ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Kowalski's Markets here, for the first time, has picked produce to lead the way in a new-format store it opened this fall.
While it has always prided itself on the quality of its produce, the company has moved the department into the limelight, with massive horizontal displays facing customers as they enter the door.
"Produce is smack dab in the middle of the store instead of being a front-to-back run against the side like produce departments usually are. That's new for us, and we did it because produce is so colorful and so obviously fresh. We thought it would be good to lead off with," said Larry Mauren, produce director for the 5-unit, family-owned independent.
In some other Kowalski's units, the in-store bakery heads up the fresh aisle. One store has a bakery/coffee bar as the lead-off, and another features high-end gift items first in the footprint.
Here, at the new store, it's no coincidence that the in-your-face burst of color provided by produce brings to mind Wegmans Food Markets. Indeed, Kowalski's officials were inspired by what they saw in a unit of the Rochester, N.Y., retailer.
"It was in one of their stores in Rochester that we first saw these [display] tables and we liked the way they were using them," Mauren said, referring to mobile European-style fixtures loaded with fruits and vegetables and strategically positioned to create an open-air, marketplace ambiance.
The tables can be easily rolled around to reconfigure the department. Mauren explained that Kowal- ski's has chosen to use several particularly small versions of the tables to create maximum flexibility.
"We've put together several two-foot-wide tables because they're highly modular. We can just change up how the area looks all the time. Literally weekly, we'll switch the size of displays -- where they are, how they're configured -- to keep things exciting."
There are mobile triangular wedges to create corners, too, that enable him to build a display that bows in or bows out in a sort of semicircle instead of just keeping it a straight run, Mauren said.
"We'll have some fun making changes until we find what the shopping patterns are like and then we'll maximize the shapes and sizes of displays to fit within those patterns."
Using three-deck cases against the wall, instead of five-shelf units, helps the retailer make a bold statement with color because the cases adapt themselves to mass displays, Mauren said.
"Our whole run of vegetables, for example, is displayed in a three-deck case like I haven't seen in most places, not around here anyway. The three-deck unit has a wider opening than most produce cases, with just two shelves above the main produce well.
"You need to have some massive look for large items and with a five-deck case you don't have a deep well at the bottom to mass products. We'll fill the well, for example, with nothing but lettuce. Above, on the two shelves, we might put colorful bell peppers," he said.
"We also have some five-deck cases for our value-added salads," Mauren added.
More than 300 varieties of produce are offered and the variety of organics has been beefed up. They're expected to be big sellers at the new store which is located in a suburb where the population is skewed to high-income professionals.
"On the first day we were open, we had so many people asking about organics and buying them. It was phenomenal. I think organics will be the shining star for us at this store," Mauren said.
The organics, approximately 40 varieties at present, are merchandised alongside their conventional counterparts. This works particularly well with the long-time philosophy at Kowalski's that says, "If it isn't the best of the best, we're not going to offer it."
Here's an example: "We have only organic pluots [a hybrid plum and apricot] out there right now, no conventional ones. That's because the organics were nice this week, but the conventional ones weren't," Mauren said.
Conversely, that same week, this Kowalski's was not offering any organic grapes because those available weren't up to par, Mauren added.
"It's a quality issue. It's just an example of how we look at the whole arena of produce to find the best. Whatever it is, it has to come up to our standards."
Kowalski's integrated its organics with its conventional produce several years ago with good results, Mauren said.
"Back in the past when we first decided to give organics a go, we did what a lot of people did and put in a separate organic section. But we've since decided that it's best to integrate. I've seen too many stores that had an organic section in the back of the department where it pretty much was forgotten. It becomes an organic ghetto. Not exciting, and it draws only organic customers."
By contrast, integrating the products can cultivate new customers for the category, Mauren said.
"I think it often happens that a conventional shopper who may not be drawn to an organic section, will end up buying the organic version of the product when he sees it beside the conventional product."
Sales of organics at Kowalski's have steadily increased over the last five years, Mauren said. Some of it may be due to integrating the products with their conventional counterparts because that got good customer acceptance, he said.
"But there is also just more awareness and there are more good organic products out there. The organic industry is growing and we're just following that wave."
Today's trends and the changing lifestyles of busy people figure into the way everything is presented at the new 48,000-square-foot store that opened last month.
"One of the big things is that produce -- our showcase department -- is situated in the center of the store with the [grocery] aisles running at right angles to it, instead of them going from front to back like they do in other stores. You can get into produce and out of it in a number of different ways," Mauren said.
Bob Kowalski, director of marketing and public relations, agreed, noting the total layout of the store makes for easy shopping.
"We didn't want to force customers into a pattern. We want them to shop the way they want to shop. If they want to run in and grab some coffee from Starbucks and something from produce or deli and get out quickly, that's fine. They'll come back later to do their grocery shopping," Kowalski said.
He and Mauren emphasized that the new store is different in design and concept from the three other Kowalski's Markets or the Cub store the family also owns. Since it's the first of the company's stores to be built from the ground up, the owners could design it for flexibility and to accommodate all the merchandising elements they deemed important.
It reflects the evolution of a company that has steadily increased its emphasis on perishables, Mauren said.
"The owners Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski get credit for dramatic innovations in design here. Produce takes up the center of the store, and the rest of the fresh departments run around the perimeter. That way we have exciting departments everywhere. [With this layout], we feel we've spread out the excitement perishables departments can bring to a store."
A food court replete with Starbucks and express versions of two locally popular restaurants is part of the newness. So is a spa center and a mezzanine overlooking the produce department that's the site for classes on subjects ranging from Beautiful Desserts 101 to Reading the Energy of Stones.
"We're calling the whole concept at the new store 'The Next Level.' We want to be the community gathering place. We want people to keep coming back," said Kowalski.