EAST BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- Shaw's Supermarkets here is looking to sweeten total-store sales by making its in-store bakeries irresistible.
The chain's multi-layer strategy is aimed at pulling a broad range of consumers into the bakery with the quality, variety and freshness that's offered there, and it's paying off, officials said.
Colorful theme ads, a bumped-up demo schedule, increasingly open production, repositioning of the department up front, the installation of state-of-the-art equipment, and the continuing introduction of new programs such as its Breads of Distinction artisan line and its photo-image cakes -- with much fanfare -- are part of the push.
The aromas of fresh-baked bread and cookies wafting through the store do their part, too. So do sumptuous displays of high-end gourmet cakes. Indeed, one of the bakery's keys to success is the far-ranging product mix, said Shaw's officials.
"We have some really different, upscale products, but we also offer the more mundane items, which is very important. That's consistent with our overall philosophy that Shaw's stores are for everybody," said Bernard Rogan, director of corporate communications for the 167-unit chain.
In other words, the retailer is targeting the consumer who's hankering after a good blueberry muffin to go with their morning coffee as well as the one who needs a really elegant dessert to serve to dinner guests.
The theory is that there's no better place than the ISB to show off such variety and also communicate the "fresh" and "quality" messages that Shaw's is intent on sending, said Cheryl Schondek, the chain's bakery category manager.
The retailer chose bakery to represent this philosophy last spring when it was invited to participate in a Food TV Network taste show at the Rhode Island Convention Center. There, alongside some well-known chefs from participating restaurants, Shaw's bakery people demoed its just-launched Breads of Distinction.
"Bakery definitely has an edge when it comes to portraying a fresh image, especially with some of the products we've launched in the last 12 months, like Breads of Distinction and Memories on Cake," Schondek said.
The Breads of Distinction program is one of the newest in a repertoire of private-label lines the chain has developed over the last few years and it was an instant success, said Rogan.
"Sales are ahead of projection and the margin implications are phenomenal. I see a lot of customers actually going in and waiting for the breads to come out of the oven," he said, adding that people call ahead to see if their favorite bread is available on a particular day. "It's just like the days of yore. That's what people did with their corner bakery."
That observation validates what Shaw's is trying to do with its bakery, Schondek said. It's deliberately attempting to re-create some of the comfort and excitement that used to emanate from the mom-and-pop neighborhood bakery.
"We have people coming in just to buy a loaf of crusty bread for dinner, like they would at their corner bakery. We'll turn them into Shaw's customers," Schondek said.
The frozen dough, par-baked line, developed to Shaw's specifications, features seven varieties including a crusty Parisian, a boule, wheats and ciabatta, and is baked off all day in small batches.
A 6-foot section of counter dedicated to displaying the breads is replenished often, reinforcing the perception of freshness, Rogan pointed out.
"There's a constant flow from oven to shelf. People see that the baking is done right there."
Shaw's doesn't have a central bakery. Instead, it prides itself on having state-of-the-art equipment like steam-injection ovens and well-equipped cake-decorating stations in every store. In fact, cake decorators figure heavily into making the ISB a magnet.
Their training has been intensified to make sure there's a skilled decorator in every bakery. Their stations have been brought out onto the floor, and there's no scrimping when it comes to supplying them with everything they need to do a superlative job, Rogan said.
"We don't shortchange our associates or limit their ability to perform by not having the right equipment or enough supplies or inventory," he said.
Memories on Cake, launched early this year, required a major investment in equipment to produce edible photo images on cakes via computer-scanning, but it's been worth it, Schondek said.
"Sales are well above expectations in all stores and they're still growing by leaps and bounds," she said, adding that the program was rolled out to all Shaw's bakeries at one time, "because we knew it would be a winner."
Schondek went on to explain that the photo-cake program is doing much more for Shaw's than just putting money in the register today. It's building future business, she said.
"It creates a great opportunity for customer-associate interchange, and for associates to put their creativity to work."
The resulting product has often created such raves that the customer's loyalty is all but sealed.
"For example, we had a customer who said her son was excited about getting his driver's license and she wanted a cake decorated appropriately to celebrate the occasion, but she needed some ideas. Our associate suggested she take her own driver's license and scan it for the cake. After she blotted out some of the information on it, she reproduced it, blown up, on the cake, and it turned out great. Everybody loved it. We'll have that customer for life."
While such customer service is bound to produce enthusiastic word-of-mouth advertising, the chain isn't relying on that alone. It's running frequent full-page ads touting the photo cakes and telling customers "it's not just for birthdays." In-store announcements, register receipts and signs also tell customers about the photo cakes available in the bakery, and just this fall the bakery struck a deal with the photo department to promote the cakes.
Now, when customers get film developed at Shaw's, they get a coupon for $2 off the price of a photo cake.
The flourishing Memories on Cake business, like the recent addition of high-end dessert cakes such as checkerboard ganache and marble truffle, is an extension of an already-strong cake program, Rogan stressed.
"Over long years, Shaw's has built a great reputation for cakes. We're just building on that and growing the business with it," Rogan said.
Another strong category for Shaw's -- muffins -- also gave birth to a successful spinoff product this year -- ring cakes. They're baked in bundt pans from muffin mix dough and have become a customer favorite.
"If you're in love with our corn muffins or apple or blueberry muffins, you can now get the product in ring-cake form, too," which makes an appealing dessert, said Rogan.
An earlier extension of muffin success at Shaw's was exemplified by its Muffin of the Month program. It features such novel flavors as root beer float and peach blossom and lemon Easter parade. A Cookie of the Month program was developed as an offshoot of this, and promotes similar flavors. They're ways to keep customer interest piqued, Rogan said.
"People are always curious about what the next flavor of the month will be, and that creates another opportunity for interaction with our associates," he said.
Schondek emphasized that the flavors of the month, odd though some of them may sound, are developed in conjunction with the chain's food technology department. The relationship between the two departments is close because they're working constantly to monitor the quality of products, she explained.
All the hoopla created by new product debuts, the splashy ads and all, wouldn't be worth anything if it weren't backed up with top quality, she said.
"That's our No. 1 concern. We're constantly upgrading."
Every Thursday afternoon for two hours, the bakery department evaluates products in the corporate test kitchen, she said.
"We review the variety [within a category], the quality, the size, the appearance, the flavor, the texture. And we use panelists just as you would in a formal survey."
Rogan added that the evaluations include a blind cutting in which typically a national brand, a local competitor's private-label brand and a Shaw's product are compared on all points.
"If our product comes up short , we make corrections immediately."
In its ongoing effort to put bakery in the limelight, Shaw's has moved the department up front to the second spot in the traffic pattern in all new stores and remodels. The bakery's inventory has grown to 500 stockkeeping units, at least 250 of which are available at any given time, Rogan said.