Rockaway Renaissance


A spectacular new Stop & Shop in an underserved New York City neighborhood looks set to spark much-needed economic growth in the area.

Full disclosure: The recently opened Arverne, N.Y., Stop & Shop on the Rockaway Peninsula in the New York City borough of Queens is a store I often visit.

But even it I wasn't so familiar with the supermarket, which is located in the beachfront neighborhood where I grew up and from which I still live in close proximity, it would nevertheless still handily make the cut to be featured as a Progressive Grocer Store of the Month.

Aside from its obvious attractions — more on those later — there's the highly compelling story of a grocer taking a chance on an underserved area that hadn't seen any ground-up supermarket construction in decades, and positioning the area for what could be unprecedented economic growth.

“First of all, it was considered a food desert, so that was the No. 1 reason why we came out here and started to look at this site and to get some information,” recounts Ron Onorato, president of the Fairfield, Conn.-based New York metro division of Ahold USA's Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. “But there were several other positive attributes about the site that kept our interest going, and why we pursued it and eventually built the store here.”

Among those attributes, says Onorato, was the fact that no “full-sized modern supermarket” had entered the area for such a long time; a growing population density, thanks to a “tremendous amount” of recent new construction; and accessibility, despite being on the outskirts of the city, by car and public transportation. “The city was looking for someone to come in the area, because it was a food desert,” adds Onorato. “They assisted us in doing our search, working with the developers, getting permits, so it was a joint effort to really move forward and get something in here in a very short amount of time.” The whole project took “just about two years,” a time period that he characterizes as “pretty quick to move on a site.”

Despite the relative swiftness of the site selection and construction process, the grocer made sure it didn't skimp on the finished product. “It is a prototype Stop & Shop,” says Onorato, noting that beyond providing all of the bells and whistles of its latest generation of store models, the location is significant in another important way. “Because Arverne was so underserved, we wanted to make sure that we had an extensive food offering for the community. Demographics are pretty unique here — there's a lot of different ethnic groups — and we wanted to make sure that we could capture the variety that they needed to supply their daily food needs.”

To ensure that customer needs would be met, Stop & Shop did its homework. “We did extensive research when we came down here to Arverne,” explains Onorato. “We visited local businesses, tried to fully understand the local demographics, what was unique here. There are people from all areas: African-American, Caribbean, Irish, kosher. It was very important to understand that [and] expand on those offerings.” Carrying such an extensive variety of products meant that the company had to allow enough space for them all, but that was OK by Stop & Shop. “The community has many, many different ethnic groups, more so than you see in most communities,” observes Onorato. “We wanted to serve everybody; we didn't want to serve just one particular group in the area.”

So far, perishables seem to be capturing the most customer attention at the urban oasis, according to Onorato. “Our most powerful departments here are the produce and meat departments, mostly due to the quality of produce that we have for our customers on a daily basis, and the assortment and quality of the foods in our meat department that you really wouldn't find readily in the area,” he notes.

Also performing well are natural and organic products, along with gluten-free items, which have “been high on the charts for our consumers in the past several months,” says Onorato. In fact, he adds, an expansion of the already large gluten-free offering is planned.

Along with products to appeal to every demographic in the community, the Arverne location boasts a few novel features for the area, including a Citizens Bank branch open seven days a week, a large gift center/floral section and a pharmacy, but Onorato insists that the store's main emphasis isn't on such conveniences, attractive though they may be. “The amenities in this store you'll see in a number of our stores — the technology of self-scan, the technology of the deli kiosks — those are items that we use in all of our stores,” he observes. “The real focus here was really driving the availability and variety of products that the people of Arverne were not used to having.”

The Grand Tour

In common with many stores, produce and deli are the first departments a shopper encounters on entering, but their sheer scale in the Arverne location is breathtaking, with soaring ceilings and an open layout giving the impression of limitless space. “As you enter the store here, we really wanted to show the consumer a real dynamic offering,” says Onorato. “You see the produce and the deli are outstanding.”

