Feast with your eyes

The newly-designed produce department at the Kroger store in Miamisburg. The newly-designed produce department at the Kroger store in Miamisburg.

Navigating the ‘big business’ of your local grocery store

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

The newly-designed produce department at the Kroger store in Miamisburg.

A pretty girl in a curve-hugging dress or a shirtless man with sturdy biceps have eye appeal. So do photos of a sandy, sunny beach or a gorgeous sunset. But how about a basket of red, juicy apples? Or a just-made burger with cheddar cheese oozing down its sides, placed between a fresh, flaky roll?
That food and its eye appeal just went and got all sexy on you, right?
It might sound far off, but the truth is, you don’t have to be a foodie to notice that grocery stores have the corner on helping their foods to flaunt what they’ve got. Like a proud lion who puffs his chest, food stores are keen on the idea that a “notice me!” presentation is the way to catch a consumer’s eye.
“Stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly,” said Jill Moorhead, marketing director at the Hills Market in Columbus, referring to a popular line from the movie Reality Bites. “Keeping a fully stocked display — no matter how simple or complicated — is the best way to move product. No one wants to buy the last loaf of bread or choose from a dwindling display of applesauce. Too many questions enter a consumer’s mind. The first being, “How long has that been there?”
It’s notions like this that have created a need for stores to address what might appear to be the smallest of details — everything from the way in which a store is laid out to the products that are placed side by side to the first thing a consumer is greeted with when they walk in the door.
“Technology has forever changed the way people shop,” said Marian Leonard, vice president of shopper marketing at Square One Agency in Dallas. “Eighty percent of shoppers come to the store informed about the products they are buying. It used to be that layout, specials and merchandising done in-store accounted for 70 percent of all purchase decisions – not today. [Now] most decisions are made before people even enter the store.”
This, of course, leaves stores with a few things to be considered when working to stay successful. Two of the most important being: 1) “What sets my store apart from its competitors?” and 2) “What can I do to make the consumer’s shopping experience an easy one?”
For the Dorothy Lane Market (DLM) Springboro store’s Store Director Ed Flohre, a stress-free shopping trip is the name of the game. It’s the strategy the DLM stores have successfully implemented since 1948.
“[Research shows the average customer feels] most grocery store trips fall in line with a visit to the dentist,” Flohre said. “We really try to make it an experience that’s not that painful.”
Of course, the general consensus shows “painful” is hardly the way the average DLM shopper would describe his shopping experience. Between the smell of just-baked bread when first entering, to the luscious displays of produce and prepared foods, the only thing that hurts is the hunger pangs a DLM display tends to dig up.
“We want you to come in and feast with your eyes and, hopefully, your nose,” Flohre said, pointing to the unique way in which DLM displays everything from produce to deli meats. “Nothing looks like a grocery department in the sense that, when you go into other grocery stores, everything looks like little soldiers – nice and neat. For us, that’s just boring. We want it to have a kind of flow, and change heights, colors and views, and give people a sense of ‘Wow, that looks really good.’”
Tactics that evoke those sort of feelings, Leonard said, are what allow a consumer to continue wanting to purchase from that particular store.
“The retail environment is constantly changing and has been since grocery stores were invented,” Leonard said. “The most important thing for retailers to do is keep in mind the needs of shoppers. Shoppers are talking to retailers with every purchase they make.
“From evaluating the number of times they shop, seeing what they purchase, how much they buy, and how they use technology to shop, all give retailers a chance to study, get to know, and provide value to their shoppers. If they can do this successfully, they will continue to win.”
Bill Chidley, senior vice president of shopper sciences at Dayton-based Interbrand Design Forum said this notion of working to understand a shopper versus focusing solely on competing with one another has become increasingly important.
“Grocery stores tend to be very similar experiences from one to another, and historically they have sought to compete on price and quality of fresh food alone,” Chidley said. “These things are important, but becoming harder to demonstrate a true difference. We help grocery chains understand what matters to shoppers beyond these two issues, and how to act on this understanding with the design and layout of the store, and their culture.”
