LAKELAND, Fla. -- Publix Super Markets here has put the icing on the cake with a new, in-your-face bakery merchandising strategy that draws on its past.
Long renowned for its in-store bakeries and, in particular, for its decorated cakes, the chain has rec ently invested lots of money to show off the talents of its decorators -- and the cakes they produce -- in a new way.
The decorators -- some of whom are winners of national competitions -- are positioned at "decorating stations" that bring them face-to-face, and almost within arms' reach, of customers. Only a low-profile self-service case stands between the decorator and shoppers and that low-profile case displays decorated cakes.
The element that makes such intensive cake theater possible is a custom-made, marble-topped, refrigerated unit that holds decorating supplies and equipment and faces the selling floor. The storage space at the decorator's fingertips enables him or her to keep the work surface uncluttered and, at the same time, face the customer without the interruption of walking away to get supplies.
"This is about merchandising and selling. It's like a magician drawing you onto the stage. I don't know for sure that it works exactly this way, but if you were drawn to the decorating station, you might decide to buy that cake that's being decorated or one from the self-service case," said Ed Weller, president of Weller Co., a North Hollywood, Calif., consulting firm that works with manufacturers and supermarkets.
Any slow-up of production resulting from the close proximity of shoppers would almost certainly be offset by the selling benefits of such creative merchandising, he said.
Weller added that Publix, which has more than 400 units located in the Southeast, is also underscoring its quality image by spotlighting what it is known to do exceptionally well.
"From the standpoint of reputation, there isn't anybody better in the United States. They're tops in quality, especially in bakery, and they're absolute masters at decorating cakes," he said.
"This [the new decorating station] is a glamorized edition of the theater we had when we [in the industry] started designing supermarket in-store bakeries five or 10 years ago. Then, the 'cake theater' was somewhere off in the corner, with the decorator facing the customer. But there was a glass wall. Kids could stand there with their noses to the window and watch the decorator work," Weller said.
At other Publix stores, the bakeries feature open production but associates work farther back from the display cases.
Weller noted that as supermarket in-store bakeries have added more self-service, it makes sense to emphasize the human factor by putting emphasis on the decorator's work.
He and other industry sources said that for Publix the investment in bringing the decorator physically closer to the customer would be well worthwhile because Publix already has a reputation for quality and customer service and this is a way to emphasize that.
Consumers in Orlando and in Tampa, Fla., have told SN in the past that they shop at Publix because it has outstanding baked goods. SN also found recently that fiercely loyal customers carry that message far and wide. A former resident of St. Augustine, Fla., Barbara Lutz, who recently relocated to a small, rural community in upstate New York, said last month that she misses Publix' bakery.
"We always bought our birthday cakes at Publix and we'd get something from the bakery everytime we did our grocery shopping," Lutz said.
Indeed, the quality and customer service at Publix' bakeries not only cements customers' loyalty, but it also raises the bar at the competition.
When Gooding's Supermarkets opened a new prototype store near a Publix unit in Orlando three years ago, an executive at the Apopka, Fla.-based chain told SN his company was specifically upscaling its bakery offerings "to stay in the competition."
It's Publix' method of training that keeps it on top, according to Ed Weller.
"Publix has always taken pride in the way it trains its bakery associates. They have an absolutely gorgeous training center in Lakeland," said Weller.
"They're committed to quality and consistency. They want you to be able to get the same product, made fresh in-store at whatever Publix you might go into, and you can't have that without excellent training."
And cake-decorating is a big deal at Publix. For two consecutive years, Publix associates have placed first in a cake-decorating competition sponsored by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. This year, the winner was Diane Moore, on the bakery staff at a Publix unit here; last year, it was Sandy Horvath, from a Publix store in Boynton Beach, Fla.
A panelist at a seminar at the IDDBA's annual convention in Philadelphia this year, Horvath told attendees how Publix attracted consumers' attention in its various markets by holding decorating competition internally to choose a contender to enter the IDDBA challenge. Then, the chain made the most of Horvath's winning status to foster publicity.
The company put up a huge congratulations banner in the Boynton Beach store where she works, Horvath said. "And that definitely generated new and repeat business in the bakery," she said.
It also generated stories in the local consumer media.
When SN visited a Publix flagship unit in Tampa, Fla., recently, the cake decorator was answering customers' questions with a smile as she decked out a quarter-sheet cake with a pink border and a multicolored bouquet of roses.
She worked at one of the new 48-inch by 36-inch, marble-topped, refrigerated "decorating stations." It had a like-sized marble-topped table with drawers alongside it. The refrigerated unit has a door on its front, and shelving within.
"That way she doesn't have to walk away from the station to get more icing or equipment," a store-level source said. He also noted that the refrigerated unit and matching work table were made to Publix' specifications by a local equipment manufacturer, Edwards Manufacturing.
Officials at Publix' corporate offices here did not return SN's phone calls seeking more information about the work/cake theater stations.
A source close to Publix, however, told SN the stations have been installed in at least 10 Publix units in the chain's Tampa division and will be added at stores in other divisions.
A permanent, painted wood sign over the decorator's station at the Tampa store read, "Custom Cake Orders," and a spiral-bound book on a metal pedestal stand nearby showed color photos of specialty cakes, including elaborate wedding cakes, all with their respective retail prices.
Just in front of the decorator's workstation was a very low-profile, reach-in case that displayed decorated cakes. Also, across the aisle, a huge length -- at least 24 feet long -- of European-style slant tables showed off decorated cakes in every size in dome-topped packaging. A double-layer, 7-inch cake retailed for $10.49 and a quarter sheet for $13.49.
The cakes and the decorator are quickly visible since they are one of the first elements in the fresh-foods power aisle. They immediately follow a bustling fresh-meals and made-to-order sub sandwich section at the front corner of the store.