The deli offers a broad range of items, from prepared foods to salads to cold cuts. “We feature Boar's Head as a major brand that the consumer really looks for in the supermarket, and we service just about any type of event that you may have at your home,” notes Onorato. In a clever example of cross-merchandising, a display of liter bottles of soda stands near the deli service counter. “We try to do that across the store, especially in the perishable departments,” observes Onorato, both as a way to snag extra sales and to prompt shoppers to pick up things they might otherwise forget, without their having to go all the way back for it.

One Stop & Shop deli feature Arverne customers have particularly responded to is a Order It! kiosk from Quincy, Mass-based Modiv Media at which they can place their orders. “The deli kiosk has been a phenomenal piece of technology that the consumer has really gravitated toward,” affirms Onorato. “It's easy to use; it keeps track of the things you purchase, so it will give you suggestions from what you bought last week. … It frees up the customer from having to wait to be served, and lets them go about the rest of their shopping, and then we [page customers when] their orders are complete.”

Next is a full-service bake shop carrying such tempting treats as fresh pastries, cakes, breads and rolls, some baked off-site, others at the store. “One of the things that stands out for us is cake decorating,” says Onorato. “We have excellent cake decorators in our stores who'll decorate cakes for any occasion, personalize them for birthdays or any [other] gathering.” Customized photo cakes are a specialty. As for the department's popularity, “everybody has a sweet tooth,” he notes with a twinkle, and, as if to prove his point, there are also sugar-free and no-sugar-added baked goods available.

Beyond the bakery are the meat and service seafood departments, along with free-standing refrigerated and freezer cases “that really highlight the specials that we have during the week, that are some good-value items that people normally buy,” Onorato points out. “We're able to mass-merchandise them and give people the opportunity to take advantage of the value that we're offering.”

Building on the good will it has already engendered in the area, as well as the growing passion for buying local, Stop & Shop will begin offering more perishable items from the surrounding region as a way to support the local economy. “We are starting a program that we will be carrying local fish from the area, along with product from local florists,” says Onorato. “So as we go through the rest of the year, we'll try to stay connected with the community, and in this store here, we're going to be carrying local produce, seafood and floral products that are grown right here in the New York area.”

Delivering on the Promise

Also in the rear of the store, just past produce, is the Nature's Promise and natural and organic market, a dedicated section for these products, along with gluten-free options. “This is a growing area for us,” observes Onorato of organic and natural. “Year in and year out, people are becoming more health-conscious and looking for more variety and more items.”

Although the section serves as a destination where shoppers can get all of their natural and organic favorites in one place, the products can actually be found in every other part of the Arverne location as well. “The important part in our variety is getting people to find natural and organic items across the entire store, not just one specific department, so whether it's deli, produce, meat, grocery, you will find healthy and organic foods across the entire store as an offering for our customers,” explains Onorato, adding that “once people understand our Nature's Promise line, they'll look for that label” in every department.

Nature's Promise is, of course, a private label brand available only at Stop & Shop, but it's not the chain's only offering of that kind: The company's other lines include Stop & Shop, Simply Enjoy and Guaranteed Value. “People have been responding very, very well [to] our private label program,” says Onorato. “That's the difference right now, as we move forward, producing good, high-quality product at a good value, and once people try our products, they understand they're just as good as, if not better than, national brands.”

Apparent throughout the supermarket, but especially upon entering center store, are the capacious aisles, which allow plenty of room for maneuvering bulky shopping carts and baby strollers. “It's one of the No. 1 compliments about this store,” notes Onorato, who says customers “always compliment us that it's easy to get around and to navigate through the store.” Also most noticeable in center store are the skylights that allow natural light into the selling space. “On a nice, bright day, it's very efficient for us,” he says.

Additionally, the Arverne store's grocery aisles further illustrate Stop & Shop's strategy regarding product mix.

