Category Archives: Retail Concepts

Old Kroger Outlives Signage, Thrives

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Store facia updates may not be worth what they cost.

I stopped recently at a Kroger’s in the ‘fancy’ end of Lynchburg VA. The street-side sign is probably 1960’s era – hardly enticing to a new-to-Kroger’s shopper. But the store entrance itself is right up to date: wide automatic doors, large cart lobby… then you step inside, and you’re in a totally modern Kroger’s somewhere else.

Well, maybe not totally modern: The produce section offers the usual blow-you-away variety and presentation; the wine section right behind it is vast – thankfully so in an area where wine-buying options are slim, at best.

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Efforts have been made to update elsewhere, but let’s face it, they’re working with an older model, small footprint store. Still, this store stands head and shoulders above its nearest (physical) competitor, a Food Lion, half a mile along the same road. Next nearest is a Fresh Market, aka Whole Foods Jr. (The former is owner by the latter.)

This Kroger has an above-average range of products, in its market area, and does an outstanding job of presenting its range where aisles are, in some instances, nearly as narrow as those in big-city stores – but the trade-off, a reduced facia-count for many items, results in a wide range of offerings, including a reasoned range of well-beyond-food items.

Top-Of-Line Meat Offerings

Space limitations across the back wall mean deli foods are in a relatively confined back strip, followed by an eight-foot-wide seafood/best meat case. The choice, in the limited space, is highly impressive, and the presentative is top-of-the-line Kroger’s.

(That local shoppers don’t balk at higher-than-market-average prices for meat was obvious when the man preceding me at that seafood/best meats counter casually ordered a pair of steaks that set him back close to $50 – a sizable single-meal meat expenditure in this part of Virginia!)

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The entrance to the Lynchburg VA store on Boonsboro Road  (photo: D Harris)

Immediately after entering the store, I scanned the that meat/seafood area to ensure they had what I wanted. The patrolling ‘butcher’ (or was he a seafood specialist?) gave me a ‘can I help you look,’ and I said I’d be back in a few for a pair of lobster tails. It was a good ten minutes before I did return, and when he finished serving the steak buyer, he looked at me and said, “Two lobster tails, right?”

Got Gulf Shrimp, Too!

I agreed, pleased he’d remembered me, and I added half a pound of Texas Gulf shrimp to my order.

For someone who’s reported on supermarket matters for the better part of the last 40 years, I’m still not always a good shopper: I failed to notice I was charged $17.98 for the lobster tails when a case sign showed them to be selling at two for $12.00 – an excellent price. I caught the error when I got home, phoned the store, and was assured that, even if it was a while before I got back there, my receipt would earn me a refund. Duly noted, I saved both the receipt and the printed label from the butcher’s package.

As it happened, I happened to be back in that neighborhood about 10 days later. The customer service clerk, promptly processing my refund, asked if I wanted cash back or to have the refund applied to the gift card: Cash back, no questions, plus a bonus $5.00 Kroger gift card. Service with a ‘you’ll remember us’ touch!

My visit to this store for lobster tails was in mid-afternoon, on a Wednesday. If I were the manager, I’d say the store was “comfortably busy” for that time of day and week. (I encountered, at the end and back sections I visited, a total of some 20 customers. They clearly weren’t overrunning the place, but they were, with quickly filling carts, piling profits into Kroger’s coffers.)

Meanwhile, traffic at the Food Lion down the road, which I visited for comparison purposes, was – to put it mildly – slow… creepily slow.

Both stores are in mini-shopping centers, with an abundance and variety of stores. Plenty of shopper draws. A reasonable amount of parking. Similar street access (via two access/exit points). They effectively serve the same neighborhood, near a middling-size city’s second hospital in an area that attracts lots of medical specialists’ offices.

There are some rental housing units in this neighborhood, but the majority of residents own.

Because of the hospital, the area, this road, in particular, tends to see a lot of non-local potential shoppers. Some them may be put off by the decades-old Kroger sign. But like most supermarkets, this one relies on locals far more than passers-by. And a single visit will make a ‘regular’ of the occasion area visitor.

Kroger isn’t ordinarily a stick-with-your-signage company, keeping its principal exterior logo for decades. The company’s exterior signs have undergone several sometimes subtle changes over the past forty or so years. That makes this store an outlier, an exception to the rule. As noted, the current street-side sign advertising this store probably dates from earlier than the 1970s.

