STORE OF THE MONTH: A matter of trust

Inserra Supermarkets, owner of 22 ShopRite Supermarkets in New Jersey and southeastern New York, abides by the mantra, "If we don't have it, we'll get it." In business since 1961 and a member of Elizabeth, N.J.-based grocery cooperative Wakefern Food Corp., Inserra has earned its customers' trust over the decades by providing high-quality products and no-nonsense service, along with great deals.

This is a time-tested formula, and Inserra has taken the time to build relationships by helping customers eat their way through weddings, birthdays, Christmas gatherings, Hanukkah festivities, and other joyous occasions.

But the grocer hasn't been locked in a time warp. At 70,000 square feet, its newest ShopRite unit, in Lodi, N.J., is definitely a modern take on the formula. Customers there are treated to an upscale bakery department, a gorgeous floral section, fresh sushi, international gourmet cheeses, full-service meat and seafood, and much more.

"Our stores have gotten much bigger over the years," notes Lawrence Inserra Jr., president and c.e.o. of the company, which is based in Mahwah, N.J. (Inserra's grandparents founded the chain, and his father, Lawrence Inserra Sr., led the company for decades.) "We've adapted with the times."

Changing times in this market mean, among other things, a shrinking pool of land availability for development. "We've had to be more creative by looking at smaller pieces of property, and more unconventional sites," says Inserra.

The Lodi unit is a case in point. The land the store was built on is part of a "smart growth" redevelopment project known as Lodi Main Street Redevelopment. The site of a former chemical plant that exploded just over a decade ago, it's also a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfield redevelopment project.

Inserra learned of the property through its owner, who also owns parcels in Palisades Park, N.J., where another of the Inserra ShopRite units is located. "The property in Palisades Park is similar," says Inserra. "It was a contaminated property that other businesses didn't want to go near."

While these kinds of projects typically require more upfront investment -- and compliance with specific redevelopment regulations -- Inserra says it's the "way to go" if you want to grow your business in an area as densely developed as Bergen County.

Inserra had been operating a supermarket just a few miles away, in Hasbrouck Heights. But rent had gone up, and the grocer had outgrown the store's 43,000 square feet and limited parking space. Now plenty of regulars from Hasbrouck Heights are trekking their way over to the new store -- but the Lodi staff has been a little surprised by the differences in shopping habits they've observed.

"We figured because Hasbrouck Heights is so close, the customer base would be virtually the same," says store manager Peter Cavo, a 20-year veteran of Inserra Supermarkets. However, "Lodi is a very diverse area, and since we've opened the store, we've continued to learn more about customers' needs," he explains.

Remerchandising a store doesn't intimidate this retailer, however. "The good thing for us is that we can adapt to our marketplaces because of the strength of Wakefern," says Inserra. "We work very closely with the warehouse. We can call them up and get what we need, or they'll get someone to get it for us."

Uniquely Lodi

The Lodi store is fairly typical of new ShopRites, notes Wakefern spokeswoman Jeannette Castaneda. She adds that it has its own features, since each independent owner has the flexibility to design and merchandise the store as he or she sees fit.

For instance, Inserra made space for a 4,000-square-foot ShopRite Wines & Spirits liquor store, which is owned and operated separately, as mandated by New Jersey law. The layout also features an in-store ShopRite Pharmacy.

One unusual feature at Lodi is that it's built close to the street, as required under the redevelopment plan. Another difference worth noting is that the main floor is higher than street level. "This area is prone to flooding," explains Inserra.

While the parking lot is large enough to accommodate plenty of automobiles, the store attracts a lot of foot traffic, too. Nobody walks off the lot with shopping carts, however (apparently an issue at the market), because the carts' wheels sport RFID-activated locks, notes Inserra.

The site's relatively high-tech parking lot security is offset by the store's homey exterior design, featuring a brick facade and lights and other fixtures designed to fit in with the streetscape theme dictated by the redevelopment group.

Inside, that welcoming feel persists, as the main entrance features an unusually long lobby that affords the opportunity for setting a mood, such as decorations during the holidays.

"The big lobby was kind of a last-minute thing when we were designing the store, but we've used it for special displays -- and to keep the shopping carts inside," says Cavo.

The lobby also includes a redbox automated DVD rental kiosk -- and in case anyone's inspired to purchase items from the displays, there's a mobile checkout station and friendly associate on hand.

