The Belle of Bellefonte

With a host of new departments, offerings and amenities, it is easy to see why Weis Markets’ new flagship store is the most popular place in town.

When Weis Markets opened its latest flagship store in Bellefonte, Pa. in late February, all three local Central Pennsylvania TV stations sent news crews to cover the event. An astute producer would have also sent along the traffic reporter.

That is because the line started forming outside the door at 4:00 a.m. and once the ribbon was cut an all-day rush hour was underway. All 15 checkout lanes were running at full tilt, with shopping carts piled up bumper-to-handle-bar clear back to the rear wall meat case, resulting in an astonishing 45-minute wait. To help ease the pain, store officials handed out cupcakes, cookies and bottles of water.

Some were lured in by the promise of a free bag of groceries to the first 250 customers, while others came to take advantage of the bargains and amenities. Opening day sales figures corresponded with the traffic: 12,000 12-packs of Pepsi—two truckloads worth—6,000 bags of Middleswarth potato chips and 200 cases of Dietz & Watson hot dogs.

“This store instantly became the number-one store in the company, with the biggest opening in the history of the company,” says Kurt Schertle, senior vice president, sales and merchandising for Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets.

That is no small feat considering that the 163-unit chain, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, opened three stores last year (York, Forest Township-Allentown, and Reading, Pa.) that did $1 million in business in their first week. “Those other three grand openings were all records for us in equaling succession, but the [average] basket size in this store was $6 over the next biggest one,” Schertle says. “The folks are really stocking up in here because they don’t have to go somewhere else now.”

That “somewhere else” is the Wegmans 10 miles away in State College.

Built on the site of a former farm on a hilltop overlooking Interstate 99, the 62,000 square-foot Weis replaces a 50-year old 40,000-square-foot unit a mile away in town. “This was an underserved community for Weis Markets,” Schertle says. “We have been in this market for 90 years but not with the right facility.”

The old store had 40,000 SKUs, compared to 65,000 in the new location and lacked the amenities found in the new flagship—service meat, seafood and bakery, pharmacy, foodservice, beer café, expanded HBC, natural, organic and ethnic offerings, along with a gas station. “Our customers loved Weis Markets, its service and its people—because they sure weren’t shopping us for our offerings. They used to shop us for their base needs but went to Wegmans when they wanted to get something a little extra.”

No store left behind
The replacement came about as part a corporate store upgrade program dubbed the “No Store Left Behind Act” that seeks to build unit sales by increasing service departments and amenities at existing and replacement store locations. “We are spending more on cap ex now than anytime in the history of our company,” Schertle says. “By 2013 or 2014 every one of our stores will have been touched.”

At Bellefonte that experience starts in the parking lot where a Weis Gas ‘n Go Station greets shoppers driving up the steep, newly constructed Buckaroo Lane. As part of its Gas Rewards program, shoppers earn a 20-cent per gallon discount for every $100 they spend on groceries. The chain has a strategic alliance with Sheetz convenience stores, allowing its points to be redeemed at over 125 Sheetz locations. “This gives us a strategic advantage over our competitors,” Schertle says. “Ahold, for instance, has 40 fuel centers in Pennsylvania, so there are plenty of pockets where you can’t find a Giant Fuel Center. But with us, if you can’t find a Weis Gas ‘n Go, you can find a Sheetz and Sheetz has their own reward program, which we can stack and save an additional 3 cents by signing up for a Sheetz gas card.”

Shoppers entering the store are greeted with a large floral department. “We are all over floral,” Schertle says. “It is more self-service than full-service, but it is upgraded.”
Directly across from Floral, Sharon Luse of Luse Distributing in Centre Hall, Pa., was doing her calisthenics replenishing the Middleswarth potato chips display. On special at buy-one-get-two-free, shoppers were snatching them up as soon as she could put them out. “Middleswarth potato chips is a unique Central Pennsylvania item and their barbecue chip is the No. 1 selling potato chip in our whole marketing area,” Schertle says.

It is one of dozens of local items found in the store, like Gemilli Bakery bread. The Bellefonte Weis is the only supermarket in the state to stock the breads from the State College specialty bakery. Milks from Musser, Schneider Valley Farms and Byler Goat Farm are found in Dairy; chocolates from Asher’s and Gardners in candy; and meats from Kunzler, Juniata, Meadows, Bierly and Hogs Galore in the meat department in a special display marked with “Unmistakably Local—Unmistakably Weis” signage.

“When we say local we’re talking like an hour away,” says Brad Kochenour, regional vice president. “When some of our competitors say ‘local,’ they just mean that it was brought in by truck.”

Beer café
That local aspect can also be witnessed in the Beer Café, where Otto’s, the local microbrewery in State College, is the best-seller. The Beer Café is another amenity that was not in the old store. Selling beer is tricky in the Keystone State. It is sold through distributors, but supermarkets with on-premise dining can qualify for restaurant and eatery beer licenses, allowing consumers to purchase up to two six-packs. Weis had to apply for an ordinance that was approved by Bellefonte and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Set off from the main store by hitching posts, the department has to have its own outside entrance, a separate register and seating for 35.

“The beer suppliers are really encouraged because they feel that we are really going to change the landscape of beer sales in Central Pennsylvania,” Kochenour says. “Here in Centre County sales have been driven by lower-priced domestics, but by offering a variety of brands they feel like they are going to get a lot of introduction to different people.”
Shoppers sit at the Beer Café enjoying items from Weis’ extensive foodservice program. Among the offerings: fresh store-made sushi, hot sandwiches and entrées, fried chicken, hot soup and hoagies made with Dietz & Watson lunchmeats.

