SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- Produce merchandising has taken on a European flair at a new corporate store operated by Piggly Wiggly Supermarkets.
The prototype features an overall circular design plan and an abundance of natural light from 12 skylights of varying size. [See "Piggly Wiggly Prototype Store to Open Aug. 9," SN, July 30, 2001] Yet nowhere does the combination of design and light work to better advantage than in the fresh produce section. The lead-off department is itself circularly shaped and capped with a 22-foot dome skylight. Large windows facing the front of the store add to the open, well-lit quality of the space.
"This department has a farm-fresh appeal because of the natural and ambient light," said Michael Houser, vice chairman, Fresh Brands, which owns and operates 19 corporate Piggly Wigglys in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, eight Dick's Supermarkets in Wisconsin and also services 71 franchises under the Piggly Wiggly umbrella. "It feels like an outside market."
The 60,000-square-foot prototype's merchandising approach is in direct response to customer research conducted in preparation for a new generation of stores. In that study, participants emphasized their desire for more variety in all perishables. Presentation figured prominently in the plans, as well.
"The natural lighting will really give luster to the fruits and vegetables and accentuate produce quality, without a doubt," said Scott Zeier, Fresh Brand's vice president, produce merchandising and operations.
If that luster is there, he said, customers might impulsively buy much more of a particular item than they had originally planned.
And with 88 linear feet of refrigerated display cases, 80 feet of slant racks and a collection of seven moveable, self-contained refrigerated cases -- for "specials of the week" -- the store is equipped to offer an ample selection.
"We have more specialty items like jicama root, dried tomatoes and potted culinary herbs such as cilantro, mint and oregano, and also a large assortment of exotic fruits and vegetables like Asian pears, pomegranates and Chinese mustard greens," Zeier said.
The store has tripled the size of its pepper program, which now includes different varieties of habanera, red and yellow hots and anaheim, he added.
Piggly Wiggly has observed "a lot of growth" in the ethnic produce market, Zeier said, and has expanded the produce department's offerings to reflect the demand. He noted the store offers 23 kinds of prepackaged salads, some of which are luncheon items with dressing for grab-and-go consumers.
Half of the slant racks display 14 varieties of tomatoes, including yellow stem, grape and roma. Four slant racks are dedicated to bananas and one to tropical fruits such as mangos, papayas, kiwis and pineapples.
Another strong suit of the department is the "Organic Oasis," with the produce set on two of the seven mobile display tables. The organic section is "very visible with track lighting from above and signage suspended from the ceiling," according to Zeier.
"By developing this separate section, organic customers can focus on their needs," Zeier said, adding that his customers' demand for organically grown fruits and vegetables increases every year.
"Sales of organic produce have been up 16% the first seven months of 2001, compared to the same time period last year," he said, adding he anticipates a "dramatic increase in sales" just by virtue of the increase in quantity and variety of organic offerings. They include vendor-supplied packaged items such as nuts, seeds and trail mixes.
In conjunction with the opening of the store, Fresh Brands has introduced a signature logo -- "Pampered to Perfection" -- to underscore its commitment to "pampering" its fresh produce through appropriate unpacking and handling.
The chain has also begun a certification training program for its produce team.
Under the program, all produce employees will receive a Fresh Brands produce training manual containing information on produce identification and description, merchandising, operations and procurement.
Employees will also be required to undergo computer-based training -- culminating in a written test -- which Zeier said will probably involve from eight to 10 hours of work. One computer at the store will serve as a dedicated training device for the produce staff. By grand opening, all produce team members had been certified or were in the process of being certified. Corporate officers will decide shortly how best to identify a produce employee as certified, either through a pin, a logo patch or an apron, Zeier said.
The certification program will be administered in produce departments throughout the chain.
Produce managers and associate managers will also be eligible to pursue computer-based master's certification training which requires passing an advanced test. "The produce employees are very excited about the program," Zeier said. "It's raising the bar and also a chance for them to broaden their horizons and give knowledge about specialty items to the customer."
Later this year and throughout 2002, several of the chain's 90 stores will undergo renovation -- either through technological improvements, remodeling or replacement -- which will make them either wholly or elementally consistent in appearance and layout with the prototype.
This new Washington Square store replaces the Wilson Avenue store, which has been designated a general merchandise distribution center for the chain, officials said.