FEATURE: Store of the Month: World keeps turning

For Big Y, "World Class" is apparently never good enough, at least not for long. The chain's flagship format is in constant motion, as its recently remodeled World Class Market in the upscale town of Guilford, Conn. attests.

A visitor returning to the store since its revamp, for instance, would first be struck by the space, which has mushroomed from 34,000 to 54,000 square feet, thanks to a mammoth yearlong overhaul that saw the addition of new features as well as an expansion of each existing department.

It's just as Big Y president Charles L. D'Amour promises: to "constantly improve the Big Y World Class shopping experience." This promise is evident here in the store's use of new earth-tone color schemes, in a new-generation eat-in cafe, and especially in the fully realized integration of organic and natural items with conventional product.

The Guilford store is actually on the small side compared with some of its sister locations: World Class Markets usually range from 55,000 square feet to 65,000 square feet.

Still, "small" is not a word that comes to mind when one steps into the greatly enlarged produce section, which now offers over 600 varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables. And the vastness of the selection is a match for the tremendous enthusiasm of produce manager Wade Michaels.

"I've been doing this since I was 17 years old, and I'm 30 now, so that's about 13 years in the business," he notes. "This has been my life's work. I've worked for competitors, too, and this company, by far, does things the right way."

Among the things Big Y does right, according to Michaels, is the presentation of its produce. "We're really going for the 'wow' look -- hand-stacked color grids, using the fixtures in this way to really draw attention [to the product]," he notes, indicating wooden fixtures that impart a farmers' market ambiance to the section, especially when overflowing with seasonal strawberries, blackberries, and grapes, as well as such specialty fare as Campari tomatoes, as they were on a recent visit. "Customers really love to buy product off these."

Setting the tone for much of the rest of the store, organic product is integrated with mainstream fruits and vegetables throughout the produce section. "[Our] organic trade is outstanding, and we do everything we can to cater to our organic customers," says Michaels, adding that the integration strategy allows shoppers to see and select the organic item without having to hunt for it. "My job is to give the customer all the options they can have, and then they can make the choice," he notes.

Additionally, point-of-sale materials abound in the section, including recipe cards and a banner grading chili peppers according to heat. "Whenever you tell [shoppers] something they don't know, they appreciate that, and they reward you by buying," notes Michaels.

Quality control

Further enhancing his ability to share knowledge with customers was a trip taken as part of a Big Y produce manager training program to observe operations at Watsonville, Calif.-based co-op Driscoll's, a major supplier of berries to the retailer. "I sat in on one of the grower meetings and [heard] the back and forth and everything that goes into the business," recounts Michaels. "It's amazing how [the product] goes from the field to the counter."

Local product is another key element of the produce offering, as Big Y is headquartered in the lush Connecticut River Valley, giving it access to a wide array of regionally grown fruits and vegetables. Michaels describes local produce as "a really big program. Our ad will make it a feature; we'll really push it." Part of that push includes banners highlighting growers in the region. The real evidence of local produce's popularity is in the sales, however, as Michaels points out: "The amount of local corn that we sell in season is at least four or five to one."

And then there are the unique quality control programs. The department's prominently posted "It's Fresh or It's Free" guarantee allows consumers to bring back insufficiently fresh produce for a full refund or a replacement item. "We don't even want a receipt," adds Michaels.

The "Goofs" initiative gives shoppers who alert staffers to the infrequent off-condition head of lettuce or blemished apple a silver-colored coin (a feature of the store's "Express Rewards" loyalty program) that enables them to buy products throughout the store at a discount.

Of course, convenience also counts in produce, as demonstrated by cases offering such items as bagged salads, cut fruit, and ready-made party trays, cross-merchandised with dressings, mayonnaises, and refrigerated juices. "We dedicate about 24 feet to this section, whereas a lot of competitors don't do that, and that's because we try to do whatever we can to make sure the customer gets what they want," says Michaels.

In the brand-new floral department, located right by produce, flowers and plants aren't the only things for sale. According to store manager MaryAnn Granata and floral manager Sarah Smith, shoppers can also find gifts, balloons, centerpieces, vase arrangements, and special-order corsages for events such as proms, in addition to gift baskets, "the more upscale" of which are crafted in-store.

"We have a full bouquet wall with different varieties and different price points," says Granata. All of the fresh flowers and bouquets come from local growers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, she adds. The company also offers a seasonal outdoor program.

