PHILADELPHIA -- Supermarkets here in the City of Brotherly Love take neighborhood marketing seriously and they're putting down roots with fruits and vegetables.
Two chains that SN has observed in particular have driven sales by customizing their produce mix and displays for their part of the city and they've found that cranking up customer service in the well-traveled produce aisle reseeds their ties to the community.
Pathmark, known for its commitment to opening stores in the inner city, pointed to one it erected in a low-income section of north Philadelphia that is earmarked for urban renewal. There, where its customers are predominantly African-American and Hispanic, cooking greens and plantains are featured at a competitive price, and family-size packs of green beans get big play.
"But what's particularly important now, as it is in all our stores, is that all our produce associates are certified 'Produce Pros.' That's tied in with our Produce Pete customer service program [see "Pathmark Produce Highlights New Image Campaign," SN, June 4, 2001] and it shows customers we're proactive, that we care about them," said Rich Savner, director of public affairs for the 141-unit Carteret, N.J.-based chain.
Meanwhile, Acme is showcasing a 47,000-square-foot store in a suburb of the city, Bala Cynwyd, where officials said their customer base can best be described as culturally and economically diverse. There, product mix in the 3,000-square-foot, produce-selling area is high on variety. It runs the gamut from pomegranates and custom-made fruit trays to the more mundane.
At that location, a salad bar and a staffed, cut-melon bar sit side by side smack in the middle of the produce aisle, and associates' interaction with customers there is considered crucial.
"This is one of our highest sales stores for salad bar and melon bar," said Anthony Barbieri, produce sales manager, for the 152-unit Malvern, Pa.-based chain, a division of Albertson's, Boise, Idaho.
He explained that those two elements are so successful because they fit the demographics well. A lot of small businesses and office complexes lie within walking distance of the store, situated on the edge of a residential area. The lunch business at the salad bar is huge, and the melon bar is a draw all the time, Barbieri said.
"Tremendous is the way I'd describe the melon bar category. At holiday time here, we're working round the clock to make up fruit and vegetable trays. We bring folks in at midnight and actually run a midnight-to-8 shift to try to keep up with demand."
Indeed, the chain has considered outsourcing cut melon to supplement its supply, but hasn't been successful in finding the top quality it wants.
"We just can't replicate what we produce at store level. It's so fresh," Barbieri said.
The variety in Acme's produce departments hits around 400 items, up as much as 40% from five years ago with some new categories like soy products taking off.
"It used to be just tofu, but now we carry a lot of soy-based products in produce," Barbieri said.
To accommodate its burgeoning variety, Acme chainwide is just about to complete the conversion of its produce-merchandising to vertical sets.
"What we figure is that on the average we can get four more varieties into every two feet of wet rack this way," Barbieri said.
At Pathmark, the extent of the variety in produce is determined store by store, said Craig Carlson, vice president, the chain's produce and floral merchandising.
Depending on the community and the volume of customer traffic, the variety can range from 250 up to 550 items, but the mix is carefully chosen to fit the neighborhood's ethnicity and economic profile, the Pathmark executive said.
"One of our strengths is that we can go into a community, identify our customers, and then match our product mix to them," Carlson said.
While the produce mix at the 52,000-square-foot Pathmark store profiled here has a whole section devoted to tropical roots such as yucca and jicama because they're favored by customers who hail from the Caribbean, Acme at its Bala Cynwyd store recently spotlighted items traditionally sought by its large percentage of Jewish customers for Rosh Hoshana. An endcap display, for example, featured fresh horseradish, celery root, pomegranates, dill and pickling cucumbers.
Mass displays of tomatoes visually dominate the produce aisle and that's the result of paying attention to what customers want, Barbieri said.
"Tomatoes are a destination for us. In this store, and in many of our others, we have a big display that runs at least 16 feet in length, or the length of four Euro tables. We carry 20 varieties.
"We saw a positive sales trend emerging and that's because tomatoes with real flavor were becoming available. We vigorously support local growers, but depending on the time of the year, we'll bring them in from other states and then from Holland and Israel and Canada."
The newest variety and the fastest growing at Acme is an Ugly Ripe, according to Barbieri.
"It looks like you've actually grown it in your back yard. It has that rumpled, imperfect look. It's not perfect in shape but it has outstanding taste and customers love it."
He knows that because they've said so. As well as using scan data to listen to customers, Acme encourages associates to get involved in "good, old-fashioned conversation with shoppers," Barbieri said.
"We try to have someone on the floor at all times. It's very important they interact with customers. We're a service department."
At Pathmark, customer service in produce is the backbone of a revitalization and image-building effort the chain is engaged in. Earlier this year, Pathmark struck a deal with Produce Pete, NBC-TV's produce expert who has a weekly segment on the "Today Show" and, more recently, a separate segment on an NBC affiliate station here. Produce Pete makes a guest visit to Pathmark's area stores at least once a week.
But that's just the hoopla. The core of the Produce Pete program involves Pathmark's polishing up its customer service, beginning in its produce department. That's the place top management pinpointed as the logical starting point.
"It's shopped by almost every customer, especially since there's so much interest in eating healthy these days. It's also an area we identified that we could improve and use to set ourselves apart from the competition," said Savner.
When the chain, which has eight stores within the city limits and 13 others on the outskirts of the city, launched the program at the beginning of summer, it supplemented it with television and radio ads featuring Pete and his produce knowledge. Continuing are Pete's weekly visits to Pathmark stores, and every day of the week customers see associates decked out in aprons that say, "Pete's Produce Pro."
Associates must earn the right to wear one of those aprons. They complete 16 to 20 hours of training that's part of a certification program and then must pass a test to become a certified Pete's Produce Pro.
"We put them through the basic [Produce Marketing Association] program and then there's some additional training. It's customer-service oriented. For managers, it's a two-day program," said Carlson.
Becoming certified is mandatory for office staff and all associates, including part-timers, and failing the test is not an option, Savner remarked. If an associate doesn't pass, they must repeat the training until they do.
"The idea is that our associates will be the most knowledgeable in the business. They should be able to answer any question a customer asks or at least direct the customer to a source that will answer their question. Then Pete's tips give customers information on the most unique and best-tasting items at the particular time of year," Carlson said.
Feedback has been good all around, from associates as well as customers.
"It's a focused department. Associates like that, and hopefully it will cut down on turnover. We're interested in growing our own team," said Savner.
One marketing consultant particularly applauds Pathmark's efforts.
"That's within-the-four-walls marketing which I've always advocated. It's great. That's the most effective type of marketing," said Tom Feltenstein, principal, Tom Feltenstein's Neighborhood Marketing Institute, West Palm Beach, Fla.