Still: The store itself sells itself on Kroger’s overall reputation and the quality of the store’s offerings.

Another ‘Cash Cow’ Store

It reminds me, in a way, of an A&P store in New Orleans. Long gone now, that store was on a corner in the French Quarter. It was prime real estate, bought by A&P when that company was in its prime – many decades earlier. It must have cost a mere fraction of what the company eventually got for it.

While offering up several alternative formats over the years, A&P maintained its traditional logo on eponymous branded stores as long as the chain survived – into the mid-1970s. The sign on this particular New Orleans store was old, and small, and almost unnecessary: For many years, this was the nearest thing to a supermarket within walking distance of most French Market-area residents and hotel stayers.

And it was a great lure for tourists: It stocked a lot of things visitors want, including small packets of this or that health & beauty aid-type product, snack foods, and liquor.

That A&P was, for many years, what’s known in the trade as a ‘cash cow’: The store was paid for, many years (and many times) over; Profit margins were high; overheads were relatively low – until the real need for upgrades outweighed the advantages of keeping it open.

But all the while, the old-fashioned, physically old logo out front did its job: It drew shoppers in in droves! The old wood floors and wood cases didn’t hurt, but it was the convenience and the product range that drew them in.

Just as is the case with the Lynchburg store with the old street-side signage. The Kroger name, like the A&P name in New Orleans, drew the shoppers in.

 

Kroger’s New Mobile Market A Joint Effort with Food Bank

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Kroger’s 44-foot long mobile market   (The Courier-Journal)

Not content to offer plenty to attract shoppers into its stores, Kroger has launched a mobile store – to take food and more to where their neighbors live. Called the Zero Hunger Mobile Market format, the single-aisle store-on-wheels was introduced by the Louisville Division to serve neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh foods and vegetables, And Know U Know reported August 15.

“There Are Other Ways”

Quoting Erin Grant, Corporate Affairs Manaager and Media Spokesperson for the division, ANUK said Krroger believes “It does not have to be a brick-and-mortar store for us to provide access to healthy food for people. That might not always be the solution. There really are other ways.”

This way, serving up 20+ meat items and close to 60 produce selections curbside around the city, is an envelope-stretcher. In reaching out to actual or near ‘food deserts’ – areas supermarkets shy away from – is an anything-but-inexpensive way for the nation’s Number 2 (after Walmart) food retailer to grow its customer base.

And while that’s certainly an objective, Kroger officials are, in expanding their coverage in this way, acting on a long-time company objective: To serve, in the best and most effective ways possible, the communities it serves. Thus this partnership with the “Dare To Care”13.4 foodbank.

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Inside Kroger’s 44-foot long mobile market   (The Courier-Journal)

Due to visit 29 locations this month (August), the colorfully-outfitted, 44-foot long (13.4 m) trailer offers close to 200 different items. It’s been a huge hit with shoppers, The Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Aug 15.

Two Fridge Cases Onboard

The paper noted that the mobile market’s product range includes two refrigerated cases holding meat, milk, eggs and cheese, among other items; A row of shelves contains baking ingredients, pasta, cereal and other pantry staples. A wall displays fruits and vegetables, from mustard greens to clementines. The market does not sell chips, soda or alcohol,” the article added.

And why should it? Those (chips, soda, alcohol, etc.) are what local ‘markets’ in food deserts specialize in.

Good job, Kroger!

Pennies (Not Quite) From Heaven: Flyers Abandon Nearly $1m At Airport Security

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Talk about unintended consequences: The ‘take-off-your-shoes-empty-your-pockets’ routine at American airports – all in the name of security – accidentally netted the government nearly $1 million in left-behind change and bills last year. That, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) said, was the total in coins, loose bills and way more of the latter left in wallets and purses – plus an unknown number of belts, mobile phone, and other personal items – left in the plastic bins at security check points. (As you’d imagine, many of the phones and laptops eventually made it home. The cash, USA Today reported, has been given authority by Congress to spend the money however it sees fit to improve security. In past years, the TSA’s ‘tips’ have gone toward upgrading security signs and Precheck travel-expediting systems.

TSA reported the five airports ‘contributing’ the most the year’s unintended bounty broke down which airports ‘contributed’ what amount: NYC’s JFK Airport, came in at No. 1 with more than $72,300, followed by LAX at nearly $71,800, and then Miami, Chicago’s O’Hare, and New Jersey’s Newark airport. The airport where travelers hold tight to their legal tender? Nevada’s Reno airport, which only yielded $19.85 in 2018. And chances are the Reno passengers left little more – if that much – in the change slots at the slot machines!