Past floral and produce is the new go-to feature of the Guilford World Class Market: the expansive foodservice department or International Food Court. "This is a real point of distinction for us," notes district manager Ralph Ramsdell, referring to such offerings as hand-tossed, hearth-baked pizza; rotisserie "Superbird" chickens ("the biggest and the juiciest," according to Granata); and family-sized chicken pot pies that look capable of feeding a small army (Individual sizes are also available).

"Each day of the week we [feature] a different meal," says foodservice manager Michele Gianfriddo. "On Monday we have our large 18-inch pizza for $6; on Tuesday if you buy a Superbird, you get two pounds of roasted potatoes for free; Wednesday's our prime rib of pork for $6; Thursday we have pot pies for $7; we have a 40-piece sheet pizza for $10; and on Saturday we have super subs, or 30-inch grinders, for $8." There are also daily meal specials for $5 each.

The department, where everything from sandwiches to soups is prepared fresh daily, is proving a popular mealtime destination for time-starved locals who work nearby. Foodservice "really drives our sales," observes Ramsdell.

When shoppers have chosen what to eat, they can take it over to the cozy new eat-in cafe, which nestles by the registers in the front of the store. With its subdued lighting and comfortable seating, the area exudes "eye appeal" to passing customers, as well as providing a popular stop for the store's regular breakfast and lunchtime crowds, according to Granata. The cafe isn't just for eating in, however. "A couple of groups contacted us to come in and have a little gathering here," she says. "It's a meeting place for the community."

As well as at the food court, freshness is the watchword in the adjoining bakery department. "We have quite an extensive bakery, and we bake all day long," notes Granata, who adds that the location is the No. 1 bread store in the Springfield, Mass.-based chain.

That bread selection includes organic varieties, of course. "It's definitely a growing field, but in this area they're very into organics, and it keeps getting stronger," says Granata.

On the local bread front, the bakery carries rye breads from Massachusetts company Pittsfield Rye.

In addition to the proverbial staff of life, the bakery offers such delectable treats as cookies and doughnuts, in addition to pies from Middlefield, Conn.-based Lyman Orchards, including the best-selling nine-inch apple variety. However, "cakes [are] what we really hang our hat on," notes bakery manager Mary Livingstone.

"We sell a lot of fruited items," she says. "The clientele in this store really likes produce; that's why they're drawn to these fresh fruited items." One standout is the Fruit Basket Cake, which resembles an English trifle. "If a customer comes in and is not really sure what they want, that's the cake I'll recommend," observes Livingstone. "They'll never be disappointed."

Other popular items include photo cakes. "We have a state-of-the-art photo cake machine," says Livingstone. "A customer can bring us a photo, a picture on a CD; it takes almost every form [of image]." One recent offering made special use of images, she recounts: "We did a photo graduation cake with 16 pictures of the graduate from birth on up, and we started with the younger ones on the top and worked our way to the graduation picture."

Signature cakes incorporating such popular children's characters as Barbie and Spider-Man have taken off as well. "We were the first chain in the country to carry the signature cake," notes Livingstone. Character cupcakes also sell well, particularly those honoring local baseball teams the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. "People will order a dozen, or 20, 30 at a time," she says of the confections. "They'd rather have these than the generic, pre-packaged cupcakes."

Big Y has launched a program offering a wide variety of three-tiered celebration cakes. "We started with graduations last year, and now we expanded it to other occasions: sweet 16s, bridal showers, anniversaries, baby showers," explains Livingstone. "Some of our stores are doing wedding cakes also."

Over in the deli department, cheese is a big draw, as evidenced by 200 varieties in three cases. According to deli manager Connie Leckey: "We do a lot of high-end cheeses, we do a lot of the goats, [and] the specialty cheeses sell well. We sell a lot of cheese here." Indeed, Granata notes that the location is the chain's No. 1 cheese store.

Bologna and more

Besides its ample cheese selection, the deli definitely demonstrates that the department is "not just sliced bologna anymore," as Granata puts it. Among the top sellers in the "huge" heat-and-eat section are chicken cutlets, eggplant rollatini, and baked potatoes, while a selection of chilled pasta salads and a self-serve olive bar are also popular.

Still, bologna and other classic cold cuts get their due. As well as name-brand deli meats and cheese, the department carries Big Y's private label World Classics all-natural, low-salt, low-fat turkey and other varieties. "We will stand next to anybody" in quality, notes Granata.

