's stores in the market area.
Publix holds about 42% of the total grocery market share in the Orlando market, according to published reports.
Albertson's and Publix declined to comment for this article, and attempts to contact Gooding's and Winn-Dixie were unsuccessful.
Local sources familiar with the retailers' produce strategies and merchandising execution said the produce retail market share situation most likely plays out the same way as total food sales.
But the marks are different when it comes to the produce departments, with most rating the much smaller Gooding's as the clear leader.
"Gooding's does an outstanding job," said Al Schoeneck, an account executive at Acosta Sales Co. a food-brokerage firm here. "They've got the hometown flavor. They're smaller, they have fewer stores and they're easier to control."
Other sources interviewed by SN agreed that Gooding's gets the job done, primarily by offering variety and doing some unique merchandising.
"The [chain] that is doing things a little different is Gooding's. They're a great little specialty store," said Al Thunell, owner of AJ Sales Co., a shipper, broker and importer based here. "Just the way their stores are set up is different."
Schoeneck said he believes Orlando's consumers are searching for variety and freshness in that market, putting Orlando in line with what he considers one of major national trends in supermarkets.
"The consumer has become more sophisticated," he said. "He's become health-conscious, diet-conscious -- and he wants more than just the old produce standards."
A visit to four Gooding's stores by SN added credence to their claims that Gooding's is able to grab upscale crowds with its selection, quality and -- most importantly -- its acumen with displays.
The chain puts its produce departments in the back of its stores, but not in the back of shoppers' minds. The stores promote the department at the front, with large displays of fruit and vegetables.
At a store SN visited in Longwood, Fla., the produce merchandising up front included a Florida fresh citrus fruit display, and huge displays of potatoes and apples.
At Gooding's Flagship, on Dr. Phillips Blvd. in Orlando, apples and oranges were marketed near the register in vertical wooden crates, catching the eye of shoppers making their way into the heart of the store. These small produce displays were directly at the checkout, in the merchandising slot where most stores stock candy or magazines.
Once shoppers reach the produce department, they are surrounded by an abundance of colors, quality and variety. Gooding's goes for a country-market look, stacking woven baskets under its back-wall display, which are filled with more of the same items found in the racks above.
Against the back wall of the department is where Gooding's keeps most of its bulk product, including a large variety of apples and pears.
The floor fixtures, which stock an assortment of exotics, prepackaged goods and sale items, are made of wood-based materials, adding to the market effect.
One of the floor fixtures holds an exotics section that includes star fruit, kiwis, yucca roots, jicama roots, turnip roots, sun chokes, calabasa squash and coconuts. While Albertson's and Winn-Dixie stock some of the same items, Gooding's leads the way in carrying exotic produce.
Warm lighting adds to the market look, accenting interesting spots such as the hot-pepper and mushroom displays in all its stores.
The hot-pepper display features more than 20 varieties, with a sign above showing a thermometer that rates each pepper for spiciness. During the time SN visited, a mushroom display above a similarly hefty variety of the fungi offered tips on how to clean them.
Gooding's was the only chain in Orlando merchandising an organically grown produce section, which was set next to its value-added salad area.
Signs above the organic section read, "The produce in this section is grown with no petro-pesticides or herbicides and is nurtured in soil where the fertility balance is for maximum nutrition."
Stocking rare and more expensive items gives the chain its upscale label, said local sources.
"They're as close to a Wegmans [Food Markets] as you'll see in Florida," said Thunnel, referring to the Rochester, N.Y.-based upscale chain, which many consider a trendsetter in fresh-foods merchandising.
Most industry observers in the Orlando area praised Gooding's as having the most innovative produce departments. One source also said Gooding's has chosen to remain relatively small as a chain, helping it retain its upscale status in this market.
"They just haven't gone into that larger [format]," the source said.
While Gooding's attracts a typically more affluent clientele, the other players in this market use produce to appeal to their shoppers for different reasons, the sources said.
"They all do a good job at their own level," Schoeneck noted.
However, while the overall leader, Publix, holds close to half the total market share in Orlando, its produce departments leave a lot to be desired, said several other local sources.
One source said he believed Publix had put forth a more impressive effort in produce here before it began building so many new stores elsewhere in the Southeast.
"I think Publix did a much better job when they were just in Florida and a little smaller," the industry source said. "When they were smaller, they really emphasized quality. It's still good -- don't get me wrong," he added, "[but] I don't think it's as good as it used to be."
