NEW YORK -- Partnerships between retailers and suppliers can provide supermarkets with a virtual second staff to boost sales and competitive flexibility in the fast-changing fresh segment, say two food industry veterans.
John Vasapoli, director of produce sales and merchandising at D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., and Robert Bildner, president of RLB Food Distributors, West Caldwell, N.J., have worked jointly for years on such routine matters as store resets to such unusual efforts as joint development of marketing strategies, all as part of the produce partnership.
RLB also assists D'Agostino in designing advertising, selecting the seasonal produce mix, developing sales strategies and new products, setting up merchandising displays and developing the right promotional mix in advertising circulars.
"They're wholesalers, but they extend themselves right into the retail operation," Vasapoli said. "If I have an idea for a new product or something, I'll run it by them, and they'll work closely with us to get it right, implement whatever we decide into a store or group of stores to see if it works well."
RLB developed its produce-partnering program for other stores five years ago, and success with D'Agostino and Kings Super Markets, West Caldwell, N.J., has emboldened the supplier to extend the arrangement more recently into other departments.
"From the procurement, operations and merchandising sides, we've been very successful in the produce line," said RLB's Bildner. "So now we're moving into the deli and bakery, with cheese, cold cuts and other fresh items, including meal solutions."
While Bildner wouldn't name retailers who've signed up for deli partnering, Vasapoli was willing to describe in detail how the produce program has worked for his company.
"Store-to-store consistency is very hard to maintain when implementing a chainwide program, especially with new products," Vasapoli said. "Partnering allows me to find out if something is working by the way our partners maintain the stores, and by reports from them about how things are going," he explained.
RLB merchandises produce departments at D'Agostino's four times yearly, based on an agreed upon plan. While store-level personnel advise about what may work best in their particular store, RLB's experience with a variety of chains sometimes gives them added expertise, Vasapoli said.
"If a particular store has a problem with competition, we call the supplier and he'll check out and analyze both the competition and our store," he said. After comparing quality and variety of goods and prices, the two develop plans to alter the product mix, remarket the store and implement new sales strategies, Vasapoli said.
Bildner said he's aiming at the same sort of arrangements in the deli partnership program, such as assisting with design, layout and merchandising of departments, reconfiguring and introducing product lines in existing delis, and helping retailers develop advertising and pricing programs.
"We find that small delis are behind the times," Bildner said. "They offer traditional salads, deli meats and cheese, but so many of them are competing with specialty shops and gourmet stores that now have meals and baked goods and takeout product.
"We give retailers ideas on how to take particular products in particular cases and how to sell them with sizzle and pizzazz," he said.
Predicting growth in such items as specialty sauces, organic cheeses and ready-to-heat or eat entrees, Bildner has expanded his line to include more salads, cheeses, meats, baked goods, pates and such fresh sides as polenta with grilled vegetables.
While not specific about changes in sales attributable to the partnership, Vasapoli said he believed it has made a difference.
"We've seen improved quality, improved freshness, improved presentation, and all of this leads to improved sales. Let's face it, people are buying the product from me; if the produce is good and they help display it right, the whole thing comes out at the end with improved sales."