Wedding central

One of the first departments customers encounter in the store is floral, but this isn't any ordinary supermarket floral section. "People are realizing that we offer top quality, [the lack of] which is sometimes a stigma with supermarket flowers," notes Inserra.

Inserra ShopRite's reputation for quality and selection brings many a blushing bride to the department for inspired floral designs, as well as to the well-regarded bakery for cakes baked from scratch. "Our stores have a great niche with weddings," says Inserra.

The Lodi store has done flower arrangements for almost 15 weddings since opening in July 2007, observes Cavo. It has catered many other special events, too, including one for the David Wright Foundation, for which it designed special baseball-themed arrangements in honor of the star New York Mets player.

The top-selling floral item at Lodi, however, is customized bunches, which allow customers to pick their own flowers (or turn to a floral manager for advice) for $3.99 a bunch, or three for $10.

Another department that offers plenty of choices is ShopRite's gourmet international cheese case. Occupying a huge island underneath a dramatic artificial skylight, cheese is located in the back of the store. It sits next to a fresh sushi station, and a wall-to-wall glass display case that features both deli items and fresh seafood, a rather unusual juxtaposition for a traditional supermarket.

The cheese selection includes a variety of flavors at a broad range of prices. Customers can pay anywhere from $3.99 for premium goat cheese to $15.99 for Parmigiano Reggiano.

Associates will gladly split a package in two if a customer requests it, notes Cavo.

Items from ShopRite's specialty private label line are interspersed among the cheeses. Many of these products are imported, he says. Highlights include hazelnut spread, olives from Greece, and biscotti from Italy.

"Private label has grown exponentially throughout the past several years," observes Cavo. "We see this as another point of trust with our customers."

Built for speed

Another well-trusted line is ShopRite's deli selection. Shoppers can choose from fresh rotisserie chickens, pasta dishes, breakfast sandwiches, and pizza, just to name a few. Most of the retailer's prepared food items are made in a central ShopRite kitchen.

At Thanksgiving, time-starved customers -- or those who just choose not to cook -- go wild for ShopRite's complete turkey or ham dinner, which costs just $39.99.

Packaged prepared foods are also offered in a food court section, with seating near the store's main entrance, along with a freshly stocked, self-serve salad bar. Quirky signs encourage customers to try something different for lunch. For instance: "Tired of the same old bologna sandwich? Try our sushi bar."

Another feature in the deli is ShopRite's "Dexter" Deli Express system, which allows shoppers to place an order at the deli and then pick it up at the end of their trip. Orders are stored in a cooler, and the customer's name is called out on the loudspeaker when it's ready.

"We're built for speed here," quips Cavo.

The same philosophy carries the day at the main checkout, he notes, with 20 lanes operating under the rule that no line should be longer than three customers, including the person checking out.

"I'll run a register if I have to," says Cavo. "We also try to cross-train so that the department-specific associates know how to run the register."

Service is a priority in the seafood department as well, says Cavo. "We'll clean and cut fish for our customers [and] shuck clams for them -- all at no extra cost."

The retailer also keeps track of the numerous holidays observed by its diverse customer base, which affects seafood merchandising, he adds. "We have a huge catering business around Christmas, as many of our Italian customers ask for shrimp trays and seafood. Then at Passover we'll grind gefilte fish. We try to make everyone happy."

Sushi lovers are taken care of, too, thanks to three sushi chefs who will "make anything you want," says Cavo. Sushi is made fresh daily, and the retailer merchandises related items such as canned green tea and soy sauce at the sushi station.

Prime time

While sushi sells well, meat volume is in a league of its own, especially during the holiday season, according to Cavo. "This time of year, meat comes into its own," he observes. "The special orders start coming in for items like suckling pigs, ducks, you name it."

The store showcases an impressive veal selection, along with a full line of Angus beef, all-natural buffalo, homemade sausages, and more. A sign lets customers know that "All prime cuts are made to order." In addition, all Inserra ShopRites grind all of their chopped meat from fresh trim.

Meat manager Orazio Suriano says that he has an edge in working for Inserra Supermarkets, because Lawrence Inserra Sr. was a butcher. "Management takes pride in our meat departments," he says. "They know what it takes to please customers."

If meat is one of the favorite meal items among Lodi locals, then ice cream must be the preferred dessert. The Lodi ShopRite has an ice cream and novelty section that would blow most other supermarkets away. Multiple flavors of brands such as Edy's (including Edy's Slow Churn varieties), Turkey Hill, Haagen-Dazs, and Breyers comprise the mix. There's also a selection of ice cream toppings and cones strategically placed by the frozen section.

