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Case Study: Seafood shines at Market District

Product selection, trained staff and demo kitchen help propel sales

 - Photo courtesy of Giant Eagle
By Lisa Duchene
January 01, 2007

When a supermarket does seafood right it can lead to a sales bonanza. That's what Giant Eagle found during the first six months after opening two experimental Market District stores in greater Pittsburgh. The private chain, with 216 supermarkets concentrated in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio, expanded and transformed two of its stores into an upscale, perishables-focused format that opened in late June 2006.

The Market District store in the city's Shadyside neighborhood was expanded from a 24,000-square-foot traditional Giant Eagle store to 68,000 square feet; the one in suburban South Hills was expanded from an 89,000-square-foot Giant Eagle store to a new, 117,000-square-foot space.

For both, the mission is to "put the 'ooooo' in food," according to the stores' marketing tagline. Sandy Glatter, Giant Eagle's director of product development, explains, "Market District is about providing people with the best food on earth, and seafood is a big part of that."

Perishables are clearly in the spotlight. Giant Eagle has taken every aspect of the Market District seafood departments up a notch from its traditional supermarkets, says Rich Castle, director of seafood; they offer more variety, more merchandising space, better service and better training for employees. The Market District stores also employ people with culinary expertise to work in the seafood department to help prepare value-added items and educate staff and customers about seafood preparation.

The investment has paid off, says Castle. Seafood sales are growing by "leaps and bounds." While he won't share specific numbers, he says the seafood department's contribution to Market District store sales has surpassed the typical share at Giant Eagle stores and is outpacing overall sales growth at Market District stores.

"Our consumers have been just exceptionally excited about everything around seafood," says Glatter.

At the South Hills store one late summer afternoon, the 24-foot, triple-decker glass seafood case was piled high with 18 different types of fresh fish, including Alaska salmon, swordfish and Chilean sea bass, along with 20 different prepared products, such as crab cakes, shrimp kabobs with peppers and onions, teriyaki-pineapple-salmon kabobs and crabmeat-stuffed tilapia. Two lower shelves of the case held smoked salmon, pasteurized crabmeat and other packaged self-serve items.

Another 15-foot case featured raw shellfish, and two tanks showcased live lobsters. More than a dozen frozen items, including crabmeat, shrimp, sea scallops and store-packaged fillets, filled two double-coffin freezer cases. The overall mix is half fresh, half frozen.

At the chef-staffed culinary-demonstration station, chefs offer instruction in cooking seafood about twice a week. Store chefs, notable Pittsburgh chefs and occasional celebrity guest chefs like Sara Moulton, executive chef at Gourmet magazine, cookbook author and TV cooking show host, work facing the sales floor from behind granite countertops as two wide-screen plasma TVs show a bird's-eye view of their preparations.

The on-site kitchen also cranks out a full menu of grab-and-go items customers can take home or eat in the Wi-Fi-equipped café. The prepared-foods menu includes crab cakes, salmon burgers, tilapia Romano, honey salmon and Brazilian garlic shrimp. Howard Solganik, a retail-foodservice consultant with Culinary Resources in Dayton, Ohio, who worked on the Market District concept, says the menu is similar to what you'd find in a restaurant. About two-thirds of the offerings are core items, and the rest are seasonal.

The store also features an enormous produce section; a cheese shop with 400 cheeses; a Brazilian-style churrasco station that fire-roasts meats, seafood and vegetables; and an in-store bakery, complete with a high-tech French Bongard hearth oven that simulates brick-oven baking.

Giant Eagle designed Market District to move into new markets, says Glatter. Giant Eagle's traditional stores hold about a 40 percent share in the greater Cleveland market and a about a 50 percent share of the greater Pittsburgh market, according to AC Nielsen Trade Dimensions in Wilton, Conn.

"All retailers are concerned about the Whole Foods of the world and Wild Oats taking the cream off the top," says Solganik. Even though those stores are taking a small percentage of overall grocery sales, they are attracting affluent consumers typically buying products with the highest profit margins, he says. Market District is an up-market reaction to that ultra-competitive retail landscape, says Solganik.

Overall, Market District is drawing customers from a 5-mile radius, compared to one of about 3 to 3.5 miles prior to June, says Glatter.

"Seafood helps define the quality image of a Market District - the freshness, quality, uniqueness and variety," says Castle. "It helps cement the image."

S eafood-purchasing criteria and quality standards are the same at the Market District and traditional Giant Eagle stores, says Castle.

"We are learning from what's going on [in Market District seafood departments]," says Castle.

There are no immediate plans for where and when the next Market District store will open.

For now, says Glatter, Market District officials are focused on reaching their vision of perfection in the stores - and in the process have given Pittsburgh two new places to buy great seafood and learn how to fully enjoy cooking and eating it.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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