“As you look through the store, there are many aisles with ethnic merchandising, whether it be Hispanic, kosher, you'll see aisles of it, where in most stores, you may see 16-24 feet,” notes Onorato, passing a prominent end cap filled with Badia spices aimed primarily at Latino shoppers. “In a store like Arverne, we have a complete aisle of Hispanic, a complete aisle of kosher, and sections of Irish and Caribbean, so it's a great mix throughout the store, and really received well by the local community.”

A spacious promotional section that changes with the seasons offers an expanded Passover selection, with everything the local Jewish community needs for the spring holiday — and some things they want. “This Passover season, we're actually bringing in a candy counter,” relates Onorato, adding, “There were items that we missed, and the customer came forward to let us know what they were, and we made sure we got them on the shelf.”

That same close attention to shopper requests will influence the summer seasonal assortment, too, vows Onorato. “We want to make sure we have the right summer items for the community, so they can enjoy the summer holiday, and buy all their needs, be it general merchandise, food or grills, or whatever they need, here at Stop & Shop,” he notes.

Rounding out center store are extended lines of dairy and frozen foods, both of which Onorato refers to as “a growing business,” in the back corner of the store, including plenty of low- and no-fat milk, yogurt and cheese varieties, and frozen no-sugar-added fruit, gluten-free and meatless options, and organics. Free-standing refrigerated and freezer cases in the huge latter section offer current sale items.

Not content with meeting all of the local community's food needs, the Arverne Stop & Shop also stocks an impressive range of nonfood/HBC items, among them over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements, pet food and supplies (even frozen Frosty Paws treats in an in-aisle freezer), personal care, cosmetics, toys, housewares, books and magazines, and DVDs. “The customer can do all their shopping in this full-value supermarket,” says Onorato.

At the heart of the nonfoods offering is the gift center, an open space with a full-service florist, plants, greeting cards, balloons and more. “We do weddings; we will do any occasion for our customers,” notes Onorato. “You can come in here, have a specific arrangement made, either in your own container or containers bought from us, and also buy gifts, cards, chocolates as you go to visit people. It's a one-stop experience here.”

Additional amenities include a Van Houtte branded coffee station and an innovative checkout lane dubbed “Smiles for All: A Family-Friendly Aisle.” “This is something [for which] the customer has been asking us for many years,” explains Onorato. “When you come through this aisle, you have all healthy snacks, so the children in the carriage will not be asking for the candy bar or anything else. If a mother or a father wants to come through a register that is going to show healthy snacks to their children, we have it designated at our store.

“You try to have everything under one roof,” muses Onorato about the Stop & Shop approach to running a grocery store, “and the nice part about the supermarket business is if you don't have the right things, the customer will tell you. So it's up to us to make it right for the customer.”

Big Thanks

As well as bringing new goods and services to a previously overlooked community, the Arverne store is encouraging other businesses to move into the neighborhood. At the time of PC's visit, construction was underway nearby on additional retail space.

Does Onorato believe the store has set in motion a retail renaissance in the area? “Yes, I do,” he affirms. “Someone had to make the first move. I'm glad it was us, in having a supermarket down here in Arverne, but I think people are seeing the successes, and what the city is doing to improve the area down here. It's nice to see other businesses … invest and open shops along the boulevard here.”

As far as future store openings in the New York metropolitan area are concerned, Stop & Shop is always on the alert for possible locations. According to Onorato, “Our vision is to grow and expand in the New York marketplace.”

Over in Arverne, however, the focus is on honing an already successful strategy to deliver even more. “We always look at our business on a day-to-day basis and try to improve,” observes Onorato. “The feedback has been fantastic from the community. They're really pleased we're here, and that's a great feeling. We've done the right thing, and we're doing well.”

Onorato's views are no doubt shared by all at the Arverne location. “We play a major role in the revitalization of the area,” echoes store manager Vito Orlando, a Pathmark veteran who has worked for Stop & Shop since 2009. In a brief chat, Orlando confides that during the store's opening week, “every customer said to us, ‘Thank you.’ They love my staff. We get compliments every day. … That's what it's all about: Keep them coming back.”

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