BOISE, Idaho -- "Viva Albertsons!"
That's been the early response among Hispanic consumers toward SuperSaver Foods, the new Hispanic format that Albertsons is piloting in three Southern California locations.
Larry Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer, told SN in an interview that sales are exceeding expectations, "and we think we've hit a home run with the concept.
"We regard these first three stores as a test, and as we track the results, we'll decide what we want to change. But so far, the signs are good."
Albertsons unveiled the three pilot units of SuperSaver Foods in late August in Santa Ana, Wilmington and Southgate, Calif. -- low- to medium-income communities where Hispanic populations run as high as 75%, chain officials said.
Two of the three SuperSavers formerly operated under the Albertsons Grocery Warehouse banner; the largest of the three, the 59,000-square-foot store in Santa Ana, is a former Albertsons with a clientele that's heavily first-generation American.
Juan Ramirez, store director of the Santa Ana SuperSaver, told SN the store has received a lot of positive feedback from customers, "who tell us they appreciate that the store is clean, well-organized and well-signed and that they can find the items they need without feeling the store is cluttered, as they find at some other Hispanic-neighborhood stores."
Johnston declined to say when or where Albertsons might open additional Hispanic units, but there will be further expansion, he said -- albeit with some changes. "We will roll out the Hispanic format after we work on the concept a bit," he said. "The consumer is very discerning, so we want to get it just right."
Johnston said he isn't sure how long the rollout process will take, "but like our online business, we will continue to test the format in different markets till we get it just right."
According to a chain spokeswoman, Albertsons became interested in testing a Hispanic format "because Larry [Johnston] is interested in finding better ways to do things that will produce a better return-on-invested capital."
Albertsons chose Southern California for the pilot SuperSaver units "because that was the first market where we had a group of stores that needed refurbishing, which gave us an opportunity to conduct our tests. And given the large Hispanic population there, it made sense to conduct the test there," the spokeswoman said.
"But there will be other Hispanic formats in other parts of the country," she added.
Demographic surveys indicate the Hispanic population of Southern California is approaching 50%, and a market-share study published in SN in August showed that 26.5% of Hispanic food dollars in the Los Angeles area were spent at Albertsons last year -- second only to 29.1% at Ralphs, and just ahead of 24.3% spent at Food 4 Less.
Albertsons is the first major chain in Southern California to open a Hispanic format since Vons Cos. introduced Tianguis there in 1986. Vons opened nine Tianguis stores over the subsequent three years but converted the stores to other formats in 1994 -- a move Vons attributed to ongoing grape-boycotting activity by the United Farm Workers Union and the stores' high service orientation at a time when Vons should have taken costs out of the system.
Observers also said the stores' appeal was geared too much to a Hispanic segment that actually wanted to become more American in its shopping habits.
Boys Markets, a smaller Southern California-based chain, also converted some stores to a Hispanic format called Viva at about the same time, but that also folded.
Rather than opening Hispanic-format stores, the major chains in Southern California offer expanded Hispanic sets at stores in Hispanic neighborhoods, and independent operators in those areas gear their mix to the customers who trade with them.
The format most like SuperSaver, based on store size and selection, would probably be Gigante, the Mexico City-based retailer that operates five stores in Southern California, with three more under construction. While none of SuperSaver's stores goes head-to-head with any of the Gigante locations, a store Gigante is building in Anaheim, Calif., that is scheduled to open early next year will be about five miles from the Santa Ana SuperSaver.
According to Johnston, Albertsons did extensive research before designing the SuperSaver format, including talking with consumers and focus groups, working closely with vendors, exploring best practices around the country, "and visiting every Hispanic-format store in and out of the U.S."
Signage in the stores is bilingual, with English above Spanish on the wall and in-aisle signs, and 90% of employees are bilingual, Ramirez, the store director at the Santa Ana location, told SN.
He said his store, like the two other SuperSavers, features expanded perimeter departments to accommodate the Hispanic customers' demand for fresh products.
