KINGSTON, Mass. -- At Victory Super Market's new flagship store here, the strategic core is produce.
The 16-unit chain's top executives, working closely with its store-design consulting firm, quickly decided to make the produce department the seed from which the store's overall connotation of freshness would grow.
That was an important choice for Leominster, Mass-based Victory, since the chain is counting on its revamped image of freshness to carry it into a future of competing more and more against bigger, more powerful retailers.
Prepared foods also figure strongly in that forward-looking competitive strategy. [See related story, Page 21.] But, as Victory's president Arthur P. (Jay) DiGeronimo Jr., tells it, his team decided to start building the future first on a foundation of fresh produce.
As a result, the department in Victory's 60,000-square-foot flagship store here has the biggest produce department of any Victory unit to date. It is an in-your-face section that exploits the latest industry trend of a farmers' market merchandising presentation.
Also, by design, it stresses flexibility in operation and layout, and uses a wide-ranging variety to encourage sales volume. And it stands as the dominant visual element in Victory's new Market Square fresh food power aisle.
Customers apparently have noticed. Perhaps not surprisingly, the department "is grossing way above the company average," said DiGeronimo in an interview with SN.
Since the store's grand opening several months ago, the produce department has averaged about 12% of total store sales, he said, and hit 14% during the Christmas holiday season.
Dubbed the Market Square Garden, it is packed with more than 450 items, the most variety of any Victory unit, and includes special sections such as an area of precut fruit and juices called The Melon Patch, a tropical fruit center and mushroom and tomato gardens. It also sports an organics section, which features a number of certified products.
"Produce sets the tone for the first aisle," said Torrie Taralli, Victory's director of produce. A well-run produce department connotes "freshness and quality, the best of the fresh food," he said.
As soon as it was hired by Victory, the design team -- Rochester, N.Y.-based Design Associates: Riesenburger, Leenhoutz, & Roberts -- offered first to lay out the produce department.
"It is the most important element," said Jim Riesenburger, partner, Design Associates. "It sets the stage with a kaleidoscope of colors, for the fresh market experience and for the whole store."
DiGeronimo said produce will play a similar role in future Victory stores. "We've developed a reputation for a quality product and have turned that into a quality produce department," he said.
The department typifies the farmers' market look, with movable, wood-accented European tables, country touches like barrels and crates and warm lighting used to "spot" each product and bring out the colors.
In a tomato section, multiple varieties were being merchandised in about 14 woven baskets that were spaced across a slanted wooden fixture. Hay was stuffed between the baskets, and the entire fixture was surrounded by wooden barrels filled with more tomatoes.
Other fruits and vegetables, including avocados, onions and plums, were also interspersed between the baskets of tomatoes. The overall impression was of a simple, but lovingly merchandised, roadside vegetable stand.
Taralli said the mobility of the fixtures will allow the shopping experience to remain as fresh as its product.
"We change it at least once a month," he said. "You actually create a different traffic pattern."
Chalkboard signs, with colorful letters and art, identify all the products in the department, and fits in with the entire store's market atmosphere.
"We've had a great customer response. They're excited," Taralli said. "It's not your everyday experience. Things look different with the chalkboard signs."
Another plus for customers is a high level of service, with employees out on the floor more often.
"Every employee in produce carries a folding knife," Taralli said. "If customers want to know what a particular piece of fruit tastes like, we'll let them sample it. We want customers to be comfortable with the quality and freshness of the produce department."
Victory also wants their customers to be knowledgeable about produce. The department offers handfuls of informational brochures, and also posts produce identification books for shoppers to use as reference guides.
In fact, to accommodate the new image for produce at the Kingston store, the chain puts out a separate circular each week, which carries about twice the amount of produce items than in the chainwide circular.
Now, with produce setting the tone for freshness in the flagship store, Victory officials said they expect the department to take the lead in a new thematic cross-merchandising program that will touch the other fresh sections.
When SN visited the store, a huge display featuring flats of strawberries greeted customers as they entered. An employee was busy cutting strawberries for sampling, while the fruit was also being cross merchandised with strawberry shortcakes at another nearby display.
"We also had someone cooking strawberry tarts in the bakery," Taralli added. "We'll carry that theme through the store, and definitely throughout the first aisle. We did it a few weeks ago with fresh asparagus tips on pizza."
Produce was not always Victory's main focus. DiGeronimo said the company had originally built its reputation on service meat. Then societal trends started during the '70s and '80s began to place more emphasis on the role of produce in healthy diets.
"The produce presentation [here] is what we should have done before," said DiGeronimo, adding that the produce departments in other Victory units are "just conventional," although the chain is changing that to whatever extent it can.
At a Victory unit in Marlborough, Mass., the produce department is also big, but is located in an alcove and not up front, like it is in the new store.
DiGeronimo said Victory's other existing stores could not fully replicate this flagship presentation because of size limitations. "We've put the loose produce tables into other stores for added display, but nothing like this."