CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Vons Cos.' meals "store within a store" in a unit here is using restaurant-style merchandising and product selection to sell steak dinners instead of mac and cheese -- and is happy with the sales dividends so far, said a source close to the project.
As reported in SN's April 7, 1997 issue, the new Vons meal concept was designed to have "a restaurant quality about it," and had its debut here two-and-a-half months ago in a remodeled store on El Camino Real.
Officials at Vons, based in Arcadia, Calif., could not be reached for comment. But Ed Engoron, president and chief executive officer of Perspectives/Consulting Group, a Los Angeles-based consultancy that helped Vons develop the concept, told SN that, "The restaurant-type presentation and the high quality of the food itself keep sales going. They're still above projections."
The store-within-a-store features a large variety of chilled prepacked meals, entrees, side dishes and desserts, all of which are sourced from outside.
A dropped ceiling, piped-in music, differentiated lighting and a floor-tile pattern different from the rest of the store set the area apart. So does a dedicated cash register. Even parking spaces just in front of the store are reserved for meals store shoppers.
Engoron emphasized that it's not just the design of the store, but also the way the entrees with sides are presented that's so different.
"They're dressed for the table. They're on round, black, dual-ovenable plates that are garnished. We developed them so the garnishes hold up when the meals are heated," he said.
A piece of lime or a chili pepper on Mexican food works well, he said. "It's a matter of knowing where in the container to place them so they don't get hot, while the rest of the food does heat up. We also use kale as a garnish. It doesn't lose its shape."
Just as in a restaurant, steak is a big seller here. Indeed, steak with Southwestern mashed potatoes, at $7.95, is the customers' favorite.
Next on the best-seller list is grilled farm-raised salmon with caper butter and spinach mashed potatoes, $6.95. New England pot roast with roasted vegetables, $5.95, comes in third. Each of the plated items weighs a pound or a little more, Engoron said.
Twenty varieties of meals presented that way are offered daily. Additional side dishes, a variety of 18, are available each day. So are 10 different salads, 10 soups, 10 gourmet pizzas and five desserts.
The plated meals range from $4.95 to $7.95 and soups and side dishes are $2 to $3. Desserts are $2.95.
The way the meal components are merchandised makes one think of a restaurant menu. Against one wall is a tiered case that displays appetizers, soups and full meals in the order they would be seen on a menu. Not only that, but sides are coded with a little icon that matches an entree to show they would go together.
"That's just to make it easier for the customer to choose. Supermarkets should take a look at how other retail stores merchandise," Engoron said. "For example, look at how Gap shows its clothes. It's virtually impossible to make a fashion mistake there. You'll see a mannequin with a blouse and scarf and belt that coordinate with it. On the same table, you might see a little sport coat that goes well."
An attractive four-color, fold-out menu categorizes the meals and meal components by ethnic groups. There are lists of entrees under these headings: Chef Dean Smith's American Grill, Chef Juan Ortega's Mexico, Chef Richard Wong's Asia and Chef Tony Marzetti's Italy. All are illustrated with color photos of the items. Gourmet pizzas, and salads and soups are also listed alongside close-up photos.
Some examples of salads are Southwestern chopped vegetable with lime-cilantro vinaigrette and Caesar's original Tijuana salad. Soups include old-fashioned chicken noodle, Southwestern-style tortilla and chunky minestrone. And the more exotic pizzas include such varieties as fresh vegetable with roasted garlic pesto and chicken eggroll with Oriental barbecue sauce.
The items, delivered several times during the day, are sourced fresh from a number of different regional manufacturers within a 400-mile radius of the store. Engoron said the logistics of getting everything together have been the biggest challenge, but he would not elaborate on how Vons is meeting that challenge.
Engoron said the attractive menu and an aggressive demo and sampling program got the products off to a good sales start. "There's a demo station and we've been sampling the products every day between three and seven," he said.
"The demos are essential because so many people question supermarket foods from a quality and freshness standpoint. There's been hot food in supermarkets for years that we've called fresh but it wasn't really. So we have to bring people in and let them evaluate the product. It's a far better way to bring them in to taste your food than to discount a product with a coupon," Engoron said.
"We brought our own sampling team in. We get people from the culinary colleges to do this. They have respect for and knowledge of the food. And we had the opportunity to train over a couple of days. They know the ingredients and know how to handle the food."
"Sampling has been very successful. Very little money is being spent on the media to bring people in. So we get them in this way," Engoron said.
The meals store is just inside the entrance. It's the first element that customers see. A 12-foot island case displays center-of-the-plate salads and sandwiches as well as some side dishes.
On the top tier of the case, a limited selection of bottled juices and fresh fruit is merchandised. Against the wall is the tiered case that displays the full meals and other meal components.
It's noteworthy that the meals program, called "Pavilions Fresh & Ready," has been launched in a Vons store, and not one of the chain's upscale Pavilion stores.
The market area here is a high-income one, a local observer told SN. But that doesn't mean much, according to Engoron. He said a program such as this is not people-specific, but occasion-specific.
"It doesn't matter what they do for a living. Everybody has different meal occasions," he said. "Meal solutions means something different for different people and at different times of the day. There will be times I want to go to a four-star restaurant and others when I want to go to Denny's."
The meals store at Vons offers different shopping experiences for everybody, Engoron said. "A customer might buy four complete meals, or just soup, or maybe he feels like barbecuing tonight. Then he'd buy steaks in the meat department and come here for mashed potatoes or maybe soup."