While Center Store aisles may seem somewhat archaic, particularly in comparison to the more modernized look the perimeter departments have adopted over the years, their evolution has been constant.
From new, store-brand product offerings to eye-catching signage and aisle presentations that subconsciously direct shoppers to certain categories, the grocery store's midsection is not as averse to change as it may appear. A look at past and present Center Store presentation offers a glimpse into what the future may hold for these aisles.
The number of grocers that offer store-brand product lines has certainly grown over the years, as has the level of acceptance from consumers. In an industry where similarities abound, store brands are a great area of distinction for these retailers.
"There is an opportunity to now have signature items; so it's not just a gourmet brand but some compelling [stockkeeping unit] or collection of SKUs that actually brings people into the stores," said Ralph Jacobson, retail food industry marketing leader for IBM Corp., Los Angeles.
"We're seeing some private label really stepping up to the plate and generating some good margins and some good returns on that investment," he added.
Jacobson told SN that, while working as a stockboy at a Chicago-based Jewel store back in the 1970s, he remembers seeing generic cereal for the first time. From his insider's point of view, he watched the chain progress from merchandising all of its generic categories in the same aisle to displaying the licensed President's Choice chocolate chip cookie line on the first endcap of every store to great financial success.
"They were militaristic in product execution at the store level," he said. "They proved that a private label could beat a national brand. Today, we're going down that same path," he added, pointing to Shaw's, Ralphs and Vons as chains that are reaping the rewards of store brands.
According to Bernie Rogan, spokesman for Shaw's Supermarkets, West Bridgewater, Mass., private label has been a part of that chain's operation since 1860. He attributes the constant expansion in the private-label industry to the diversity in the grocery marketplace, the evolving consumer palate and the stores' physical growth, which provides more shelf space for new products.
"There are just more SKUs, more variety, more choice for the customer, and if you don't offer that choice you're dead in the water," Rogan said. "A lot of stuff on our shelves just wasn't in the store even five years ago and the American appetite has certainly changed in my lifetime."
Shaw's, Rogan said, is the second-oldest food retailer in the country, just behind A&P in its inception. He referenced the Ann Page store brands offered by A&P during the turn of the century as another example of early private-label initiative.
Indeed, A&P was involved in spearheading the private-label movement. As reported by SN in an April 22, 1957, special supplement titled "The A&P Way" the chain was in the midst of upping the promotion of its own label line, which accounted for one-quarter of the chain's $4 billion in annual retail sales at that time. The retailer was also expanding its private-label lines and had begun to add frozen, concentrated orange juice and a cake mix line to its portfolio.
According to the SN story, "A&P products are advertised heavily, in the chain's ads in newspapers, on radio and television and nationally in leading magazines as well as the company's own magazine, Woman's Day."
Today, A&P has four tiers of private label: America's Choice, price-valued products suitable for everyday use; Health Pride, which includes OTC and health and beauty items; Master Choice, which encompasses more upscale food items developed for gourmet or specialty food consumers; and Savings Plus items that are more functionally driven and are developed for the more price-conscious consumer.
"Private label is a major part of our entire category management and merchandising development program that we're currently working on," said Patti Councill, spokeswoman for A&P's Atlantic Region, Paterson, N.J., during a recent interview.
"At present, we're about 12% of sales penetration, while the industry leaders for private label are at 20%. So our goal over the next few years is to drive that penetration rate higher. So, we are really focusing on private label," she told SN.
Depending on the particular consumer niche they serve, some retailers place less emphasis on dry grocery private labels, although the genre still remains a small part of the current mix and are top-of-mind for the future.
While the bulk of private-label items can be found in the perimeter departments of the Lunds and Byerly's stores run by Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., the retailer expects to delve more into nonperishable store brands in the future, according to Steve Vuolo, vice president of marketing.
"I see us doing more private label in Center Store, but a lot around unique product lines and more of a cherry-picking strategy on value-oriented private label," he said.
In any event, the segment is expected to continue to be a means of building shopper loyalty for years to come, sources told SN. And, grocers undergoing mergers and acquisitions in the future will continue to face the decision to change store-brand names to reflect a new parent company or to keep a certain loyalty to communities by sticking with an established private-label brand name.
"That becomes a grander issue outside of Center Store, but we're talking about those kinds of tangible tactics; when a consumer walks through Center Store what brand does she see?" said Jacobson.
Back in the April 15, 1985, issue, SN reported on eye-catching methods being used at three IGA supermarkets to spur consumer interest in food and nonfood items. Promotional, handwritten signs in the ice cream area read "Let Us Cheat a Little" and "Ice Cream Goodies."
Although handwritten chalkboard signs can still be found in some produce departments in supermarkets across the country, signage within the center aisles has been through several metamorphoses.
According to Kevin Armata, president and chief executive officer of Windsor Marketing Group, a producer of in-store signage based in Windsor Locks, Conn., the shelf-talkers and perpendicular signs of yesteryear "don't really do the job for Center Store" anymore.