In the four Publix stores visited by SN, the produce department was tucked away in the far left corner, bucking the industry trend of attempting to lead shoppers into the store through the produce department.
Publix' produce departments were typically smaller than those at other chains.
"Out of all the departments they do well in, produce is probably their weakest point," remarked one Orlando-based broker.
One of the more common complaints about Publix among consumers is the chain's fondness for prepackaged items, which sources said limits the options of shoppers who at other stores can more easily select the amount and individual items in most categories.
"Publix is really into prepackaging and tray packs," Thunnel noted.
But Publix' tendency toward prepacked fruits and vegetables has some market observers down on the department. "They've got big bags, which [other retailers] have moved away from for the most part," said one source.
For example, Publix offers 3-pound bags of apples, 5-pound bags of tangelos and grapefruits, 4-pound bags of oranges, and 10-pound bags of grapefruits and oranges.
The chain also sells six and eight-packs of apples and oranges packaged in styrofoam trays under its own label.
Vegetables are not spared Publix' penchant for prepackaging. The chain offers corn in packs of four, as well as a variety of turnip root, asparagus, green beans in tray packs, not to mention a large selection of bagged carrots.
Signs above the long cases, however, remind customers that Publix will "gladly break packages."
While Publix' prepackaging emphasis in produce may be a bit behind the times, a local observer told SN the strength of Publix' other departments is what keeps shoppers buying from their produce sections, rather than cherry picking at other chains strictly for fruits and vegetables.
The other retailers in the market follow a more modern approach to product merchandising, keeping the overwhelming majority of its product available in bulk.
"Winn-Dixie is more loose," Thunell said.
Winn-Dixie's approach to produce merchandising, which is simpler than Gooding's upscale method, has helped the chain retain its appeal to a mostly middle-class clientele, according to one broker.
"Winn-Dixie is like the blue-collar store," Schoeneck said.
Schoeneck said Winn-Dixie is also regarded as the having the lowest prices of the four chains, and calls itself "The Low Price Leader."
It is typically noted for its meat and seafood departments, but sources say the chain is doing some admirable things in the produce department.
One Winn-Dixie Marketplace store in Longwood, Fla., boasts an impressive, manned value-added workstation, which features cut fruit and vegetables served in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Winn-Dixie calls its value-added section "The Melon Bar," an oval-shaped ice bed that is the first thing shoppers encounter when they enter the department.
Signs above The Melon Bar are visible from the entrance, and give Winn-Dixie shoppers instant recognition to the store's unique fresh-cut section.
All the items in the Melon Bar carry the Winn-Dixie name, including vegetable party trays featuring cut carrots, celery, cauliflower and broccoli selling for $10.99, as well as smaller single-serve packs.
The Melon Bar also stocks a number of fruit items, including melon fruit cups with chunks of fresh-cut watermelon, canteloupe, honeydew, strawberries and grapes, as well as honeydew, canteloupe and watermelons carved out and filled with smaller fruit.
Also made fresh are pineapple rolls, cut and diced pineapple in plastic containers, and half and quarter watermelons wrapped in plastic.
However, in the other Winn-Dixie Marketplace stores visited by SN, the Melon Bars were not as extensive, and were little more than a five-tier cooler carrying considerably less fresh-cut volume than at the Longwood store.
Winn-Dixie, like its competitors in Orlando, is adhering to several of the national merchandising trends, the most overt being fresh-cut, value-added sections which, in one form or another, take prominence in most stores.
"They all have it to some extent," Schoeneck said. "Albertson's and Publix have racks dedicated just to [value-added]."
Both of those chains offer entire coolers, 5 feet or more, filled with bagged salads by River Ranch and Fresh Express, the most popular brand names in that market.
The value-added sections are typically the first area in the produce departments at Publix and Albertson's, which sources say is in response to the growing importance of convenience to the shopper. In most stores, bagged salads are merchandised near a variety of salad dressings and other salad condiments.
Of the four chains, Albertson's holds the branded-salad title. It dedicates the entire bottom level of its value-added cases to Albertson's bagged Garden Salads, along with numerous national brand-name varieties.
Albertson's offers its own bagged salads in 1- and 2-pound sizes, and it is the only chain SN visited that offers value-added bagged salads under a private label.