I don’t know if anyone’s tracking it, but chances are that as supermarkets increase self-service checkouts, customers requesting ‘cash back’ from credit or debit cards are forgetting to grab it from the machine. (I’ve done it at least twice!)

An important reason that happens is because the cash-return slot tends to be below one’s usual eye-sight range. That, and the fact that customers, at that point in the shopping experience, want it behind them.

I once was chased into a Walmart parking lot by an associate waving my $20 bill in the air.  Some others probably haven’t been so fortunate.

Details — such as where cash-return slots are placed on checkout machines — can be costly to supermarket operators, because even when you aren’t paying attention, you can bet shoppers are!

Sustainable Packaging: What’s New?

 

Renewables and reusables were among the new packaging product highlights at the recently concluded NRA (National Restaurant Association) annual show in Chicago.

Among the highlights, as reported by Restaurant Hospitality, were:

A unique system of reusable plastic containers from Ozzi, based in New Kingstown, R.I. This four-year-old company’s latest products are designed to eliminate the need for disposables. Ideal for foodservice programs at universities, military bases, corporate campuses or other settings, the system includes an automated collection box, where guests can return the sturdy, bright-green containers after use.

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If not returned, the guest is charged $5 per container. The containers are washed, sanitized and returned to the foodservice outlet. They can be reused up to 300 times (and at the end of their life they are shredded and recycled into yogurt cups). Ozzi officials said about 100 college campuses across the country are using the system, and some cities, like Truckee, Calif., for example, are starting to launch programs for restaurants.

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Minima, based in Taiwan, supplies compostable straws to chains like Starbucks. New this year, however, is a compostable to-go straw that comes in clear plastic-film wrapper, and that wrapper is also compostable. Minima also makes a line of compostable cutlery free of bisphenol A, or BPA, an industrial chemical in polycarbonate plastics that can leach into food, as well as various other alternative plastics for things like toothbrushes, sunglass frames and packaging tape.

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>             Canada-based Eco Guardian has a new line of Lock n’ Go compostable containers with tabs that glue closed to prevent delivery drivers from tampering with food, which has become a growing concern. Several packaging manufacturers at the show said they also were working on tamper-proofing features for their products.

Eco Guardian’s containers are made from sugarcane fiber or bamboo, with the option of both clear and non-transparent-fiber lids or base. Rather than a hinged clamshell, these containers are separate pieces, which creates less waste if used for dine in, when a hinged top might not be necessary.

That gives operators the option of putting two clear containers together, for example, for a cold item, or two fiber pieces together for something hot — or they can put a clear lid on a fiber base to mix and match. All are certified compostable, including the glue on the tamper-proofing tabs.

>             Japan-based Stalk Market has a new line of certified compostable plates and serving platters designed for dine in called Wasara, made from sugarcane, bamboo and reed pulp.

More like sculpture, these attractive pieces are designed to reflect the elegant lines of Japanese architecture. There are no lids, but they are stackable to create stunning pinwheel-like presentations.

Eco Products, of Boulder, Colo., was promoting its compostable cutlery, including a new line with no added PFAS to comply with upcoming standards. In addition, the company debuted its new “Cutlerease” dispenser that serves up knives, forks or spoons one at a time, with another popping neatly into its place. This eliminates waste and sanitation issues created around traditional cutlery holders which can appear cluttered and messy.

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>             Hay! Straws makes biodegradable straws made from straw stems, a biproduct of wheat production after the grain is harvested. The stems are rinsed, soaked, washed and air dried to create a straw that functions just like plastic, and can be used in hot and cold drinks. New from the San Francisco-based company this year is the addition of three new sizes: Jumbo, Jumbo XL and Boba Hay straws, which are designed for beverages that are thicker and chunkier, like smoothies, shakes or boba teas.

>             Making its first appearance at the show is the recently launched Butterfly Cup, a paper cup that folds into a modified sippy cup of sorts, eliminating the need for plastic lids or straws, though some models include a straw hole, if desired. The Spartansburg, S.C.-based company offers a compostable version that is currently BPI-certified, though CEO Ackshay Vashee said they are working on meeting the new standards for next year.

>             Georgia Pacific was showing off what it calls the first disposable Dixie cup made from 100% recycled post-consumer fiber. In addition, the company also demonstrated its prototype auto-sealing beverage system that puts a sealed leak-proof lid on cups to prevent delivery drivers from taking a sip while the beverage is in transit.