The produce department in the right front corner of the store is double the size of the section in the store format it replaced to increase the selection and tonnage, Ramirez said. The store now carries 350 produce items with expanded island fixtures to accommodate high-profile massive displays, he explained.
Included are conventional produce items, a large assortment of fresh chiles, expanded displays of dried peppers and spices, and bulk displays of rice and pinto beans, plus Peruvian beans -- "an up-and-coming item that's popular with Hispanic consumers because they cook faster," Ramirez said.
Showcased around the base of the island displays and above the refrigerated cases against the wall are a variety of general merchandise items, including tamale steamer pots -- "which other stores carry at Thanksgiving and Christmas but which we plan to carry year-round," Ramirez noted -- plus barbecue burners (quemadores), deep soup bowls (pozole bowls) and ceramic piggy banks.
"We feature a lot of general merchandise items in the produce area because consumers spend a lot of time in that section," Ramirez explained.
At the rear of the store is a 48-foot service meat counter, with 24 feet each of fresh seafood and meat. The seafood section includes massive displays of shrimp, whole catfish, tilapia and octopus, and prepared dishes like shrimp ceviche, breaded catfish and imitation crab salad -- with an everyday discount of 50 cents off the price per pound for orders of 3 pounds or more.
"Everyone buys more than three pounds," Ramirez noted.
A similar price break is offered on the meat side, where thin-cut steaks, marinated flap meats, pork shoulder and poultry are displayed.
"The Albertsons store that was here before did not include service meat," Ramirez pointed out. "But Hispanic consumers like that interaction with other humans, and the meat counter is mobbed on the weekend. We turn the displays daily over the weekend, and we have 10 people working the counter to accommodate the crush."
SuperSaver displays 10-pound packages of frozen seafood and poultry on island displays in the meat section.
The dairy case on the back wall features expanded assortments of Sunny Delight drinks, Horchester rice drinks and Tampico fruit drinks; a massive egg display features eggs packed by the dozen, in 18-count cartons and in containers of five dozen.
On the left side of the store is a large panaderia (bakery), featuring Mexican cookies displayed in self-service cases (pan dulce), a reach-in case for freshly baked bolillo rolls, and a bakery counter featuring moist, traditional Mexican cakes known as "tres leches" (three milks).
The service deli in the front left corner of the store features Hispanic salads, cheeses, sauces and tamales, with a hot-foods section that includes fried chicken, chicken wings and pork carnitas -- "one of the store's most popular items," Ramirez said.
SuperSavers is testing a Mexican meal-to-go, similar to Albertsons' Quick Fixin's dinners: one pound of carnitas, a half-pound of salsa, one dozen tortillas and one pound of refried beans for $5.99. The store also offers a Quick Fixin's chicken dinner -- eight pieces of fried chicken, one pound of salad and four rolls -- also priced at $5.99.
Grocery shelving in the middle of the store consists of warehouse-style racks, with excess merchandised stored on top of the fixtures. The music piped into the store consists of Hispanic Top 40 and U.S. oldies.
Other SuperSaver features include the following:
A Sav-on pharmacy -- a carryover from Albertsons. The pharmacy remained open during the month or so that the store was closed for remodeling, Ramirez noted.
A health and beauty care section that features a variety of soaps, vitamins, first-aid products, baby products and feminine hygiene lines from Mexico and Spain, which are purchased through a broker.
A 99-cent section, consisting of a 36-foot gondola featuring a variety of grocery and HBC products from an outside vendor and that are available on a consistent basis.
A gondola displaying the fastest-moving items covered by the government's W.I.C. (Women, Infants, Children) program -- a voucher program for welfare recipients -- including dry cereal, baby formula, peanut butter, bottled juice and canned beans.
A promotional aisle featuring Mexican blankets, made-in-Mexico blue jeans priced at $12.99 and Halloween candy.
A frozen section that includes expanded space for pot pies, ice cream and novelties (in sizes up to 5-quart tubs), burritos and vegetables.