Movin’ on up

As A&P exits bankruptcy, a remodeled The Food Emporium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side showcases the retailer’s marketing potential. 

If Florence Johnston, the wise-cracking maid on the classic sitcom The Jeffersons, were to actually do the grocery shopping for her employers, chances are when she left their E. 85th Street deluxe apartment in the sky, she would bypass the neighborhood’s D’Agostino, Gristedes and even that trendy new Fairway and head over to The Food Emporium on the corner of E. 86th Street and Second Avenue.

That’s because a recent remodel has made the store brighter, more spacious—at least by Manhattan standards—and easier to shop, with more services, specialty departments, signature products and trained associates than its competitors. Plus, while The Food Emporium, the upscale banner of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P operating 16 stores in Manhattan and one in New Canaan, Conn., is known for its gourmet offerings, it actually offers cheaper prices on many grocery staples.

Housed on the ground floor of Yorkshire Towers—a 21-story, 1964-vintage, 695-unit apartment tower in the Yorkville neighborhood—The Food Emporium occupies a space that was originally a Sloan’s. A&P acquired the location in the 1990s when Gristedes bought Sloan’s and sold off some locations. Today, the store’s entrance is somewhat obscured by the Jersey barriers and chain link fence surrounding the construction site of the Second Avenue Subway (see sidebar), but those braving the construction mess are in for a treat.

“The whole attention around this store, and across all of our Food Emporium stores, is that we want to be considered ‘the New York market,’” says Tom O’Boyle, executive vice president of merchandising, marketing and supply and logistics for A&P. “We think customers in this market deserve a one-stop shop where they can get single-serve, read-made meals and other high-quality products that they have come to expect.”

O’Boyle says remodels, such as this one, will help the A&P family of stores regain its prominence in the marketplace, especially as the chain embarks on its next chapter as it prepares to exit bankruptcy. “Every time you put money into a store like this it helps restore your image, but if you don’t deliver on what you are promising your customers, then you just destroy your image,” he says. “This is one way to help rebuild our image. It doesn’t help that the train construction is right out in front, but customers still find their way here.”

Once inside they will find new or expanded product offerings, like a chicken wing and hors d’oeuvre Wing Bar, fresh seafood, Hale and Hearty soup, Boar’s Head Marquis deli, and more natural and gluten-free items.

New five-deck self-service meat cases were added, along with several new freezer cases, including one in the bakery department housing ice cream cakes, frozen sheet cakes and gluten-free items.

More team members

In addition to new shelving and freezer cases, the retailer spent money on personnel. “We invested a lot of time in training,” says Danny Wodzenski, district manager for The Food Emporium. “We hired an additional 19 team members for this location. We put in a comprehensive training program for creating a selling culture with better customer service and product knowledge for all new and existing team members.

“Part of the process was to tour everyone around the new departments, so they are comfortable in the new environment and with the new product selection, and they also got comfortable with their new team members. It was a great experience.”

“Employees should be able to talk about Woodson & James [proprietary beef], what’s new in the deli department and overall what makes our store special,” says O’Boyle. “Our ultimate goal here was to improve the customer experience and deliver on something we think our customers expect. From the feedback we’ve gotten we’ve been able to do that.”

Some of the first customers those employees talked to were the Yorkshire Towers residents. “As part of the opening we had a preview night for the residents of the building,” Wodzenski says. “We welcomed them on a Thursday evening and had a gift waiting for them.”

Yorkshire Towers is a cooperative, so the remodeling plans had to be presented to the building’s board for approval. “This was helpful because we were able to tell them that we were not going to be terribly disruptive, but that this project would take about eight weeks and this would be the result when we were done,” O’Boyle says.

One caveat was that construction had to be done during daylight hours and not after the store closed, as is the case with most suburban locations. “We want to be good neighbors and were really sensitive to that during the construction process,” Wodzenski says.

Real fresh image

The exterior of the store stayed the same, but when customers walk through the door the change is dramatic. Shoppers used to be greeted with a row of shopping carts and an alcove housing the floral department; now they see produce, dairy and the bakery. “When you walked into this store it was literally walled off,” O’Boyle says. “We knocked out a wall and moved the floral department across and we moved the service desk out.” It is now located at eye level in the middle of the checkout lanes.

