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Case Study: Good to be Kings

With rigorous training, Kings grows seafood sales

 - Photo courtesy of Kings Super Markets
By Lisa Duchene
September 01, 2008

For half a day every month, Kings Super Markets Seafood Director Tony Ruccio visits one of the Parsippany, N.J.-based chain's 26 stores to work with part-time associates on how to properly fillet and steak fish, shuck oysters and clams, bake fish and clean crabs. They review information about the products and details of how the fresh fish is the "top of the catch."

"If customers come in and want to buy a whole fish and want it filleted," says Ruccio, "I need to know personally that the people in the store will do it properly for them."

The monthly refresher trainings are in addition to a four- to six-week initial training for new associates, plus daily and weekly bulletins to all seafood managers and associates on timely seafood topics like the health benefits associated with seafood consumption, seasonal products and any headline-making issues like product recalls.

"We put a lot of emphasis and pride in our associates. They are fully trained and very knowledgeable about seafood," says Ruccio.

The retailer, which operates full-service seafood counters in 23 of its 26 stores serving affluent suburbs in northern New Jersey and Long Island, New York, is known for standing apart in its perishables quality, merchandising and customer service.

In Ruccio's eyes, such expertise sets Kings' seafood operation apart from that of other chains that rely on meat department employees to cover the seafood department and is key to the company's seafood success.

In a tough economic year, with soaring food and gas prices, Ruccio reports Kings' seafood sales, tonnage and customer count numbers are all up over last year.

"[Kings] holds a unique spot in the market," says Howard Solganik, a fresh foods consultant with the Culinary Resources Group in Dayton, Ohio. "No matter how good any of the other chains get, they'll never be Kings."

Last year, Solganik visited the flagship Short Hills store, renovated in 2006. "My experience in walking through the store was a series of 'wows,' from the second you walk in. And everybody I talked to in the store seemed to know what they were doing, which is generally shocking."

Kings is known for being ahead of the curve on key trends like displaying fish on ice, "European style" (started in 1978), salad bars (added in the late 1970s), an on-premise cooking school and natural foods (launched in 1995). In the late 1980s, the company added a prepared foods section, long before home meal replacement entered the supermarket vernacular.

Allen Bildner - whose parents and uncles in 1936 opened the first Kings in Summit, N.J. - told the New York Times in 1987: "Nowadays," he said, "when we no longer have the corner grocery store and society is becoming increasingly impersonal, we are trying to restore a sense of caring to the food-shopping business."

British retailer Marks & Spencer bought the chain from the Bildner family in 1988 for $108 to $110 million. According to Solganik, the chain lost some of its pizzazz while held by Marks & Spencer, which put it on the market in the late 1990s. In 2006, after several deals had fallen through, the British firm sold Kings to a pair of New York-based private-equity firms (Angelo, Gordon & Co., and MTN Capital Partners) and Bruce Weitz, for about $61.5 million. In addition to being a co-owner, Weitz is also the CEO and president.

Following the ownership change two years ago, Kings turned to a new strategy and tagline: "From Every Day to Fabulous Gourmet."

The new owners, says Solganik, are "in the process of putting it back to the original Kings and they've done a spectacular job." The Short Hills store "reminded me of the old Kings. They're definitely on track now."

Kings' seafood departments vary in size from 15 feet to 30 feet of iced display, plus frozen cases. Seventeen stores include a sushi program and sushi chef while two of the stores include a Cooking Studio, offering daily classes and demos.

The displays are raised in the back and the case is built from the bottom up every day with fresh ice, following a nightly sanitation of the whole department, says Ruccio. The seafood counters are staffed whenever the stores are open, he adds.

Ninety-five percent of the seafood is fresh, never frozen, and most products are three to four days out of the water. Kings pays top-dollar and enforces strict purchasing specifications for hand-selected, hand-cut, top-of-the-catch fish with no frayed tails or blood spots, says Ruccio.

Kings' seafood selection - fresh finfish and shellfish, value-added items and some frozen items - spans a repertoire of about 600 products. On a daily basis, there are 30 to 60 different products in the case, depending on space, quality, availability and seasonality.

Top-sellers include Alaska wild salmon, two varieties of Black Pearl farmed salmon (organic and regular) and portions of farmed Canadian salmon, dry sea scallops and grey sole.

In mid-July, in an online circular tailored to each store, Kings featured EZ-peel Mexican whole raw shrimp for $6.99 per pound, littleneck clams for $4.99 per pound, crab cakes for $3.49 each and sashimi-grade yellowfin for $13.99 per pound. The "Kings Extraordinary Summer Shrimp Sale" featured 2-pound bags of 31-40 farmed Pacific white shrimp from Thailand for $18.88, 26-30 shrimp for $21.68 and extra jumbo, 16-20 shrimp for $24.48. Ruccio sources the shrimp from a packer who follows Kings' strict specification including, for example, that most shrimp in the batch fall in the middle of their size range.

Ruccio favors themed promotions because they help connect to customers' life experience, keep ads fresh and exciting and customers trying new things, says Ruccio. He's promoted day boat cod, porgy, bluefish and sea scallops from a Martha's Vineyard fisherman. He's also worked with Alaska Wild to source wild king and sockeye salmon, receiving the fish 48 hours out of the water, as well as Alaska sablefish, prawns and halibut.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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