LANCASTER, Pa. -- Darrenkamp's Markets has sent its fried chicken sales soaring by switching the way it offers the product -- going from self-service to a service counter.
At its largest store on the outskirts of town, the retailer made the change for several reasons, including better presentation, easier product rotation, customer-associate interaction and a better value for the customer. In five weeks, sales have risen by 40%, and shrink has plummeted by at least 30%, officials said.
The 51,000-square-foot store had been merchandising chicken and related fried items on a self-service hot table adjoining another self-service table with such items as meat loaf, lasagna, macaroni and cheese, and a roster of side dishes.
During the changeover to service, chicken sales dropped as customers adjusted to the switch.
"It was a little bit of a rocky road going the first week out, just because it was a change, I think. But our people were out there in front of the case to answer questions and show customers how it would work for them," said Larry Darrenkamp, co-owner of the family-owned, three-unit independent.
The key to getting customers acclimated -- and buying -- so quickly was keeping everything on a positive note, said Heidi Rankin, deli manager.
"Our associates were ready. They knew weeks ahead what we were doing, and exactly why we were doing it. They've been great. They point out to customers that the new case is better for the product's quality, keeping chicken and potatoes nice and crispy. And then the deli girls tell customers they wanted to have some contact with them, to talk to them," Rankin said.
The new case Rankin referred to is an eight-foot, Alto-Shaam with halo heat. She explained how it works.
"The other hot table has the pans sitting on water, which is OK for other items, but not fried. The chicken pieces on the bottom would get too well done, and the ones on top didn't stay hot enough. In the new one, there's no water, and the pans sit on racks suspended above the heat source. There's space, so the heat can come up and around the product."
The position of the fried-foods case, too, was flip-flopped with the other hot-food case, so that it's now adjacent to the service deli. Putting the fried offerings close to the service deli makes for easier monitoring; thus, associates keep displays full and properly rotated.
"It's easy for them to keep track of how long pieces have been in the pan, [and] which ones have been added most recently. When it's self-service, with customers moving them around, it's impossible to know," Rankin said.
Better holding and easier rotation are big pluses, but so is customer-deli associate contact. The employees can answer questions, sell add-ons, tell customers about upcoming promotions and all that is helping sales, too, Rankin said. While the service-deli associates take care of chicken customers during the day, a newly hired staffer is dedicated to the chicken counter from four to nine every evening.
Darrenkamp told SN the new set-up is doing just what he wanted it to -- and more.
"I just wanted to get sales figures going up instead of down. The eye appeal is better, too, and it's my idea that people just want to be served. Yes, they like salad bars, but this is different, especially with fried chicken and that type of thing," Darrenkamp said.
"Our chicken sales were way down here. We're the biggest of the three stores and we were selling less chicken, so we knew something was wrong. The big difference was the other stores had a service case and different heat," Rankin explained.
The new case features five full pans and two half pans that show off fried chicken and rotisserie pieces, chicken tenders, corn fritters, corn dogs, and two or three kinds of potatoes like waffle and smiley fries, and potato wedges.
As customers look into the case, it appears that there's twice as much product because a mirror at the back of the case reflects the product while associates can see through the mirrored panel from the back. At the front of the case, at about knee-level, a refrigerated section offers up individual servings of salads.
Since the case is right next to the cold deli, customers also can buy larger amounts of salad or other sides from that service case.
"If they're buying a bucket of chicken, they might want more and they can get it right there," Rankin said.
In addition to all the other positives, there's a price advantage for customers. Previously, fried items as part of the whole self-service hot-table arrangement were priced accordingly -- everything $3.99 a pound across the board.
"Paying $3.99 for potato wedges is pretty high. Now, they're priced at 99 cents a pound at the service case, and chicken, both fried and rotisserie, by the piece is $3.69 a pound. We also have buckets at a discounted price," said Rankin.
With help from suppliers, the store earlier had offered a 14-piece bucket of either fried or rotisserie pieces, two pounds of macaroni salad, a large bag of chips, a 2-liter bottle of soda and an 8-inch cake, all for $12.95. People put their orders in for those ahead of time," Rankin said.
"A week before a particular special, we put up a big poster on the front door and on the case so customers know what's coming next."