SN Undercover is a new four-part Center Store series that will recount what our reporters see during impromptu visits to a market chosen at random.
During these visits, SN will focus on a specific aspect of the grocery department -- such as merchandising, customer service and promotions.
The purpose of the series is to find out what's occurring at store level from the consumer's point of view.
Watch for this year's three other SN Undercover stories, which are scheduled to run July 14, Sept. 22 and Dec. 22.
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- What kind of help is Center Store providing for the busy consumer in need of an easy meal solution?
To find out how retailers here are answering that question, SN visited Mr. Z's, which is owned by Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa.; Insalaco Markets, the DuBois, Pa.-based Riverside division of Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y.; Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.; and Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.
Of the four chains, Price Chopper and Wegmans were actively promoting various shelf-stable and frozen products that could be used to prepare a quick meal.
During one weekend last month, Price Chopper in the East End shopping center held demos for Green Giant's "Create a Meal."
A demonstrator was stationed in the front of the store, directly behind the cash registers and at the head of the first horizontal grocery aisle. Signs reading "A Fresh Meal Solution to Dinner. . . in 20 minutes" were posted at the station.
The demonstrator prepared Green Giant's chicken fajita meal, the newest entry in Green Giant's Create a Meal line.
The 1-pound fajita package, which was on sale at two for $5, contains vegetables, seasoning, salsa and cheese. Adding diced chicken creates a complete meal.
Plastic cups containing samples were passed out to customers, who also received a coupon for 55 cents off the Create a Meal oven roasted variety. Consumers who purchased two bags using the coupon received each package for about $2 each, plus a free spatula.
The entire Create a Meal line was on sale with Price Chopper's AdvantEdge shopper's card. There was also a buy-one, get-one-free offer on Green Giant's Pasta Accents.
Overall, Price Chopper's frozen foods section carried a wide array of meal-solution ingredients. The Green Giant section, for instance, had an entire line of Create a Meal products, along with Green Giant Pasta Accents. The Pasta Accents packages featured "Rush Hour" recipes, or suggestions for how to make the product into a meal.
In addition, the store carried Birds Eye "Easy Recipe Meal Starter," which the store planned to demo the following day.
During SN's visit, several shoppers were seen buying various Green Giant products.
"I heard there were some new products," one shopper said, pointing out the lemon herb and cheese & herb varieties."I always buy the lo mein. I serve it with chicken and put it over rice."
Consumers were asked if the products help make dinner preparation less time-consuming.
"Yes," one responded. "When I get home late from work, I give it to my family."
Another customer said she purchased the product on the strength of the demo.
"I also look for products that will keep, and this is a winner," she said. She planned to serve Create a Meal over rice.
To get a better idea of what types of Center Store products the store offered, SN analyzed the store's circular, which had a "Ready Meals Shopper" four-page pullout.
Choices included ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook meals, along with recipes for easy-to-prepare dinners. These entrees -- which included San Antonio fish fillets, sweet tarragon pork chops, south of the border burgers and rosemary potato logs -- called for some Center Store ingredients, such as dried spices, apricot preserves, red wine and salsa. Most of the recipes took about 25 minutes to prepare.
To find out how store personnel respond to the time-pressed consumer, SN asked two young employees at the customer-service desk for assistance in finding items for quick meals that could be cooked at home. The workers were not especially helpful, but said to try the deli or meat department.
Wegmans, meanwhile, offered an aggressive meal-solution program during SN's visit. Its Highland Park Boulevard store featured an entire meal-solution program built around Wegmans' "Italian Classics" grocery line.
When SN asked a manager at the customer-service desk for help with meal solutions, she paged the deli manager. The deli staffer then met SN in the deli department, and pointed out the store's meal-solution center.
The display consisted of a VCR with tape and a rack of recipe cards that are part of the "What's for Dinner" program.
Alongside the meal-solution center was a 16-foot shelf display of grocery products in the Italian Classics line.
These store-branded products included a selection of dry pastas, a whole line of condiments -- including extra-virgin olive oil, various flavored oils and balsamic vinegar -- jar sauces, coffee, cheeses, granulated garlic, pickled vegetables, roasted peppers.
The deli manager explained that the meal-solution center was grocery-based and that the Italian Classics products could also be found in the grocery aisle.
The videotape described many of the recipes on the cards, which called for grocery items, as well as ingredients from the other areas of the store.
The Wegmans circular listed three recipes, featured under a "What's for Dinner Tonight" headline, which called for Italian Classics grocery products. "What's for Dinner" recipes never take more than 30 minutes to prepare, according to promotioanl material.
Recipes included polenta soup, pesto pasta salad and haddock pizziola, along with more generic fare like tossed sliced-steak salad, cheesy corn fritters and succotash.
Every night, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., Wegmans demos one of its "What's for Dinner" recipes, according to a store-level source. The service was publicized on a chalkboard in the vestibule of the store.
The store also offers 60- to 90-minute cooking classes every Sunday, the service desk manager said.
During SN's visit, the store conducted demos of the Birds Eye Meal Starter Alfredo variety.
All seven varieties of Birds Eye Meal Starters -- oriental stir fry, Alfredo, orange glaze, cheesy cheese, primavera, teriyaki stir fry, and Asian stir fry -- were on sale for two for $5. Each could be prepared by adding meat or fish.
SN found all of the Birds Eye Meal Starters in a bunker, prominently displayed, along with Green Giant's Create a Meal products and Pasta Accents.
This store conducts demos in various departments Thursday through Sunday, according to a store-level source.
When SN asked a customer-service representative at Insalaco's on Hazle Street what the store offered for a time-pressed consumer, the worker answered that Green Giant's Create a Meal in the frozens department would be appropriate.
The product was on special for $2.79 (a savings of 20 cents), along with Green Giant American Mixture vegetables, which were three for $5 (a savings of 32 cents). Green Giant Pasta Accents were also on sale for $2.19, and a 10-cent savings.
At Mr. Z's in both Plains and Tunkhannock, customer-service representatives had no suggestions for a consumer looking for a meal solution. Nonetheless, these stores also carried Green Giant and Birds Eye meal-solution packs. Create a Meal was $3.09, while the Pasta Accents were $2.09.
Birds Eye Meal Starters were $2.99, while Birds Eye Pasta Secrets, a product comparable to Green Giant's Pasta Accents, was $2.19 in the freezer case.