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What's in Store: Spic ‘n span

Image is everything, so retailers focus on cleanliness, service in perishables departments

By Christine Blank
June 05, 2012

Grocery shoppers consider food purchases with all five senses, but smell has got to be one of the strongest, particularly in the fresh seafood department. If funky odors are present, it is almost guaranteed that sales will slide. So it was refreshing to see U.S. supermarkets recognized for the quality of their perishables, their stores’ cleanliness and reasonable prices in Consumer Reports’ annual supermarket rankings. 

Wegmans was the top retailer, garnering high scores for service, perishables and cleanliness, followed by Trader Joe’s and Publix Super Markets. Rounding out the list of top 10 supermarkets in the nation were: Fareway Stores, Costco, Harris Teeter, Market Basket, Raley’s, Hy-Vee and Stater Bros. 

Executives with three of the top 10 grocery chains revealed the reasons behind the stores’ and seafood departments’ success. Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, for example, achieved top scores in cleanliness, service and perishables, and was also ranked average on price. The cleanliness of Hy-Vee’s stores, the quality of its fresh seafood and appearance of its seafood department is what keeps shoppers loyal to the chain, says Ruth Comer, assistant VP of media relations for Hy-Vee. 

“As an employee-owned company, employees take pride in keeping a clean, neat store, and it is very ingrained in our culture and employee training,” says Comer. “If the department does not appear to be clean, customers will not trust that you are handling products the way you should be. We don’t want customers to notice any type of seafood odors in the department.” 

Besides controlling odors, Hy-Vee executives recognize that consumers shop with their eyes. “We take special notice to make sure to keep our seafood cases in really good repair. We have recently gone with some new display cases in our new stores, which provide a better showcase for the product,” says Comer. 

Hy-Vee stores have also stepped up their merchandising of fresh seafood. For example, some stores place a whole, 7-foot fresh swordfish in the case. Statement pieces like the swordfish show consumers that “we can get the freshest seafood and bring it in to them,” says Comer.

Impressive scores on prices also landed some of the retailers on the Consumer Reports top 10 list. Tewksbury, Mass.-based Market Basket, operated by Demoulas, received the magazine’s highest marks for price, in part because its seafood pricing is at “Walmart levels,” says Bob Hartman, seafood director for Market Basket. 

“We keep our margins a lot closer than most. For example, our Norwegian [farmed] salmon is $5.99 to $6.99 a pound, where everyone else is $7.99 to $8.99 a pound. Our tilapia retails for $5.99 a pound when everyone else is around $7.99 a pound,” says Hartman.

Supermarkets at the top of the rankings say that having control of inspections and distribution sets their quality seafood standards apart from other grocery chains.

Hy-Vee ensures quality by operating its seafood distribution facility and by having a knowledgeable inspector that reports to the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). Perishable Distributors of Iowa is owned by Hy-Vee, and serves as the distribution facility for its more than 230 stores. “The DOC inspector is not beholden to anyone other than the DOC,” says Comer. 

A similar system is in place at Market Basket. “We buy through our own distribution center, and we have a very strict inspector here who checks the fish for key factors, including quality, temperature and weight. The whole program has helped our sales; our reputation in fresh fish and frozen fish is very good,” says Hartman.

To ensure seafood quality, Publix Super Markets relies on quality assurance checkpoints, in-store seafood specialists and its suppliers to “ensure that our specifications are being met or exceeded,” says spokesperson Maria Brous. “In addition, we conduct supplier audits, mainly for food-safety opportunities; however, there are also quality-assurance checkpoints in that process.” 

All of the supermarkets in the top 10 have another success factor in common: They train their seafood staff to talk knowledgeably to shoppers about seafood species and recipes. And they regularly hold cooking events and demonstrations around seafood. 

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla. 

   June 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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