LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Victory Super Markets here is looking more and more to its produce department to give it a crisp edge in the marketplace, and that strategy is working to boost sales, officials said.
"Bigger and better" characterize the department at new stores and remodels. The most recent example is at a 50,000-square-foot remodel in Norwell, Mass., that opened in December.
Produce occupies a full 26% of that store's total floor space, the largest proportion yet in a Victory unit. The fresh aisle, which leads off with produce, is 20 feet wider than the fresh aisle at the company's prototype Market Square store in nearby Kingston, Mass. The tomato display itself, with a large variety of types and colors, runs 16 feet in length. Fruits are premium size and premium quality.
"We set the tone of the store with produce and to help us do that we buy the best of the market. There are others [retailers in the market area] who offer premium fruits, but not to this extent. The way we show them -- the mass displays, the size of the department -- makes more of a visual impact, too," said Torrey Taralli, director of produce for the 19-unit retailer.
In another store that's currently being revamped, two grocery aisles will be sacrificed to make space for a bigger produce department and fresh-food aisle that will have a modified Market Square format, Taralli said.
"New customers are in awe when they walk into a Market Square store," he said. And produce sales in Market Square-format stores, where produce is clearly the star, are higher than those in the chain's traditional stores, he added.
Years ago, its meat departments served to differentiate Victory from its competitors, but when the chain opened its first Market Square format in Kingston in 1996, management put produce in the limelight.
"Going back a few years, the first thing you would have seen inside the door was the meat department. Produce was more or less a convenience at that time. It was something you had to have."
Giving prominence to produce is not unusual these days, but Victory is doing it more dramatically than most, Taralli said.
"And it has definitely worked. In our Market Square stores, the percentage that produce contributes to total store sales is 3% to 5% higher than in traditional stores," he added.
The number of produce items in Victory's larger stores hits about 450, compared with 300 to 350 in earlier years. There also are about 50 stockkeeping units of organics and 40 to 50 of exotics, Taralli said.
Most produce items are displayed in baskets on European slant tables set horizontally in the aisle, giving the department an open-air market ambiance. Chalkboard signs designate categories.
In Victory's Market Square format, produce leads into the fresh-food aisle, which includes a Courtyard Cafe that offers a variety of ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat items, a bakery, service meat and seafood departments, traditional deli, a specialty cheese shop, and a floral shop.
"Produce, with its kaleidoscope of color, sets the stage for the whole perishables domain," said Jim Riesenburger, managing partner in Riesenburger, Leenhouts & Associates, a Rochester, N.Y.-based, full-service consulting firm that develops fresh-food concepts and home meal-replacement programs, and specifically helped Victory develop the Market Square concept.
The consulting firm, working with Victory since 1996, has engineered the remodeling of former Shaw's and Star Market units that Victory acquired last summer. Three of the units got their new look in time to open before the Christmas holidays, Riesenburger pointed out.
Riesenburger told SN he believes produce is paramount in setting a store's image. "In my mind, there are certain drivers, and produce is one of them. You can't afford to have a mediocre produce department. If you do, it sends a message that the rest of the store is probably mediocre, too," he said.
"Produce is one of the things we're using at Victory to distance ourselves from the competition. The emphasis is on the size and quality of the products. While other stores might have a size 7 honeydew melon, Victory has 12s, and size 48 oranges. Right now, they have some magnificent cherries from Chile."
Riesenburger also stressed the importance of huge displays and variety in stock.
"At Norwell, the wider, overall mouth of the perishables aisle [allowing for a wider expanse of mass produce displays] helps create a 'wow' reaction. It really makes a statement," Riesenburger said. He also noted that the perishables aisle at Norwell occupies 35% of the store's total floor space.
RL&A continues to work with Victory on new stores and remodels, including a remodel set to open in the spring.
Victory's Taralli said the Market Square format has been very successful and the focus it puts on produce continues to grow in importance because "it's a key issue with consumers."
A number of factors come together to make today's consumers particularly produce-aware, he said. They're more health-conscious than in the past, they travel more and thus get acquainted with more fresh products, and they watch cooking shows on television.
"Those chefs [on television] tell you you have to have a particular item, sometimes strange ones, and we try to carry them," Taralli said.
Customers need coaching on how to use some of the non-mainstream items, and that requires Victory to choose its produce associates carefully, Taralli said.
"We have to have the kind of person who can interact with people, and who's as interested in food as the customer is. We need to sample things, give customers a taste of kiwi fruit or show him or her how to use portabella mushrooms. One day, we grilled portabellas and people went wild over them."
A meals center that Victory developed with the help of RL&A is positioned at the front of the store, just to the side of produce, and that has helped produce sales, too, Taralli said.
"I think it has helped raise all our sales. We try to use a product from each department. A customer could really grab all the ingredients for their dinner right there without going up and down the aisles searching for them."
Here's how it works: At a demo station, a staffer prepares the "recipe of the week" right there and offers samples during peak traffic hours. Surrounding the demo station are displays of all the products used in the recipe, including the meat, chicken or seafood, which is offered in random-weight packages in a refrigerated case adjacent to the demo station.
For example, when the featured recipe was for apricot glazed pork with rice, displays of all the ingredients including apricot jam, chicken broth, instant rice, pork tenderloin and olive oil were right there at the demo station.
The program, called "What's for Dinner?," includes handout recipe cards and cooking guides as well as information about the nutritional qualities of the meal's ingredients. And the best part is that, as far as it can be determined, sales at the meals centers are incremental, Riesenburger said.
While all the properties acquired by Victory don't necessarily lend themselves to a full-fledged Market Square treatment, some will get meals centers and all will get some elements of the Market Square concept, including expanded produce, Taralli said.
"For instance, even where there's not much space, we can use blackboard signs and the European slant tables," he said.
In some of Victory's smaller stores, an abbreviated version of Market Square is employed, called Market Square Express. The variety offered is slightly smaller, for example, and the ready-to-eat food element is designed for takeout only. Mark Leenhouts, a managing partner in RL&A, explained that the concept itself is flexible.
"Each of the six Victory stores RL&A has worked with is very different, but we're able to take the concept and modify the components to fit the size, layout, age and budget of each store," Leenhouts said.