Quality is similarly on display in the seafood section. As Granata says, "It doesn't get any fresher unless you went out and caught it yourself."

Seafood manager Steve Apuzzo is on hand to make sure customers are comfortable preparing their purchases. "A lot of people are leery of seafood," he says. "I tell them the worst thing you can do is overcook it; otherwise it dries out." In addition to staff advice and recipe cards, the department offers a choice of Cajun, lemon pepper, or teriyaki seasoning at the counter.

Prepared items have made their way here, too. The store does a brisk trade in fish and chips, and heat-and-eat items offer convenience. Then there's cioppino, a Big Y exclusive. "That's a combination of fish, like an Italian seafood stew," explains Apuzzo. "It has cod, shrimp, scallops, celery, and tomatoes, and garlic and olive oil."

Beyond traditional dishes, however, many shoppers are tapping into the latest trends. Notes Apuzzo: "One of the items that has really taken off for us is Full Circle," an all-natural private label program whose logo and products appear throughout the store. "All kinds of tuna, mahi mahi, swordfish, salmon, and halibut steaks. Quite a few people are looking for natural items."

That's also true in the meat department, which stocks a full complement of natural meats. "We do an outstanding job here with natural," boasts meat manager Mike Foster. "We have a whole natural section. We have natural beef, pork, chicken, and organic chicken." Among the brands are Naturewell beef, which, like all beef at the store, is Black Angus Top Choice; Hormel Always Tender natural pork; and organic air-chilled Smart Chicken.

Another big meat department draw is American lamb, which Foster says is superior in freshness and taste. "Everyone else carries New Zealand [or] Australian lamb," he notes. "The American lamb really gives us a good push around the holidays." Also popular are store-made "Bistro Burgers" in varieties including bacon cheddar and portabella mushroom and Swiss cheese, heat-and-eat side dishes like mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, and such beef cuts as sirloin, filet mignon, and flat iron and patio steaks, the last an obvious choice in a community fond of grilling.

Beyond beef, chicken makes a good showing in Guilford, too. Noting the breadth of chicken products available, including an impressive assortment of sausage that dwarfs competitors' offerings, Foster says, "Chicken does really well here."

Local manufacturers in the self-service meat case include Hummel Brothers hot dogs and Longhini Sausage, both based in nearby New Haven, Conn.

At a time when other retailers are cutting back on their service departments to reduce costs and boost efficiencies, Big Y is proud to offer customers what it calls its Neighborhood Butcher Shop. As well as cutting and wrapping all meat in-store, the department provides such services as free knife sharpening and custom orders. As in produce and seafood, recipe cards are available.

Variety, quality and service

To help shoppers bond with meat department associates, Big Y has designated all butchers "Sam," and "Ask Sam" signs dot the section, encouraging customers to address any meat-related questions to staffers.

The next stop is dairy, where dairy/frozen food manager Michael "Yogi" Tomasello shows off the department's "new and exciting" organic selections, many under the ubiquitous Full Circle brand. "Organic milk and even soymilk is really on the rise," he notes. "There's something organic in every category of the dairy department."

As further proof of this, he offers, "All our sour creams are all-natural now. Even cottage cheeses are moving to the all-natural [variety]."

Also on consumers' minds is buying hormone-free products. "All white milk in our case is now BST-free," says Tomasello.

This shopper interest in additive-free and better-for-you items extends to eggs, which the Guilford store obligingly carries in cage-free, vegetarian, omega-3-enriched, and, of course, organic varieties. The cost is higher than mainstream eggs, "but if you're going to eat organic eggs, you're going to eat organic eggs -- you're not going to worry about the price," observes Tomasello.

Other dairy case stalwarts include yogurt, especially such brands as Dannon Activia, Fage, and Stonyfield Farm, and commodity cheese, which despite incursions from deli, still holds its own, according to Tomasello, "especially when you have [a] 'Buy one, get two free' [offer]. You can't pass that up."

While many retailers are enlarging their perimeter sections at the expense of center store, the Guilford World Class Market features 14 aisles of groceries. "We don't shrink the center store; we just expand the [whole] store," says Granata, and grocery manager Joe Ciarci concurs: "We focus on fresh, but we also put a high priority on grocery."

As in other areas of the store, organics are integrated with mainstream items. Distinctive green shelf tags identify them for consumers. Additionally, the store carries many gluten-free products, which are also labeled on the shelves as such.