“What we really tried to get across to people was a real fresh image around organics and natural,” O’Boyle says. “We really want people to be excited about the perishables offering that we have. We want that imagery to cascade through their shopping experience. As they navigate through the store—we are really working on this and it is kind of our catchphrase—we are working on being the store of the neighborhood. A lot of retailers talk about it, but we’re trying to do it in a way that is really meaningful to the individual neighborhood.”

Shopping carts—much smaller than their suburban counterparts—are now housed inside the vestibule at the entrance instead of along the front wall. That freed up 12 feet for additional dairy cases housing an expanded product assortment, including several types of jarred herring, a favorite among the area’s still rather large German population.

“Now when you walk in, as far as your eye can see, you see the perishable and refrigerated product,” O’Boyle notes.

“We have positioned key categories, like cut fruit and cut veggies, right to the front of the department,” Wodzenski says. “It is one of those categories that we feel we do far and away better than anybody else.”

Another is bakery. The Food Emporium decorated cake program is so successful that as part of the remodel management decided to move the service case from facing the front of the store to the side. The service case area was replaced with shelves of fresh bread and a self-service pastry case.

“We haven’t seen an impact on sales since we moved the service case,” Wodzenski says. “We do a great deal of occasion cakes here. On Saturday and Sunday we’ll see 20 cakes going out on each day. That is one reason we made the decision to get the fresh baked bread up front. We relied on our reputation for having good cakes for putting it behind the wall here.”

Other strong sellers include the Colossal Donuts, weighing in at about a quarter pound and only 99-cents each; OMG (Oh My Gosh!) Brownies, a sinfully rich treat for $3.49; and the private label Hartford Reserve deep-dish apple pie.

The traffic flow stayed the same with produce and dairy leading into deli, where one unique offering is the Hale and Hearty Soup Bar, containing the same soups sold in the Hale and Hearty soup shops, a Manhattan lunch stop fixture. “We have our bulk hot program and a case ready chilled program where you can take the soups home and heat them up yourself,” Wodzenski says. The hot soup menu is rotated daily, and the store tries to maintain one chili and two soups in the mix.

Hot stuff

Flanking the Wing Bar are a hot food bar and a heated rotisserie chicken display. Priced at $7.99 a pound, the bar’s assortment changes daily and may include fried chicken, roast pork, fried rice, stuffing, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and oven roasted vegetables. In rotisserie chicken shoppers can choose from a flock of birds including private label organic Greenway Sunday Roaster, Free Bird Lemon Herb free range, and Traditional, Herb Flavored, Lemon Pepper and Hint O Honey from Tyson.

Adjacent to the rotisserie chickens, across from the salad bar and DeLallo olive bar, and next to the sushi counter is the Boar’s Head service deli, which uses an “over/under set” featuring self-serve grab-and-go salads underneath the sliced to order meats so that shoppers can browse and make impulse purchases while waiting for the orders.

“All the things we did in this store were done very consciously,” O’Boyle says. “The assortment, the adjacencies, how the [endcaps] come together, where the salad bar is, the Wing Bar, the olive bar, the specialty cheese bar. There has been a lot of thought as to how exactly the flow and adjacencies should work to maximize the experience for the customer.”

That is why hot dogs are merchandised across from the deli instead of in the meat case and crackers are directly across from cheese. “It gives us a nice tie-in,” O’Boyle says.

The meat department is along one of the U-shaped store’s back walls, the one closest to the deli. It is where one of the most noticeable changes in the remodel is apparent. “It was a really tough decision. We used to have a full-service meat case here and we decided to take that out,” O’Boyle says. “We had a low-deck self-service case and we replaced that with a five-deck and that is how we increased assortment. We also added doors of frozen meat.”

The expanded meat selection includes Woodson & James, Mid-Atlantic Country Farms Angus, Laura’s Lean, Dakota Always Organic, Aaron’s Best Kosher and Greenway Natural Ground beef. Chicken brands include Mid-Atlantic Country Farms, Greenway Organic, Bell & Evans, Murray’s, D’Artagnan Organic Free Range, Empire Kosher and Perdue.

