LOS ANGELES -- In sunny Southern California, where freshness is the star on any retailer's marquee, Bristol Farms is delivering an Oscar-winning performance, particularly in produce.
The 12-unit independent retailer, known for its upscale ambience, earns some 75% of overall store sales from fresh food items, according to Charlie Bergh, vice president of marketing.
"The produce section is the key department for us as to how we go to market," he said, adding that the extent to which the grocer goes to keep fresh, quality product on the shelves surpasses anything he has seen over the course of his 39-year supermarket career.
"And, in an area as large as Los Angeles, it's important to maintain a certain standard in order to keep the customers we have and win over others," he said.
But even a large consumer base doesn't guarantee profits in an area like L.A., where residents become very "food-oriented, discriminating shoppers" when they walk through the doors of any supermarket.
The retailer's standard-setting produce department will be on display later this month when the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2000 International Convention and Exposition lands in nearby Anaheim, Oct. 27-31. The organization will sponsor store tours that include a stop at Bristol Farms' Newport Beach unit, where the produce aisle will see hundreds of visitors over the course of the convention.
"We're not going to do anything differently for the PMA guests, just continue to do what we do," said Bergh. "What you're going to to see is what we do everyday."
The concept of freshness is ingrained in the retailer's psyche and overall business philosophy, and begins at the buyer level. The chain's sourcing network stretches from continent to continent to find the best available foods, enabling Raul Gallegos, produce director for the El Segundo-based retailer, to offer tomatoes from Holland, onions from Hawaii and pineapple from Tahiti.
All the chain's produce is hand-selected by Bristol Farms buyers who often travel up and down the West coast looking for the best product. According to Bergh, each buyer is trained to follow the grocer's high standards.
"Our buyers know that if they go out and find a product that doesn't live up to what we're accustomed to, or what our shoppers expect from us, then the store will go without that product for a week and we'll either come back or source it from someplace else," he said.
Once an item hits the shelves of a Bristol Farms produce department, it is governed by a simple, chain-wide policy that Bergh summed up as, "don't get in too early, don't stay in too long."
"Timing is everything in the produce aisle," he said. "From sourcing, to transporting, to shelving, to removing an item when it's no good anymore -- it's all part of the policy."
It is the combination of expert sourcing and consumer approval that allows Bristol Farms to keep its shelves looking fresh and pleasant to the eye, and Bergh said stores do not hesitate to remove items that lose their aesthetic appeal even if they are still edible.
"Food is art and we treat it that way," said Bergh.
Produce items are often geometrically stacked on the shelves, so that the products and their display are eyecatching and attractive to shoppers. Each item is accompanied by a 6-inch by 8-inch sign that touts its name, and each sign is specially made in-house and hung over the display cases in plexiglass. The average department measures roughly 7,000 square feet.
The produce departments in the two new Bristol Farms markets under construction in Redondo Beach and Beverly West, Calif., will assume the same basic dimensions and design features of the other 12 stores, said Bergh, and will maintain the high standard for physical appeal and cleanliness.
As with most Bristol Farms footprints, the produce section in one of the new units (total store size: 26,250 square feet) will be located opposite the main store entrance. It will harbor a 48-foot wet rack, a 32-foot, multi-deck case and three separate 24-foot refrigerated tables.
Sourcing quality product is one thing, but moving it back out of the store requires a strong staff, said Bergh. Each produce department maintains its superb quality by recruiting and retaining associates who undergo extensive on-the-job training and display a knack for interaction with customers.
Bergh called the produce department in Bristol Farms stores a "non-service department with a service attitude," and the employees are trained and encouraged accordingly. The philosophy means every member of the staff, from the manager on down, has to be creative in making their presence and availability known to customers, who may not be accustomed to service in produce, noted Bergh.
"Making sure shoppers never have a bad-quality experience, whether with food or with the staff, is our number-one priority," said Bergh. "So if someone is not prepared to be friendly and helpful at all times, then we really encourage them to seek employment elsewhere."
According to Bergh, Bristol Farms is so confident in the freshness and quality of its produce department, and any other item in the store, that it allows customers to sample any product, anytime, before they consider making a purchase.
The quality of the retailer's products was even recognized in the 1999 Zagat's Marketplace Survey, which praised the supermarket for its "farmer's market quality" produce department, and rated the store "Best Supermarket in L.A.," according to Bergh. Spreading the word about Bristol Farms produce is another aspect of the department that Bergh takes pride in, as quality product should be advertised in a quality manner, he said.
Bristol Farms weekly ad circulars dedicate an unusually large amount of space to produce items, and local newspapers are inundated with produce plugs on a consistent basis, said Bergh. Once the summer season rolls around, produce is always on the cover of the store's circulars, since the appeal and demand for the refreshing items jumps in the hotter months.
"Once summer promotions begin, we see produce sales go up and shelves empty more quickly," said Bergh. "So we naturally try to follow the tide and push it even more with the circulars and the specials."
Recent ads for the produce aisle pitched green, seedless grapes for 99 cents per pound and featured a tantalizing photograph of a dozen grapes still on the stem, as well as a summertime staple, large California peaches, on sale for $1.29 per pound.
Large Washington state cherries for $1.99 per pound, advertised on the cover of a Bristol Farms July circular, showcase one item that Bergh said is one of the biggest sellers due to their very short growing season.
"We do enormous sales in cherries whenever they come into season, and we always make sure they are the focal point of the department during that period," he said. "People love them, and we make sure the shelves are always full when they're available."
Cross-merchandising some produce items with other store products also helps boost sales and brings people into the department, said Bergh. One recent effort teamed Cluster tomatoes from Holland, at $2.49 per pound and heads of Romaine lettuce at 69 cents each, with Bristol Farms USDA Choice top sirloin at $5.99 per pound.
"When the major produce months begin to fade, we slowly start to integrate some of the other products so that one can lean on the other, and vice versa, during a time when demand for each isn't at its peak," he said.
Bristol Farms also stocks 15 or 20 organic produce items at any given time, though store officials do not feel the need to generate much publicity or excitement about them since "people who want organics know where to get it and what they need, so we don't have to push them on our shelves or in our ads," Bergh said.