One Big Y center store innovation is the segregated "Baby Land" section, which stocks everything an infant or toddler could need -- food, formula, pacifiers, bibs, diapers, and cleaning products, among other items -- in one handy location, since "moms are in a rush," especially with young ones in tow, Granata points out. Not surprisingly, she observes, "Organic baby food is huge in this community."

General merchandise offerings include the "constantly" changing seasonal set, featuring summer items at the time of the store visit. Among the higher-ticket items: a two-tiered nine-foot umbrella for a mere $59.99.

So how successful has the new and improved Guilford World Class Market been? One measure is the impact on the competition. "We have Stop & Shop on either side of us in either town," says Granata. "We have Madison on one side and Branford on the other. There's a Stop & Shop in each one. Before we expanded, the criticism was we [didn't] have the variety; [customers] liked coming here for the quality and customer service, but we didn't have the variety. Now that we have the variety, we know for a fact we've hurt our competitors quite a bit."

Most importantly, though, the remodeled store has been advantageous for the town of Guilford and Big Y employees alike. Guilford residents are "a very loyal community; they want to stay in their town for everything, so it was wonderful for us to be able to deliver that for them," she notes. "It was a whole morale boost for the employees as well, which just makes them more responsive to the customers. It's a win-win for everybody."


Anatomy of a format

Since the first Big Y World Class Market was opened in 1993, the idea has been to offer a distinctive shopping experience. "We were trying to [give] our customers a place to shop that’s different from our competitors," notes district manager Ralph Ramsdell, adding that the format provides such amenities as "the hand-tossed pizza, the rotisserie chickens, the service cake case, produce[m]the way we merchandise it, the freshness of it[m]the fish-and-chips program, our Butcher Shops. We really were trying to look for things that our competitors didn't have, and apply that into our new layout."

Additionally, the format carries international, specialty, high-quality items, and, in a world full of big-box retailers competing for shoppers' dollars, promises "a total shopping experience under one roof, concentrating on food and food-related items." At the time of the interview, there were 44 World Class Markets out of a total of 54 Big Y locations, and the concept has been a success, according to Ramsdell, eliciting an "excellent" response from customers. "It's worked out very well for us," he says. "It's created some nice sales for us, that format."

The Guilford, Conn. store, which before its conversion to a Big Y World Class Market was a regular, if somewhat cramped, Big Y location and before that an Edwards store, underwent dramatic changes to reach its present form.

"We've added to our existing store that we used to have here," recounts Ramsdell. "We've added the pizza shop; the whole foodservice area is all new; we've really expanded the produce department. We can offer a lot more variety, which we weren't able to do in the old layout. In the bakery department we didn't have a service case at all in the old store. In this one we have a whole line of service products."

Not content to rest on its laurels, however, Big Y is continuously tinkering with the format. "We're constantly changing," notes Ramsdell. "None of our stores are what we call cookie-cutters; they all have the same components, but we're constantly working at putting new things into them."

That evolution is evident in one of the newest World Class Markets, in Bethel, Conn.: The 65,000-square-foot store features the first exclusively full-service fresh meat department in the chain. New World Class Markets are also slated to open in North Branford and Stratford, Conn., as well as a replacement store in Torrington, Conn.

Big Y also recently rolled out a new format, Fresh Acres, consisting of a smaller (about 30,000 square feet) layout offering upscale, organic fresh foods to go. Despite some overlap in the customers who would be attracted to both types of stores, Ramsdell insists that the two will remain "two separate formats. That particular store is going to have its own market area."

Staying healthy at Big Y

An important priority for Big Y is the health of its shoppers, so the company has a "Living Well Eating Smart" program designed to teach them about how to make better nutritional choices. At the Guilford, Conn. World Class Market, for example, an eye-catching end cap in center store features reading materials designed to educate consumers on how to eat more healthfully. The program doesn’t stop there, though.

"We tie it into our groceries," notes district manager Ralph Ramsdell. "It's also tied into our sales plans."

Additionally, Big Y has its own registered dietitian, Carrie Taylor, who’s actively involved in educating shoppers through product recommendations in the retailer's weekly ad, and articles and recipes in the "Living Well Eating Smart" newsletter, as well by giving more personalized advice via e-mail and letter.

Taylor's efforts naturally have the backing of store-level associates. "We're very, very committed to this program," says Guilford store manager MaryAnn Granata.
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