 

A Little-Plus About Lidl

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A year ago, Germany-based grocer Lidl ‘invaded’ the United States. The company (whose name is pronounced leedl) originally set its initial US goal at 100 stores. That was scaled back, early this year, to 50. There presently are Lidl stores in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with more stores pending in New York’s Staten Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia.

The up-coming stores are likely to be closer to the company’s 15,000-20,000 sq ft (1393-1858 sqm) European model, for a few reasons:

(1) The US stores, judging from the one I’ve visited (several times), are seriously trying to do too much, as almost-full-service supermarkets, than they can deliver;

(2) they dedicate 12-25% of their floor space to nonfood items that might, might, generate high enough profits to justify the company’s investment in them… but they might not; and

(3) while in-store bakeries certainly are a potential draw, Lidl’s scratch versions – as opposed to bakeries doing bake-off of frozen or otherwise- ‘almost-finished’ products, involve serious up-front and ongoing investments. And using only Europe-inspired recipes may not be as good an idea as Lidl executives imagined, because European and American tastes differ.

A company website notes that, “At Lidl, our bread and baked goods are authentic European quality and they are always oven fresh because we bake several times a day. Take a deep breath – that smell is our croissants oven-baked on site! We melt the right amount of butter, dash the perfect amount of salt, and layer each luxurious taste to be the perfect flakey bite. The baked goods are made using the original recipes and baking processes that we perfected across Europe.”

Something Lidl may never (so far) have been recognized for is the quality of its shopping carts. Beyond the now-standard area for small, delicate items, their cars feature handles that are heavier than the types usually found at US supermarkets, and Lidl’s handles have shaped, plastic grips for the user’s hands. While the carts feel sturdy, they are easy to maneuver, and seem to be constructed so as to not face the fate of so many carts: jammed or broken wheels.

The care and attention that went into designing those carts wasn’t exercised when the entry into US market was planned.

While generally some 35% larger than their European counterparts, Lidl’s US stores’ shopping areas don’t employ space efficiently. Aisles are too wide, compared to most US supermarkets; the first-in-view produce section features multiple displays of some items and, in mid-June, had no available peaches – a serious summertime favorite across the US. (Meanwhile, a roadside stand a few miles up the road from the Danville VA Lidl was offering “South Carolina Peaches”); Non-food bins, which feature ‘specials’ on Thursdays and Sundays, were empty on Saturday – a huge waste of space and, no doubt, many missed opportunities to sell something – anything.

Americans like prepared foods. Lidl doesn’t, one must assume, like to sell prepared foods, at least not in assortments Americans are used to. Oddly, one of the widest ranges of packaged foods comprises sauces destined, as per package directions, to be used to turn plain pieces of chicken into Indian-Indian – as opposed to Native American “Indians” – dishes. It would amaze me if there’s an even middling demand for Indian food in Danville, population 42,000  or so, where there’s nothing vaguely resembling an Indian restaurant or Asian food market within 40 minutes (in Greensboro, NC, of all places!).

This Lidl offers frozen Indian entrees, as well. A generous assessment assumes they must sell, because the display is always well-stocked. (Alternatively, these long-shelf-life items, prepared in Canada, may not be selling well at all – but let’s  give the benefit of the doubt and assume stock is turning over nicely!)

 

Given the amount of space dedicated to them, Lidl clearly loves to sell cookies, packaged crackers and similar snack foods: The company’s Danville store has oodles of them.

The bring-your-own–bags – or buy Lidl’s for a few cents each – system seems to be widely accepted by shoppers. (I keep a bag full of Lidl bags in the trunk of my car so when I’m in Danville, I’m prepared. On my most recent visit, a departing customer tossed me a few Lidl bags he didn’t need, so I added them to my ‘bag stash’.)

I live an hour’s drive from that store, so I visit only when I’m in Danville for another reason. So I can’t report on day-to-day traffic there. Press reports have said the company hasn’t been converting fans of other local supermarkets – of which there are not a wide assortment in Danville – to Lidl regulars.

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My visit earlier this month was either the ideal time for encountering little in-store traffic… or a portend of problems to come: There were very few shoppers, at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon. But the good news is, for Lidl, many of the few were loading carts with well over $100 in merchandise. That’s four to five times what a press report a few months ago said the average Lidl ‘buy’ was.