Even without all of the ice cream, the frozen section looks huge. Niche offerings such as ethnic foods -- including the Goya and LaFe Foods brands -- and natural/organic foods are included. (The store favors integrated merchandising with all natural/organic foods, notes Cavo.)

If the ice cream offering isn't enough to satisfy shoppers with a severe sweet tooth, then they need only visit the bakery, which is "upscale" by ShopRite standards, according to Cavo. The elegant display of homemade cakes includes cannoli cream layer cake and chocolate lovers' layer cakes. Meanwhile there are almost 20 varieties of cookies, including several Italian specialties.

Of course, customized cakes are also available. ShopRite offers a book to give customers ideas, and they always have the option of having a photograph scanned on their cake of choice.

A "bread bar" features parbaked favorites from La Brea Bakery, such as olive loaf, and Italian and whole grain breads.

Then there are the doughnuts -- 13 varieties made fresh daily -- plus a nice assortment of bagels.

ShopRite is also looking out for customers with special dietary needs -- a smart move, since not everyone can gorge on doughnuts. The ShopRite Live Right section includes soy-free bakery items, sugar-free products, and other related goods.

Fresh trends

Plenty of other healthy foods are found in produce, which is behind the food court. Here, management strives to "offer the highest quality at the most affordable price," says Cavo, although he admits that rising transportation costs can be a challenge. That's one reason local foods have been popular, he adds.

When it comes to pricing, membership in Wakefern definitely has its advantages, according to Cavo. "Being part of a cooperative gives us a leg up on some of the other operators. We have the support of a larger entity."

Wakefern members also have access to the highly successful ShopRite "Price Plus" loyalty card program.

Beyond helping the retailer cut costs, Wakefern's buying team also brings in unique ethnic items such as yucca root and plantains, and helps the company keep abreast of the latest consumer trends.

Like most grocers today, Inserra Supermarkets is featuring plenty of fresh-cut items and juice drinks in the produce department. Pomegranate juice, for one, is an "up-and-coming category," says Cavo. Meanwhile the retailer is making fruit and vegetable trays by request, and it dedicates eight feet to fresh-cut fruit.

In addition to all these mouthwatering fresh foods, this ShopRite is paying close attention to nonfood trends, too. It features three fully stocked aisles dedicated to health and beauty care, as well as greeting cards and stationery, and housewares.

In the front end, electronics and other gift items are on display. The store even held a Black Friday sale in which it featured competitive prices on Nintendo games, the Xbox 360, and flat-screen TVs. "We opened at 7 a.m., but we had customers waiting outside at 5," notes Cavo.

In this way and so many more, the Lodi ShopRite is a vastly different supermarket from the one opened nearby almost 50 years ago by the Inserra family. But management has been careful to preserve its legacy of keeping pace with local shoppers' needs -- and by doing so, maintain consumers' trust.


Care package

Mahwah, N.J.-based Inserra Supermarkets maintains its shoppers' loyalty through the charitable outreach programs it supports, many of which are organized by Wakefern Food Corp.

One of the cooperative's major programs is "ShopRite Partners In Caring," a year-round hunger-fighting initiative. Wakefern works with over 70 manufacturers to provide $2 million annually to qualified charitable agencies in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. This enables each ShopRite store to give back to local homeless shelters, after-school programs, and other venues where food is needed. Since 1999, the program has raised more than $15 million and has donated to over 1,400 agencies.

During the 2007 winter holiday season, the Lodi ShopRite had an "Angel Tree" in its lobby, which allowed customers and associates to buy presents for children in need. By early December, store manager Peter Cavo says he had to get more angels because eager employees had already claimed half of them.

ShopRite online

On a typical day at the Lodi ShopRite, it's not unusual to see a young associate walking through the store with a hand-held computer. He’s selecting orders that were placed via the "ShopRite From Home" service, which is powered by MyWebGrocer.

The store has a small room where ShopRite From Home employees are able to prepare orders for delivery or pickup.

ShopRite of Lodi offers local grocery delivery seven days a week for a $5.95 fee. Store pickup is available for $10. Each order also includes a $10 service fee, but there's no minimum order amount.

As of early December, the store was averaging about 20 to 25 online orders a day, according to one of the personal shoppers.

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