Look What Supermarkets Have in Store for You

The search is on for ways to make shopping a quicker and more pleasant experience

Star Market in the Allston area of Boston is a cutting-edge grocery store.

In addition to a florist, Starbucks, juice bar, cheese shop, and huge prepared-foods section, it has a natural foods oasis, a pharmacy, a pet-supply section, Top-100 CDs, and a child-care center.

At checkout, if you have 10 items or fewer, you can scan them, bag them, run your ATM card through the machine (get cash back if you want) - and presto, you're out of there without even being asked "paper or plastic?"

Such technology and in-store conveniences are part of continuing experiments and market trends that grocers, retailers, and consumers are eyeing.

One-stop shopping

Looking into the future, all have the same question in mind: How can the shopping experience be better?

Indeed, if manufacturers and retailers are after sales and consumers seek the best price, quality, variety, and convenience, both would agree that a pleasant shopping experience means repeat business.

This is nothing new. But as lifestyles change, so does the definition of the good grocery store.

If you're after convenience, the buzz phrase is "one-stop shopping." If you're after pleasantries, then it's "experience shopping" which might include live piano music, cooking lessons, and impromptu taste-tests.

According to a new Consumer Reports survey, key issues of concern to shoppers about their stores include cleanliness, courtesy, prices, and checkout speed. Not surprisingly, key complaints are slow checkouts, specials sold out, congested aisles, prices missing, and scanning errors.

At a time when Wal-Mart stores and superwarehouse clubs are adding to their food inventories, one of the most talked about trends in the supermarket industry is home-meal replacement, HMR for short.

"Shopping patterns have changed. People don't plan ahead as much, and they shop more on a daily basis," notes Barbara Barker Brown president of Off-the-Wall Design, a company in Telford, Pa., that specializes in store design.

Time needs are being addressed at every turn, and supermarkets now see their competition not as other supermarkets, but any place that sells food.

It's referred to as "share of stomach," explains Ms. Brown. One commonly accepted statistic is that for every food dollar, 60 cents is spent in the supermarket and the rest is spent elsewhere - such as fast-food restaurants. "Twenty years ago this would not have occurred," Brown says. Now, more women are in the work force, and the proliferation of eateries being in prominent places - malls, for example - has made it easier to eat wherever, whenever.

Industry observers often cite Boston Market when they talk about the HMR concept and competition. The home-style "fast food chain" has bridged the gap between prepared food at a reasonable price and restaurant food.

Mike Wright, chairman of the Food Marketing Institute, whose member companies operate 2,000 retail food stores, said in an interview with Supermarket News, "... We're finally recognizing that probably the biggest competitor we're having - in terms of losing market share - is restaurants."

The upshot is that consumers will see more central kitchens and more home-meal replacement options in supermarkets, ranging from ready-to-eat roasted chicken to sushi. The Allston Star Market, for example, has an entire station devoted to pizza. With this emphasis on take-away food comes increased concern for food safety.

"This trend is part of the blurring of food-service genres. The success [of these supermarket kitchens] is going to be dependent on people's ability to prepare food well," says John Dranow, founder of the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vt.

Michel Leborgne, vice president for culinary affairs at NECI, adds that too many people treat food like "lumber." Proper food handling will become a sought-after skill in this emerging industry. "Service is key," he says. Also, the demand for organic food will rise, he predicts. Already, mainstream supermarkets are attempting to win natural-food customers away from the likes of Trader Joe's and Wholefoods with lower prices.

Another part of the HMR and convenience trend is the "meal-center" concept. Items are grouped together to make up a certain type of meal. For example, you may see a display with pasta, spaghetti sauce, grated Parmesan, and Italian bread all grouped together. The "no-brainer" approach is geared for weary supper shoppers who want to do quick cooking at home, rather than take-out or waste travel time in the aisles.

Physically speaking, the look and layout of supermarkets will evolve. Designers will likely address traffic issues more directly and place more emphasis on prepared-food sections.

In-store seating areas will probably be more commonplace, Off-the-Wall's Brown says. "That's a convenience for shoppers; they can do shopping while their kids eat." Nurseries are also cropping up more. Brown once saw a parent carrying a screaming son out of the store and saying to him, "I promise we'll come back tomorrow!"

Convenience may well conveyor-belt into the parking lot. "Beyond curb-side pickup and handicapped spots, we're seeing reserved spaces for mothers-to-be and mothers-with-children as well as for prepared-food shoppers who want to be in and out quickly," says Brown.

In the area of technology, several things are in the works. Bruce Fox, editor for Retail Technology Magazine, cites the rise of frequent-shopping programs (preferred shopper cards) that enable retailers to track purchases, find out who their best customers are (and what they buy), and serve them better.

The three most interesting supermarket technologies Fox says he sees are electronic shelf labels, self-checkout, and online shopping and home delivery, such as Peapod.

Customers buy Cheerios

The jury is out on the overall success of Internet shopping for home delivery, according to several industry sources. People are hesitant to give credit-card information over the Internet, and while consumers seem to be comfortable buying Cheerios for home delivery, they want to see fresh produce before they buy it.

As for self-check-out, someone once asked Fox if it was "the wave of the future." He likens the technology to the person in your family who's forever taking graduate-level courses, but who probably will never go out and get a job. The hurdle is cultural, not technological, he maintains. "Consumers have to believe that if they're going to scan and bag their own groceries, there's something in it for them - whether it's a discount, or whether it means they can count on getting through the line substantially faster."

But what if you could scan your items right into your cart as you go along? Symbol Technologies, based in Bohemia, N. Y., has come up with a system, whereby a shopper holds a scanner and scans an item right off the shelf (you push the plus button; if you change your mind and put it back, you just push the minus button).

Safeway is one of the chains experimenting with the technology, which Symbol Technologies estimates could shave off 50 percent shopping time.

Speaking of carting down the aisle, Gene Gillespie may catch your eye with one of his advertisements.

His company, Indoor Media Group, based in Forth Worth, Texas, is working with supermarkets and vendors to put ads underfoot. Not every tile; just a few on the end of the aisles.

The concept is simple, Mr. Gillespie says. "People look out and down when they walk." The tiles will be photographic art and text right in the floor. So far, Safeway, and Dallas Kroeger stores are in step.

The more general trends Gillespie sees are cleaner stores, more one-stop shopping (which means larger stores), and more mutually beneficial relationships, which could include a Taco Bell or McDonald's within a grocery store. As for HMR, Gillespie can see why it is the industry's biggest trend. Speaking as a consumer, he remarks, "If I can get fresh-grilled salmon from my market, why would I want to prepare it at home?"

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