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Case Study: Seafood departments freshen grocers' image

Supermarkets aim to reclaim customer base with upgraded presentation of perishables

Brushed stainless steel, white tiles and attractive signages all say "clean" and "fresh" in this Harris Teeter seafood department in Charlotte, N.C. - Courtesy of Little Diversifed Architectural Consulting
By Lisa Duchene
February 01, 2006

Sleek, brushed stainless steel, bright tile and deep glass cases define modern seafood departments at  U.S. supermarkets. Retail designers report many traditional grocery chains are using their seafood departments to help create a fresh image of their stores as the source of the freshest fish and other perishables.

Facing competition from Wal-Mart on price and from Whole Foods on high-quality perishables and organic foods, traditional grocery stores are working to maintain their customer base by revamping their image as the source for fresh foods.

Less than half of shoppers — 46 percent — purchase their groceries exclusively at full-service supermarkets; the other half shop at multiple stores like supercenters and warehouse club stores, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2005 U.S. Grocery Shopper report.

FMI estimates about 80 percent of the nation’s 34,252 grocery stores contain seafood departments.

“I think the chains realize that the whole premise of fresh is certainly suspect in their stores, and they have to raise the bar,” says Tony Camilletti, VP of strategic development for Design Fabrications,  a.k.a. D Fab, in Madison Heights, Mich., a grocery-store-design firm that works with several chains.

“We are seeing a commitment to creating ambience in the seafood area that projects an image of modern, freshness, cleanliness and reliability.”

In new and renovated stores, the seafood department is the second-most-popular department, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s report Facts About Store Development 2004. Delis were the most popular, says FMI.

About 83 percent of the roughly 1,000 new and 1,700 remodeled grocery stores included fresh seafood departments, according to the FMI report, which is based on 2003 data.

Across the board, grocery stores are emphasizing their fresh-perishables departments, says Harry Steen, creative director of interior design at SuperValu Design Services Group in Eden Prairie, Minn.

The division handles store design for most of SuperValu’s corporate stores, which include 1,285 Save-a-Lot stores and 108 Cub Foods stores.

Traditional grocers are typically going for a specialty look and using signage, décor, theater — like cleaning the fish in plain sight of shoppers — and “anything that screams fresh” to highlight their seafood departments as well as other perishables, says Steen.

Upscale supermarket chain Harris Teeter operates an 18,000-square-foot store in Charlotte, N.C., with a seafood department that features brushed-stainless-steel finishes and a white-tiled wall behind the counter. A large sign over the department is made up of nine vertical panels with a hammered copper finish, turquoise fish images and “seafood” spelled out in turquoise lettering.

Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Charlotte, N.C., designed the store, which is located on the first floor of a condominium complex in a trendy, uptown location and opened in August 2003.

A two-tiered seafood case anchors the seafood department, says Tim Morrison, supermarket studio principal at Little. The case, manufactured by Barker Co. in Keosauqua, Iowa, features a top-tier display of fresh items serviced by counter staff and a lower tier stocked with self-service packaged items.

The specially designed seafood case includes a space that allows the staff a spot to cut, weigh and package fish close to the customer. Giving customers a better view of how their fish is cut and handled is part of the theater aspect, say designers.

This style of case is popular with grocery-store seafood departments because it combines full- and self-service operations in an efficient setup, says Morrison.

Little’s supermarket clients include Von’s, Wild Oats, Food Lion, El Super and Genuardi’s, a division of Safeway. Many of them are devoting more space to seafood in their new stores than in their older stores by increasing the linear footage of their service seafood cases and using deeper cases that allow them to display and sell more seafood, says Mohammad Ismail, senior project manager at Little.

Department designs that are easy to clean and eliminate even the tiniest amounts of stagnant water or air to prevent odor are popular requests from chain supermarkets, he says.

Supermarkets also demand exhaust fans and seamless floors that curve against the wall, preventing fish scales, debris or water from hiding and allowing the floors to be easily hosed down, says Ismail.

Retailers are also asking designers to raise their cases by 6 to 12 inches to bring the displayed fish closer to the customers’ eye level, he adds.

Ismail notes that a handful of stores around the country have added seafood bars — walk-around, self-service cases holding hot, ready-to-eat dishes like seafood chowders. Whole Foods offers this feature in some of its stores.

“More and more, we’ve been asked to provide steamers and ovens in the seafood department, making it more like a functioning, miniature restaurant,” says Ismail.

Grocers are wise to take their cues from sleek restaurant designs like those found in the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, says Nadine McLearon, creative and marketing director at D Fab.

The updated look is about clean lines and minimalism, says McLearon. A décor based on fishnets with shells and starfish, rickety wooden boats and fishermen in yellow slickers is obsolete, says McLearon.

“You don’t want the customer being suspicious of your housekeeping habits and the age of the surroundings of the product that may have tainted it,” says Camilletti, of D Fab.

Incandescent lighting is a popular choice, but it can be hot, says Ismail, and must be positioned at least 6 to 7 feet from the fish. Solving this problem are new, compact fluorescent fixtures that offer good color rendition at a cool temperature, says Ismail. The fixtures also conserve energy.

Retailers must be careful to make sure the fresh seafood case is maintained at 40 degrees or below throughout, says George Flick, a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., who has studied seafood-safety issues for 37 years.

“If you’re maintaining safety, you’re probably maintaining quality,” says Flick.

Designers report that it’s rare these days to see a new grocery store opening without a seafood department. Most have combinations of full and self service.

As grocers look to reinvent their image with consumers, their efforts to freshen their seafood departments bode well for the category.

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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