Issues like zoning in pricing and differing word interpretations around the country (for example, the color green being coded as either GR or GN based on location) have made certain signage methods hard to implement with a certain level of consistency. And some require a very high degree of maintenance.
Today, Armata said, retailers are having success with a concept called path-to-purchase, which includes a sign about 24 by 30 inches that can be seen from 70 to 100 feet away, and is hung horizontally in the aisle.
"Most people shop without lists, so when somebody hits your store they are looking for solutions or ideas on what they're going to buy or have. If you theme them 'dinner tonight' or 'a given meal' around the store, you actually will change people's buying habits," Armata said.
Signage can also act as the gateway for ethnic consumers to become familiar with a retailer's assortment, he added.
"Point-of-purchase or picture signs are really what we're doing in Center Store right now. Picture signs have a whole lot of uses; it's appetite appeal and how you get rid of the bilingual problem," Armata told SN.
At the eight Lunds and 12 Byerly's units, "wings" run vertically from top to bottom on shelves to help designate the natural and organic Living Wise store-within-a-store department. The store also tested a "telling the story" theme during the holidays that saw 150 signs placed around the store offering serving suggestions, gift ideas and complimentary product advice.
"We saw a strong [sales] lift," said Vuolo, who added that the chain has decided to incorporate the program in its year-round promotional strategy.
"Our positioning is the variety and uniqueness of items that we have and, if we tell a story and offer solutions, recipe or meal combos, that can generate a lot of excitement," he added.
Shaw's also promotes its Wild Harvest health foods and its World Market aisles of ethnic items through special signage, be it arching aisle signs or simply informational visuals identifying the nation of origin of a product.
Signage is also an effective method for retailers looking to increase same-store sales now that the opening of new stores has subsided due to economic restraints.
"In the last 12 months, everybody is concentrating more on 'how do I increase same stores sales?' than opening," Armata said. "Out of the eight to 10 clients I've spoken with in the last two weeks, six of them have projects on how to flag new items. This is a perfect way to capitalize on it."
In the past, SN has quoted consumer packaged goods manufacturers who hoped to see a destination aisle created around their particular category. In today's industry, it's the retailers themselves who are pushing this concept in an effort to stave off the looming category killer alternative channels.
Over the last two years, Shaw's has incorporated the aforementioned Wild Harvest separate, health-food destination into all of its units. In addition to unique signage, the section is set apart by plank board flooring and green shelving.
The retailer also features a complete aisle devoted to baking with spices, cookware, spatulas, sugar, flour, etc.; a baby aisle incorporating all items from toys to bottles in one aisle set apart by different lighting and flooring; a wine department with oak racks and low lighting; and a pet aisle that encompasses 90 linear feet with "cats on the left and dogs on the right," Rogan added.
Lunds and Byerly's stores integrate the Living Wise assortment of natural and organic products throughout the store but, "the destination category for us is condiments -- spices, sauces, jellies and rubs," said Vuolo. "For us, it's a perfect tie-in because we differentiate ourselves on the types of perimeter items that we sell, and yet we have these unique condiments and it's really a great solution for our customers."
Journey to the Center
1904: Peanut butter is introduced at the St. Louis Exposition as a health food for seniors.
1906: Kellogg Co. founded in Battle Creek, Mich., begins shaping the American breakfast with cereal and grain-based foods.
1921: A home economist and a fashion designer at General Mills create the fictional Betty Crocker.
1926: Hain Foods is started in Los Angeles with canned carrot juice. The company eventually becomes one of the foremost innovators in the natural foods industry.
1930: Twinkles are created at Hostess.
1934: Mars Candy Co. purchases a British pet food company and introduces canned pet foods to the United States as a more nutritious alternative to table scraps.
1938: Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is passed by Congress, requiring that beverages, foods, drugs and cosmetics be proven safe.
1939: The first precooked, frozen meals are introduced by Birds Eye.
1941: South Carolina is the first state to mandate enrichment of white bread with vitamins and minerals.
1952: No-Cal Ginger Ale, the first no-calorie soft drink with market acceptance, is introduced. It was developed for obese, diabetic patients.
1965: Gatorade is developed by researchers at the University of Florida. The product was named after the school mascot, the Florida Gator.
1973: Nutrition labeling is standardized by the FDA in response to pressure from consumer groups. The suggested format is to include content information for calories, protein, carbohydrate and fat, as well as U.S Recommended Daily Allowances for various vitamins, minerals and protein.
1981: Nestle's introduces Stouffer's Lean Cuisine frozen dinners for diet-conscious consumers.
1990: Nutrition Labeling and Education Act passes, requiring all packaged foods to bear nutrition labeling and all health claims for foods to be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
2000: National standards for the production, handling and processing of organic foods are announced. All products labeled organic must be certified by a USDA-