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Case Study: Sweetbay delivers ultimate seafood department

Delhaize teaches seafood smarts as it converts Florida chain

The three-table service seafood case gives customers
    full access to product and sales associates. - Photo courtesy of Sweetbay Supermarkets
By Lisa Duchene
June 01, 2006

Supermarket cashiers aren't known for offering seafood-cooking advice, but that's exactly what one consumer got recently at a Sweetbay Supermarket, Delhaize's new 30-store chain on Florida's west coast. The customer was buying shark for the first time. The cashier had just tried tempura-battered shark in a store sampling and recommended it.

But the customer didn't have tempura batter in her cart. The bagger ran off to find it and returned in time for the customer to buy the batter and get cooking instructions from the cashier, all without holding up the line, says Jim McWade, Sweetbay's director of meat and seafood.

That story shows the passion Sweet­bay employees have for food and how well-trained they are in customer service and product knowledge, he notes.

Sweetbay - named for a local species of magnolia tree - emphasizes service and the variety, flavor and quality of perishables as well as the range of shelf-stable grocery items.

"What's your favorite food?" is among the first questions on a Sweetbay job application. Every associate is trained about every department's products, including seafood, before they start, says McWade.

"The people in the seafood department are very important, but the rest of the store needs to understand what's going on back there, too," he says.

Seafood has played a critical role in the perishables-focused Sweetbay stores from the start, says McWade: "We do seafood well and it's a very, very important category for us."

Delhaize is converting its entire Kash 'n Karry chain in western Florida to the Sweetbay concept. The typical Sweetbay stocks 58,000 SKUs storewide, compared to the 41,000 carried by Kash 
'n Karry. Both stores are about 46,000 square feet.

Like many supermarket companies, Delhaize turned to perishables to compete with Wal-Mart. But while many chains use perishables to refresh their existing brands, Delhaize built a new one from scratch.

Sweetbay opened in November 2004 in St. Petersburg, then marched northward to Tampa. The company plans to convert 44 more Kash 'n Karry stores to Sweetbays by the end of this year, primarily in the Tampa market, and convert the remaining 35 stores by the middle of 2007, a year ahead of original plans.

With $16.6 billion 
in sales, the U.S. division of Brussels-based Del­haize Group is the 
nation's 10th largest grocery company. 
It operates 1,223 Food Lion stores 
and 145 Han­na­ford Bros. stores in the Northeast.

Delhaize hopes to grow its south­west Florida market share against tough competition from Publix and Wal-Mart. In 2003, Kash 'n Karry was the No. 2 supermarket chain in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market, with a 17.22 percent share behind Publix, which then held a 37.8 percent share, according to data from Trade Dimensions, a Wilton, Conn., retail data firm.

But in the last few years, Wal-Mart took over the No. 2 spot. This spring, Publix, with 92 stores, had a share of 38.53 percent; Wal-Mart's 15 supercenters gave it a 17-percent share, and Kash 'n Karry, at a 15.66 percent share, had dropped to third.

Sweetbay's perishables departments have grown dramatically over Kash 'n Karry's, and the company's decision to accelerate the conversion schedule is a sign Sweetbay is doing well, says a spokesperson.

The move is dramatic, bold and well-timed, since weaker competitors Winn-Dixie and Albertsons are hampered by bankruptcy and a sale, respectively, says Neil Stern, a grocery industry analyst and senior partner with McMillan­Doolittle in Chicago.

Sweetbay seafood departments carry a larger variety than Kash 'n Karry, and are all service departments. The service seafood case is a triangle of three refrigerated tables with staff in the center, allowing customers to walk completely around it and the staff to come out in front.

On the first Friday in Lent, what McWade calls the "cooked" table displayed six different dips, three types of shrimp, smoked mullet, king crab, snow crab, surimi and crawfish.

The fillet table offered fresh Chi­lean-farmed salmon steaks (with or without bones) and fillets, marinated salmon in three flavors and salmon roasts (two boneless fillets netted together). Also on the table were New England groundfish like cod, haddock and flounder.

The shellfish table displayed blue mussels, clams, oysters, sea and bay scallops and froglegs. A frozen section in the departments offers most of the table's fillets tray-wrapped and frozen.

To maintain high quality, McWade stocks only as much variety as the departments can turn. That means as few as 10 types of fresh fish or as many as 30, depending on the day.

A key to Sweetbay's seafood approach is its effort to maintain high quality "from our store to their plate - actually to their fork," says McWade.

That begins with strict purchasing specifications, he says. "None of that is a good spend if we don't take care of it going forward," says McWade. So training emphasizes proper handling.

Even so, if the consumers mishandle seafood - easily done in Florida's warm climate - the store will lose customers. To prevent that, Sweetbay includes bags of ice with every order so the fish stays chilled until it reaches the home refrigerator home.

To help consumers cook fish properly, the store issues re-usable temperature probes. If the tip of the 3.5-inch plastic pick turns orange when inserted into cooking fish, the fish is done. A kiosk in the department offers recipe suggestions, as do associates.

The store prides itself on being thorough, all the way to suggesting a side dish and bottle of wine, says McWade.

"[Sweetbay has] done a very nice job," says Larry Andrews, retail marketing director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "They're really reaching out and trying to educate consumers about seafood.

"They want to have an informed shopper, and I think they're doing everything possible to achieve that."

 Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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