I like Lidl. It employs some clever time- and cost-savers such as price-labeling your own bakery and produce items. (Walmart’s self-checkouts require one to try to figure out how some produce items are listed in the system – corn, peppers, and chilies can be problematic  — or enter the PLU code. The latter often are as hard to locate as the product-look-up system is to navigate. Not so at Lidl.

A few months ago, writing in Forbes, noted retail analyst Walter Loeb  wondered why, rather than spreading stores from New Jersey to Georgia, Lidl hasn’t focused on a more condensed area and positioned stores closer together. The current scatter-shop positioning, he noted, makes it hard for any store to have more than a very local impact.

Well, the company recently appointed a new head of the US operation, a 15-year veteran of Lidl, and he’ll no doubt put that experience to good use getting Lidl USA back on the track envisioned by envisioned by Klaus Gehrig, director of the Schwarz-Group, which owns Lidl.

On average, competitors have lowered prices more than 9% in markets where Lidl sets up shop. That suggests US consumers have every reason to hope Schwarz-Group becomes more profitable thanks to Lidl USA.

 

McDonald’s Debuts New Chicago HQ

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McDonald’s has called a Chicago suburb home for 40 years. No more: The company recently moved its HQ into the city – in The West Loop location once home to Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. CNBC said the area is “an up-and-coming neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants. It is here that Easterbrook foresees the company cultivating top talent and tapping into emerging food crazes.”

Craig’s Chicago Business reported that the company is leasing about 80% of the 600,000 sq ft (27,871 sq m) available in the newly-built, block-square building in what’s called the Fulton Market area of the city center. The $250 million (£187m) headquarters was officially opened on June 4.

In addition to office space, the facility also includes a floor dedicated to the company’s Hamburger University, a training ground for mid-managers, higher-ups and franchise owners in the company. More than 80,000 of them have graduated from HU, as the ‘campus’ is called.  (In Oakbrook, IL, the company’s former headquarters, HU occupied 130,000 sq ft (12,077 sq m). It occupies the entire 2nd floor in the new nine-story HQ building, which stands some 125 ft (38m) at its highest point.)

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Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonald’s, told CNBC that while the old HQ had “been a wonderful facility for us, it was a little detached from everyday life.” The new HQ definitely isn’t.

Its ground floor includes a restaurant open to the public. It shows off all the latest innovations in McDonald’s around the world, including menu selections (which often differ significantly in other countries from US offerings).

Truly, this is a photo story, so here are a few more from McDonald’s of their new HQ.

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Meet-up spaces

 

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The employee cafeteria, with stadium seating.
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“Work  neighborhoods”

 

 

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Roof-top work space, with views over Chicago.

Carrot Steak, Anyone?

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Carrots, Restaurant Hospitality said on June 1, are getting “a reboot” – as both a center-of-plate dish and in an assortment of ways as ‘sides’. The push to find new, markedly different ways to employ the brightest-colored of root vegetables comes, the magazine noted, as such other oft-neglected or underutilized vegetables as cauliflower and celery find their way into professional kitchens from one side of the US to the other – and elsewhere, as well.

Regarding carrots, the magazine went on, “Anyone who thinks carrots don’t belong in the center of the plate hasn’t seen the dramatic Carrot Steak at Detroit’s Lady of the House, one of the new breed of casual restaurants reviving that city’s dining scene. Beautifully simple, the “steak” is sauced with both Hollandaise and pesto.”

In New York City, the author went on, Dirt Candy restaurant “has won raves for its creative, vegetable-based cuisine. The Carrot Slider there features a double dose of carrots since it’s served on a carrot bun.”

The Dirt Candy folks are something else: Another of their offerings is …

POPCORN BEETS

Why have fries when you can have these instead? Salt-roasted beets fried in a corn-meal batter and served with our Thai green curry sauce that tastes like Thailand’s version of ranch dressing, it’s snack food elevated to the level of a street drug: totally addictive.”

Other carroty formulations were cited in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, restaurants.

The article went on to note that, because many college students are vegetarians or vegans, vegetable-based cuisines, often creatively featuring carrots, are increasingly popular at campus dining facilities. And bartenders, too, are getting into the carrots-as-an-ingredient game.

Possibly anticipating a jump from professional kitchens to household, Walmart – at least my local one – just substantially increased the amount of produce space devoted to carrots.

As Bugs Bunny was wont to say, “What’s up, Doc?”