The service meat case was culled to make way for an expanded service seafood counter. “I’m a big believer in having a service meat department, but with the customers in this market we didn’t have very high sales per square foot,” O’Boyle says. “The service seafood case is outselling the service meat case by at least two-to-one…”

He is cut off by a customer who says she also shops at the new seemingly always jam-packed Fairway cater-corner across the street. “They have an amazing fish department over at Fairway,” she says. “But I bought fish and salmon over there twice and I didn’t like it. Your fish is way better and you are a little cheaper.”

In addition to having high-quality products, The Food Emporium is also serving customers with its new Live Better Wellness Factor shelf tags. “These color-coded tags help people manage four different needs states: weight control, heart health, diabetes and prevention. They also have a QR code which takes people to the product’s website,” O’Boyle says.

According to one stock clerk, the tags have been a hit. “People like these labels,” he says. “It helps them decide what is good for them. That is what they are saying.”

The tags can be found throughout grocery—even in produce. Grocery selection was expanded during the remodel by moving the registers up and expanding aisle shelf sets by 24 inches. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up,” O’Boyle says. “It is like putting in an additional 20 feet of grocery.”

Among the items the store carries are Arnott’s Tim Tams, a chocolate-covered cookie imported from Australia. “They are Kim Kardashian’s favorite cookie and she tweeted that we carry them,” O’Boyle says.

Beer here

A beer alcove was carved out at the front of the store, complete with refrigeration units. “We are selling 95% cold, whereas before we just sold one,” O’Boyle says. “We are able to pick up something that is a little bit differentiated from the rest of the market.”

“Cold beer has been a big hit for us,” Wodzenski adds. “We expanded our assortment of local beers and all of the craft beers.”

Likewise, in the back of the store ice cream was greatly expanded with the addition of three doors. “In dairy and ice cream we went to everyday low pricing,” Wodzenski says. “The pints do better than the half-gallons so you won’t see many of the large sizes here. This is another category where if you look at the competition you are not going to see anybody come close to the assortment that we have.”

He’s not kidding. The Food Emporium stocks dozens of varieties. In addition to Edy’s, Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs, some of the more unusual offerings include Chozen Matzo Crunch kosher ice cream, Skream No Sugar Added ice cream, Lifeway Frozen Kefir, Tofutti Mike Free Dessert and Adirondack Creamery ice cream from Upstate New York.

One thing is certain, when George and Weesie, sit down and enjoy “a piece of the pie,” it is likely a signature deep-dish Hartford Reserve apple pie from The Food Emporium’s bakery department, with a nice big scoop of Adirondack Creamery ice cream on top. Florence will see to that.

Exploring Private Label

A&P restructured its private label program years ago, doing away with pantry staples like Ann Page spices, Jane Parker bread, Our Own tea and the store-banner The Food Emporium, A&P, Super Fresh, Waldbaum’s and Pathmark, for the ubiquitous America’s Choice.

However, at The Food Emporium the store-banner label has been reborn. The Food Emporium Trading Co. label was introduced in late 2010 for private label gourmet products, FETCO as it is called internally. “The Food Emporium Trading Co. products are from all over the world,” says Tom O’Boyle, executive vice president of merchandising, marketing and supply and logistics for Montvale, N.J.-based A&P. “We really try to focus on high-quality, differentiated items that offer customers a unique value. Those items have really resonated well in the New York market and especially in our Food Emporium stores.”

To date, 130 FETCO SKUs are available to the stores, which stock the items based on store size and localized customer needs. Selections are also carried in the other banners. They include tomato ketchup sweetened with agave instead of corn syrup, pasta sauce made with New Jersey tomatoes, first cold-pressed olive oil imported from Spain, Dijon mustard, French chocolate truffles, canned whole hearts of palm and frozen New York cheesecake.

“The expansion of this brand will exist when we find the right opportunities,” O’Boyle says. “We are not just going to add 400 items arbitrarily, but as we see opportunities in emerging trends or voids we will go and expand against that.”

A second store banner house brand is also stocked. The Food Emporium New York label is used in several categories, including tubs of salted nuts merchandised in produce as well as spices and gourmet salt displayed near the meat case. The Food Emporium New York salts are available in 12 varieties including Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt, Van’s California Sea Salt and Natural Oat Smoked Salt. Prices range from $4.99 to $6.49.

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