If supermarkets are heeding their customers' pleas for quality and convenience, then bagel displays are a case in point.
The category is an important one, with awareness and demand for bagels on the rise in many parts of the country, and with many kinds of retailers converging on the market.
Supermarket in-store bakeries are using new fixtures to anchor their bagel strategies. They are adding self-service, accommodating cross-merchandising spreads, making room for packages of bagels and garlic bagel chips.
In some cases the fixtures are in-line self-service displays, while in others the equipment is freestanding bins with see-through doors. But in either case, the goal is to translate fixture improvements into bigger rings.
What's more, retailers told SN, they are upgrading bagel fixtures so that they can offer the balance of self-service and service that will give their customers -- all their customers -- just what they want.
Randalls Food Markets, Houston, is switching from traditional island, roll-bin display cases to in-line cases that feature a combination of service and self-service.
"Our newest store in Dallas will have full-service bagels as well as self-service," said Alex Sakhel, director of bakery operations for the 124-unit chain, speaking of the program in the new store, which opened March 26. "Customers can help themselves if they want, but there's someone there to help them also."
As Sakhel explained it, the in-line display fixture is comprised of low-profile, lidded bins. Importantly, the in-line quality brings the customer into closer contact with associates, who are willing and able to slice the fresh bagels or bag them up on request, Sakhel said.
Other supermarket operators are also striving to increase their programs' flexibility by installing in-line displays that combine service and self-service.
Among them are Victory Super Markets, Leominster, Mass., and Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa. The displays in those stores are as open to the air as local regulations will allow, because, as one bakery consultant put it, closing a lid on bagels can affect the quality of their crusts.
At Victory Super Markets' newest unit, in Kingston, Mass., a 12-foot length of fresh-baked bagels in open wicker baskets in-line with the bakery department is an eye-catcher and a sales booster.
"Bagels are making up 20% of bakery sales at the Kingston store," said John DiGeronimo, director of bakery-deli for the 17-unit Victory. At the chain's other stores, where bagels are displayed in freestanding, 8-foot self-service roll bins, bagel sales are about 10% of bakery sales, he added.
The display at the new store is basically self-service -- with tongs and bags -- but the design is so low-profile that it brings customers closer to the associates and gives them a full view of bagel production just on the other side of the display.
The bagels are boiled in a kettle just a few feet behind the display and then baked in a steam-injection oven. "The baskets go with the market look, the from-scratch production here, too," DiGeronimo added.
The self-service/service bagels are displayed in wicker baskets on three 4-foot side-by-side slant tables that have adjustable sneeze guards. The bagel display dominates the bakery, which is situated at the end of a fresh foods power aisle, and is one of the chain's most robust sales performers.
Besides displaying bagels attractively and in a big variety, the open, dual service/self-service merchandising mode has some other very practical benefits, said Mark Leenhouts, a partner in Design Associates -- Riesenburger, Leenhouts & Roberts, Rochester, N.Y., a consulting firm that helped Victory conceptualize its entirely new fresh presentation at the Kingston store.
"The bagels are produced throughout the day. So associates are dealing with a hot product that needs to cool naturally in the air. They would crust over too quickly if you closed them up," Leenhouts explained.
Rather than putting the bagels on racks in the back to cool and then dumping them into bins, the procedure at Victory not only preserves the products' quality, but also minimizes the extent of handling required, Leenhouts added.
"You slide the bagels right from the bagel board into the baskets," noted Jim Riesenburger, another partner in Design Associates. And because the display is near the production area, it's easier for associates to keep an eye on it, so they can keep the fixture full and clean and neat, he added.
Riesenburger also explained that in certain states, local health codes preclude open displays of food. Where that is the case, some retailers are using in-line self-service cases with large doors that lift from the front. Wire trays of bagels are slid into the case from the back. That type of case gives the bagels more breathing room than a traditional roll bin does, Riesenburger said.
At its newest store in Langhorne, Pa., Genuardi's uses a 6-foot, in-line, self-service case of the type Riesenburger described.
Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City, a chain that has just recently launched a bagel program, will employ wire trays, but in freestanding cases with doors on them. They're like doughnut cases, said Patrick Quinn, deli-bakery director for the 65-unit Homeland.
The racks give the bagels room to breathe, said Quinn. He added that he prefers self-service displays, because "Customers can choose what they want -- one of this kind and one of that kind."
At Quillin's, La Crosse, Wis., Gail Johnson, the bakery manager at the retailer's flagship store, said she wouldn't want to go to all self-service.
"I think I'd lose my bagel business if we went to self-service only. Our customers here are very particular. They want to order their bagels. I guess an additional self-service display would go all right, but I'd want it placed so it didn't get lost. It would have to be where people would see it right away," Johnson said.
Across town, however, Tony Doering, bakery manager at another Quillin's unit, said his bagel sales have gone up substantially since his store switched from total service to total self-service with its bagels.
Doering is merchandising 14 varieties of bagels in a traditional roll bin that also displays Vienna, hoagie and hard rolls.
"We're selling more self-service, because people like to take their time choosing the varieties they want and, also, they don't have to stand in line. People coming in here on the way to work in the morning are in a hurry. With self-service, they can run in and grab what they want. The bins are filled at 5:30 in the morning," Doering said.
He said that, in addition to selling more bagels, the switch to total self-service has enabled him to staff the service counter with just one associate, instead of two, between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.
Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., is installing bigger self-service, freestanding bagel displays in remodels and new stores. The fixtures have a shelf below the bins for holding other products.
"We're using the shelf for merchandising six-count packages of bagels," said Tyrone Curry, director of bakery for the 17-unit Copps Corp.
In some Copps stores, bin space has been doubled from 3 or 4 feet of bins to 6 or 8 feet, he said. He gives the new fixtures some of the credit for a 15% increase in bagel sales for the first two months of this year vs. the same period last year. Curry also said some stores have placed a cooler with cream cheese alongside the bagel displays.
Selling cream cheese and other spreads with bagels also sells more bagels and builds a higher ring, because "you're providing the whole reason for buying, you're stimulating the customers' thought processes," said Riesenburger at Design Associates.
At its Kingston store, Victory Super Markets flanks its bagel display with a 4-foot, tiered cooler filled with flavored cream cheeses. A chalkboard display overhead calls attention to them.
And Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio, currently in the process of expanding the bakery at its flagship store, will make room for a bigger and better bagel display that includes space for cross merchandising, said Scott Fox, bakery director for the two-unit upscale retailer.