Moorhead said all of these factors point back to the idea of simplicity with a task that many consumers have deemed a chore. Product groupings, for example, have proven widely successful for stores like DLM, who work to put together displays that encompass the makings of an entire meal. Pasta is paired next to marinara sauce, seafood with an appropriate wine or lemon herb dressing, and potatoes with a fresh Gruyere cheese for topping.
“Becoming a teaching source is always a good thing for the consumer, whether it’s a display of three food items and a recipe of how they can be worked together, or a cooking class or website feature,” Moorhead said. “Groceries have a captive audience when it comes to cooking skills. How they choose to educate the consumer is up to them.”
Given the ever-changing and growing market, education is key for stores to thrive. Scott Sanders, vice president of New Jersey-based Bosco Products, Inc., said mass merchandisers and supercenters like Wal-Mart and Target, “alternate channels” like drug stores and limited assortment stores such as Aldi or Trader Joe’s stores, are providing “alternative venues for shoppers to buy groceries, as evidenced by a falling number of traditional grocery trips per household per year over the past 30 years.”
What that means for the average grocery store is a push to up the ante, Moorhead said.
“[The retail environment] is much more interactive now,” said Moorhead. “We’re no longer a place to buy cereal and peanut butter. Groceries become wine bars and a place to learn about cooking. Thirty years ago, customer service was inside the store and maybe in the parking lot. Now, customer service extends to Facebook, Twitter and beyond.”
Leonard agreed, adding, “It is important to keep in mind that executing traditional in-store tactics is no longer enough to reach shoppers anymore. They should be layered into a more holistic approach that is designed to provide value to their lives at any point that they are in shopping mode.”
Social media tools and digital display ads are ideal for reaching out to consumers when they are at home, Leonard said. While shoppers are out and about, mobile shopping apps that help search for coupons and product reviews or find retailer locations are helpful.
“Lastly, when they are in the actual store environment and they are making actual purchase decisions, there is an opportunity to reach them with the traditional elements such as display, coupons, bonus packs, recipes and so forth.”
Rachael Betzler, Kroger public relations manager for the Cincinnati/Dayton marketing area, said these factors were something that Kroger stores were sure to consider when deciding the layout of their stores and what would go into them.
“Customers tell us what they want for a better shopping experience,” Betzler said. “They want convenience. We have added a lot of the prepared foods such as stuffed pork chops or marinated meats.  Something easy for the customer to take home and pop in the oven.
“[They’ve told us they] want to drink coffee while they shop, so we have added coffee shops. Having everything under one roof means less trips, which is even more important these days with the price of fuel.”
For some stores, like Health Foods Unlimited (HFU) in Centerville, quite the opposite is true. Instead, the specialty store has chosen to keep it simple for shoppers by slimming down extras and has successfully done so for more than 30 years.
“We try and provide a clean, bright and organized store to make it easier for our customer to make a proper selection for their needs,” said HFU Manager and Part-Owner Emilie Miller. “This may seem basic, but we have a lot of product and it can get overwhelming.”
This is proof that what works for one store may not be the best policy for others, leading stores to discover what sets them apart from others and capitalize on those strong points.
“As things change we’re going up against businesses that have 1,000 to 2,000 stores — there’s no way we can match all of their prices,” DLM’s Flohre said, adding that, instead, the store has capitalized on providing items other stores don’t carry, such as imported foods and gourmet products. “We decided we wanted to go with our strengths which was the love of food and great customer service.”
While some stores might lean on gimmicks or misleading advertising to sell products, venues like DLM are pushing through the cracks.
“There are always ways to entice the consumer while being honest,” Moorhead said. “A store can purchase a machine that shoots scents of orange into a produce department; we’d rather just open up an orange and divide it up into samples.”
This way of thinking gives way to a whole new meaning behind “buyer beware,” so take caution: If you’re not careful, you just might enjoy your next grocery store trip, “feasting,” before you even hit the checkout line.

Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at CarolineShannon-Karasik@daytoncitypaper.com.

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