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RETAIL VIEW: Sweetbay completes conversion process

The conversion of Florida's longtime Kash n' Karry supermarket chain to Sweetbay Supermarkets has been completed as the last Kash n' Karry went through the transformation this past summer.

The Europe-based Delhaize Group, which bought the longtime Florida retailer in 2001, started a separate entity in 2004 called Sweetbay Supermarkets and began the transformation process. Sweetbay spokesperson Nicole LeBeau said the new supermarket chain was so successful that the conversion process was accelerated. When Delhaize announced its final conversion this summer, the Sweetbay chain numbered 103 stores: 92 conversions and 11 brand new stores.

Ms. LeBeau said that Sweetbay represents an entirely new concept for supermarket business in Florida. She said the chain was developed to meet the current needs of Florida consumers rather than rely on traditional supermarketing ideas. Using market research methods such as focus groups, she said that researchers pinpointed exactly what consumers wanted and then went about building a chain that meets those desires.

"There are tons and tons of things different [between Sweetbay and the old Kash n' Karry]," she said. "In the first place, it's all about the food, and that means better variety, a greater assortment, good signage and lots of information."

While Kash n' Karry was well known for its excellent produce -- and that was a concept preserved by the new chain -- Ms. LeBeau said the produce departments in Sweetbay are also representative of the new marketing concept. In the produce department, being "all about the food" means constant sampling as well as great signage that give the customers lots of information about what's for sale. Sweetbay Supermarkets have traditional passive sampling stations, but more than that, each produce department associate is trained to offer sampling to any customer who asks for it or is even lingering over a particular item. "We call it 'aggressive sampling'," she said. An associate is trained to slice a peach or a watermelon or give the customers a few cherries or grapes to sample.

In the 11 flagship stores that were built from the ground up, Ms. LeBeau said that the customers enter through the front doors into the produce department. "Instead of a wall of checkout stands, they are greeted with the visually pleasing, aromatic and colorful produce department. In fact, they can't even see the checkout stands from that front door."

Ms. LeBeau drew a major distinction between the Sweetbay Supermarkets that were once Kash n' Karrys and the new stores. By necessity, the converted stores don't have as much space and the stores' schematics somewhat follow the old design. There are differences with regard to signage and the look of the stores, but Sweetbay was confined to the original footprint in many cases. The new stores are larger and have more room devoted to the produce department and other departments on the periphery.

But she said the biggest change between Sweetbay and Kash n' Karry runs through all 103 stores, and that is the employees themselves. Sweetbay was organized as a separate company as part of the strategy to create a different atmosphere with a different type of employee. Ms. LeBeau said that prior to each supermarket conversion, every potential Sweetbay employee had to go through a unique hiring process. "Any Kash n' Karry employee had to fill out a new application, and it was much different than any application that they had filled out before."

She said that Sweetbay was looking for "food people, people that love food." The application asked the potential employee to reveal his or her favorite food as well as three items that were in their refrigerator at home. Presumably, an applicant with brie, kumquats and kiwifruit fared better than a cheddar cheese, apple and orange fan -- but maybe not. Ms. LeBeau said the idea was to pick people who cared about food and wanted to communicate that passion to Sweetbay customers. This interaction between customer and employee is encouraged and even facilitated with a unique name badge. "Everyone's name badge includes the phrase 'Ask me about' and then they fill in the blank. In my case I would put 'Ask me about my two daughters,'" Ms. LeBeau said, revealing that she has both a three-month-old and a 20-month-old.

The company spokesperson said that this "ask me about" prompt facilitates dialogue between the employee and the customer and creates an important bond. "We wanted to change the store's culture and create a different atmosphere within the store."

Director of Produce and Floral Steve Williams said that the produce department is a very important element of the new Sweetbay concept. In the first place, he reiterated the importance of having produce as the first department in the store. "That was a very important change. When you walk into the store, you are actually surrounded by the produce department with produce on both sides of you."

That is true of the new flagship Sweetbay stores, but the converted stores also stress produce with new multi-deck, European-type tables. Mr. Williams, who has been with the chain for 30 years, including five as director of produce, said the extra space created by the new display cases is used to handle much more produce than was carried by the former stores. "We used to have 300 varieties," he said, using the word "variety" to represent different SKUs. "Now we offer 700 different varieties."

He explained that in Sweetbay nomenclature, "variety" means different packs and different sizes as well as different commodities and types of commodities. "We have built our produce department around five signature categories: tomatoes, mushrooms, herbs, peppers and tropicals."

In each category, Mr. Williams said, Sweetbay carries 15-20 or more different SKUs. "We want the consumer to know if they are using tomatoes or mushrooms or peppers in a dish, Sweetbay is the place to come."

He said that these five categories were strategically picked because the consumers looking for these items is cooking in their kitchen. When they come to Sweetbay to find an exotic mushroom variety, for example, they are also going to fill up their carts with lots of other produce items.

Sweetbay has also expanded its organic produce section for the same reason. "We went from three varieties in the old Kash n' Karry stores to more then 65 varieties of organic produce," said Mr. Williams.

Currently, while the department finds its niche and continues to grow, Mr. Williams has segregated the organic section. "We want the consumer to be able to find everything that is organic if that is what she is looking for. As the section matures, I think you can then integrate it into the entire department."

Mr. Williams admitted that greatly increasing the number of items a department sells also increases the shrink. He said that changing the shrink allowances on a per-item or category basis was one of the keys to helping to grow each department. "You have to make a commitment to growing the category, and to do that, you have to expect a certain amount of shrink."

He said that, frankly, the organic department hasn't grown quite as quickly as he would like it to, and shrink is still high. "But I can look at where we came from and see significant growth, and I know we are moving in the right direction."

Mr. Williams also emphasized the importance of the company's produce department personnel. Echoing the comments of Ms. Lebeau, he said, "We want people that are passionate about food. That's our philosophy. We can teach them about produce, but we want them to love food."

He said his produce managers are encouraged to bring their entire staff together on a regular basis to sample any new products that come in the door. "I want them to taste it and know what it is so they can pass this information on to the consumer." He said the company also utilizes the Dr. Richter Produce Guide in each produce department so both the consumer and the staff can look up information about items that they are not familiar with.

Retiring the Kash n'Karry name was a big decision given its long history in Florida. The chain began in 1914 when Italian immigrant Salvatore Greco bought an old horse and wagon and began selling fruits and vegetables on the streets of Tampa. The Kash n' Karry name was adopted in 1962, and by 1970 the chain had grown to 48 stores. By 1973 it expanded into 11 counties, and a distribution center was opened in Tampa in 1976. By 1989 the supermarket had 97 locations and more than 8,200 associates. In 2001, Kash n' Karry joined the Delhaize Group.