OAK PARK HEIGHTS, Minn. -- At its newest store here, Kowalski's Markets has gone all out to make shopping easy and pleasant for consumers.
When customers enter the 38,000-square-foot store here, they are quickly engulfed in a spread of colorful mass produce displays. The produce department spans the front part of the store, and new features designed for convenience are evident, SN observed on a recent visit.
Quickly visible is an upright, five-deck, refrigerated case stocked with fresh-cut fruit and vegetables in single-serve containers.
"When that case is fully faced, it's very colorful. We're doing well with it, getting a very positive response from customers," said Dean Balzum, director of produce at the 10-unit independent.
Sales of cut fruit and vegetables have shot up at least 30% companywide over the past few months, and credit goes to showcasing the display right in the customer's line of vision, he said.
The design of all new stores specifically gives that case a prominent spot up front, officials told SN. Previously, cut fruit was integrated with other items in the department's refrigerated in-line cases.
"Location is absolutely key for something like that. You have to get it in a high-traffic path. It's definitely an impulse item," Balzum said.
Open since June, the store here, as well as a newly opened store in nearby Lakeville, was designed with plenty of refrigeration in produce, which allows for maximum flexibility and creativity in merchandising, Balzum pointed out.
The department's variety is immense: 150 organic items and more than 35 specialty items at any given time. In fact, the department here is 15% to 20% larger than Kowalski's average produce department and almost 50% bigger than the smallest, Balzum told SN. What's more, customers know that if they want a special item, Kowalski's will order it for them.
"You couldn't ask for a better setup for produce," Balzum said. "Plenty of refrigeration, and I like the floor plan, with the department going across the front. It sets the tone for the store."
Breaking out a separate, 16-foot organics section in produce serves both customers and the retailer. Balzum said he believes dedicating a section to organics does several things, in addition to building sales.
"It's a real positive for our organic customers," he said. "They don't have to look around all over the department. If we have the item, it'll be there in that section. It saves them time, and also they see what else we've got [in the section]. It's good for the regular shopper, too. They're not apt to quickly grab a bunch of carrots, not noticing it's organic, and then be upset when they get it to the register and find the price is higher than they thought it would be."
The positioning of the section, too, quells the objection some retailers have to dedicated organics sections -- that by putting organics together in one place, they miss some crossover shoppers. Kowalski's placed organics right beside a 12-foot, attention-getting specialty section that features items such as big baskets of baby pineapples, giant cactus leaves, yucca root and red and gold tamarillos in ceramic bowls.
"The specialty items are important. You have to be a little different to survive. We figure if we break even on those items, we've done our job," Balzum said.
Next to the specialty section, the organic section is marked off with colorful vertical banners proclaiming "Organics." Kowalski's started breaking out separate organics departments nearly a year ago in some of its other stores, with good sales results. Indeed, sales have zoomed up 20% over the past eight months, Balzum said.
"I know people who were going to Whole Foods and other natural food stores are spending more time in our stores," he said.
One recent decision, to discontinue most bagged fruits, may sound at first as though it would create an inconvenience, but quality won out. "We did this for the customer's benefit," Balzum said. "Some people may like running in and grabbing a bag of apples, but we can't guarantee the quality of everything in that bag. The bulk fruits are bigger and better quality, and we tell customers it was a company decision to give them the best quality there is. They have seen it as a positive move."
Several decisions have been made in the name of best quality. For instance, Kowalski's carries only one kind of pineapple: Del Monte Gold.
In the new, upright cut-fruit case, quality goes hand-in-hand with convenience. Kowalski's sources the cut fruit and veggies from a local distributor, who delivers every day to every store.
"They test the sugar count. We specify that it has to be a minimum level for us to accept it," Balzum said. "We're very particular about the quality of the product, and we've just streamlined the packaging."
The cut fruit and vegetables, like an increasing number of items -- including potatoes and grape tomatoes -- carry Kowalski's private label.
The focus on customer service, a hallmark at Kowalski's, is evident at this store. A case in point is the addition of 10 feet of fully cooked meats, leading off the service meat department at the new stores. SN noted that the presentation includes an interesting variety, including roasted pork loin, pulled pork and beef barbecue, as well as kabobs and beef roasts.
"We did that because of the success of our delis with prepared foods," said Terry Bennis, vice president, fresh foods operations, on the day SN visited the store here. "Our delis are trending much stronger than our meat departments, which is telling us that the customer is more into fully prepared foods," she said. "Deli sales -- and I attribute much of it to prepared foods and specialty cheeses -- are up 15% to 20% year-to-date."
"Our new fruit parfaits are a gourmet version of what McDonald's is selling. They're great for customers who want to run in and get some fruit, yogurt and granola all in one," Bennis said.
The parfaits, made in the company's central commissary, are merchandised in the cut-fruit case and deli.
The overall aura is customer-friendly. A Starbucks gives shoppers a close-up view of the produce displays.
"We've increased the size of all the perimeter departments, some up to 25%, and have taken them to a new level at the new stores," Bennis said.