MIDLAND PARK, N.J. - Flush with cash from the divestiture of its Canadian operations, A&P hopes to remake many of its stores to look like the one it recently remodeled here.
The 42,000-square-foot store, which was remodeled department-by-department over the winter, is being touted as the company's latest prototype for the rollout of its "Fresh" concept. This treatment is slated to be applied to 70 locations - including five new stores - this year. As previously reported, A&P plans to convert all of its 427 stores to one of three formats - either the Fresh concept; the company's price-impact banner, Food Basics; or, in the case of its Food Emporiums in New York City, a gourmet food destination. The company's goal is to have 75% of its stores renovated by the end of 2008.
SN recently toured the Midland Park A&P Fresh store with company representatives. Located in an upscale bedroom community just a short drive from the company's headquarters in Montvale, N.J., it features many of the flourishes that the company had been incorporating into its other Fresh remodels, plus a few new innovations that were imported from Canada, where the chain long used a bifurcated strategy of high- and low-end stores.
"We took the best elements from both the Canadian and the U.S. stores and we've just nailed it," said Eric Claus, president and chief executive officer, A&P, in a recent conference call with analysts in which he described the Midland Park location. "We said this is our prototype.
"It's a Canadian decor package, which is very bright, fresh and very, very contemporary. You are going to find the flow of the departments a little bit different [than other recent remodels]. You will find more emphasis on product and less on fixtures."
He cited the bakery and deli in particular as two areas that have undergone significant changes, and also noted that the Center Store area has been revamped, with bump-outs for international, natural and organic foods, for example.
"It is a much more contemporary store, and I think you are going to see a store where you're going to say, 'Wow!'" he said.
In the few weeks since the remodel was completed, the store has seen increases in both traffic counts and in transaction size, Susan Giordano, the store's manager, told SN.
"Deli and seafood have picked up the most from the remodel," she said. "All of the fresh departments have picked up extensively."
Emphasis on Organics
Located not far from a Whole Foods Market in neighboring Ridgewood, N.J., the A&P appears to seek a similar ambiance to that fast-growing natural food retailer, with a heavy emphasis on organics, perishables variety and prepared offerings.
The store has reconfigured the entire perishables offering to resemble an open-air market, with small islands of fruits and vegetables, sometimes displayed in wooden baskets. It carries up to 200 different organic fruits and vegetables, depending on the season, marked with orange display tags. The organic products are flagged with detailed nutritional information and are integrated throughout the department.
"The fact that this store marries the everyday grocery shop with all those organics and so forth is what's most appealing to our customers," said A&P spokeswoman Patti Councill.
The store features a potato display the company borrowed from its Canadian division, in which about 10 varieties of potatoes are segregated into bins with signs offering detailed descriptions about the flavor profile and preferred cooking methods for each type of spud.
Other sections within the produce department include a "fresh greens for cooking" display and a wide selection of convenience items, such as pre-cut fruit and tray-packaged corn on the cob. The outer wall of the produce section also includes a display of natural and organic bottled teas, juices and smoothies.
As customers enter the front door, they pass a cafe offering fresh-brewed gourmet coffee and smoothies. It is situated next to an oven-equipped pizza station where customers can order on the way in and pick up their fresh-baked pies on the way out.
In addition to pizza - and in the same area near the entrance and bordering the produce area - sushi, submarine sandwiches, panini and other prepared foods are also available. Heat-and-eat dinners like roast beef with carrots and mashed potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken marsala were all priced at $5.99 during SN's visit.
Prepared-food offerings also include rotisserie chicken and a variety of salads.
Alongside the prepared-food display cases is perhaps one of the store's most striking features - the service delicatessen, which is branded as a Boar's Head store-within-a-store, offering Boar's Head meats, cheeses and condiments exclusively. The concept, known as a "marquee" deli, has also been installed at a handful of other A&P locations.
Although the deli is staffed by A&P employees, Boar's Head, a high-end brand based in Sarasota, Fla., provides training. The department also features freestanding displays of Boar's Head products. Packaged meats from other vendors are located in other departments.
Adjacent to perishables and a massive bulk food display, the store's liquor department resembles an upscale wine store, with a range of about 800 high-end offerings up to about $140 per bottle. The department is set off with unique lighting and faux-wood flooring. It hosts wine tastings every Friday and Saturday - part of a storewide emphasis on product sampling.
Another unique feature is the layout of the seafood department, which is located in the back of the store and has a rounded display case allowing service workers to hold a central position and face customers from any side. In addition to a wide selection of fresh seafood, the department also displays several value-added seafood offerings, including crab cakes, wild salmon with wild rice stuffing and potato-crusted cod.
The meat department focuses on high-end offerings - filet mignon is the most popular cut - and features Choice Angus beef, and such butcher-shop-style offerings as slab bacon sliced to order. The department also includes displays of organic and natural meats.
The bakery features a combination of store-baked goods and items from local bakeries, with an emphasis on gourmet cakes and pastries. Customers can also slice their own bread loaves on an automatic slicer.
The prevalence of natural and organic and gourmet products manifests itself throughout the rest of the store as well, with a natural health-and-beauty section, organic and soymilk offerings and a gourmet cheese shop.
Claus said the store was designed to make remodels more efficient.
"It is easily adaptable to most of our current configurations of stores," he said. "By making it adaptable, we bring down the cost of our Fresh store renovations, as we did in the Canadian company, for two reasons: One is, you have less departments that have to be moved around. And secondly, we can now go out and over a three-year period make commitments into buying different equipment and fixtures and decor packages."