“No mistaking it, the anchor of our deli is Dietz & Watson,” says Schertle. “This is a Marquee Dietz & Watson store. We are doing the full line.” Dietz & Watson signage is placed throughout the department; there are even “Proudly Made with Dietz & Watson” stickers on the hoagies, other sandwiches and chef salads, coupled with a “Double Your Money Back Guarantee.”

“Our chief competitor has Boar’s Head and it is our job as a Central Pennsylvania firm to promote our local companies,” Schertle says. “We are working with Dietz to build their brand equity because we think they have a better product.”

Also featured in the department are chilled Panera Bread soups and chilled and hot Weis Market Street private label soups.

Across from the deli is the vastly expanded produce department. It includes new features, like an 8-foot refrigerated dressings set, along with ethnic produce, including Asian and South American root vegetables, cactus leaf, Chinese bitter melon, fuzzy squash, Chinese long bean, tamarindo and whole stalks of sugar cane.

“We talk about local relevance, but sometimes we can be too local and forget about other folks out there,” Schertle says. “Hispanics have moved into the area and the Asian population is very strong around here with the university. So while we have the Middleswarth, we also want to make sure that we have the yucca root and bok choy.”
Schertle is also proud of Weis’ cut fruit program. “At Wegmans and Giant the cut fruit is coming in from a commissary. Our fruit is all cut in the back, right in the store. Chain-wide our cut fruit sales are up 200%,” he says, pointing out a $24 Luau Bowl. “Your shrink goes away and your sales just drive because look at how gorgeous this is.”

If shoppers want some cheese to go with their cut fruit they can head over to the self-service cheese case adjacent to the deli. The 16-foot case houses 135 varieties of cheese and features curved build-outs to showcase the product. Previous straight units took $7,00 worth of inventory to fill. This one can be fully stocked for $4,500. “Even the layman can merchandise it and have it not look like a dairy case, but these build-outs give it some savoir faire,” Schertle says.

Next to the cheese case is the bakery department, specializing in “Monster” muffins, donuts, decorated cakes and Lyman Orchard pies. A four-door upright freezer stocks Carvel and private label ice cream cakes made for Weis by Friendly’s. Closer to foodservice, a large coffin case features French bread pizza and pizza bagels. “It is a great reclaim piece and it turns into a destination for a lot of folks,” Schertle says. “It is a bakery ring, but we put it in foodservice because you hate having it next to a cheesecake.”

Along the back wall bakery leads into service seafood.

Across from seafood department, tartar and cocktail sauce, breading, seasonings and general merchandise such as mallets, bibs and nutcrackers are merchandised on display gondolas. “We have three different departments that have to work together and take care of this rack and make it work,” Schertle says. “The tie-in and the adjacency we think works pretty well.” A similar set in Bakery features cake mixes, jimmies, candles and related products.

In the center store area skylights and LED lighting cut energy usage by 30% and the store has applied for Green Chill Certification. The concrete floor can be cleaned with plain ionized water, further lessening its impact on the environment.

The first non-perishables change noticeable to shoppers is the greatly expanded HBC area. “The sections and the sizes we have here are much greater than what we’ve had in the past,” Schertle says. “This is the growth and the future. Drugstores are selling groceries but in the past we hadn’t gotten nearly enough of this business based on us being a convenient ‘grocery’ store.”

One big change is a much larger diaper and adult incontinence set. “We are trying some new things. We put the men’s incontinence next to the shaving supplies,” Schertle says. “How many men want to go into the diaper section when they want to get adult incontinence products? The female incontinence is over on the next aisle, adjacent to the fem hy.”

American Greetings greeting cards have been moved from the GM/HBC area to the seasonal department in a set flanked by candy displays from Souderton, Pa.-based Asher’s and Tyrone, Pa.-based Gardners. “We are trying to do a better job of listening to our trade partners,” Schertle says. “In the past we didn’t listen to them as much as we should have and now we realize that they know much more about their individual businesses than we do. One of their big ideas was that greeting cards should be in seasonal. This is different for us. We are a big destination for seasonal candy, so it makes sense.”

On the aisle next to diapers is the baby food set. Jars of Gerber, Beech-Nut and Earth’s Best are merchandised from gravity-fed rollers. “We took what Campbell’s did with soup and McCormick did with spices and have given it to baby food,” Schertle says. “Our consumers love it, our sales are up and our operations team loves it. It is easier to stock.”
He says manufacturers have not been as quick to endorse the concept. “They are OK with it, but they aren’t pushing it yet. My category team is sending our data to Gerber and Beech-Nut to tell them they should be pushing this. We’re paying for this on our own dime, but for us it is right for the consumer.”

With its Pet Plaza, Weis has a larger selection of pet foods and supplies than its competitors and it has become a destination category. “When you put all the combinations together it is our No. 2 center store category, right behind carbonated soft drinks,” Schertle says.

The dairy and frozen departments run along the last two aisles of the store. A large chunk of the ice cream set is dedicated to 1.5-quarts of Weis Quality private label, made at the chain’s Sunbury ice cream plant. “We have 63 flavors that we make in our own ice cream plant and 40% of our ice cream business is in Weis Quality,” Schertle says. “We don’t force that. We BOGO Breyers and run Edy’s on feature and we have Turkey Hill and Friendly’s too. But we are the only ones working with Tastykake to make a Tastykake-flavored KadyKake ice cream. We are coming out with three varieties.”

Tastykake items are merchandised in the commercial bread area, in an alcove at the front of the store, where some seasonal is also found. “This area is going to be seasonally merchandised,” Kochenour says. “It can be an activity center. We can have the local high school choir come in over Christmas and do a concert. We’re going to be very creative here.”

It sounds like this area is going to be a perfect fit with the rest of the store.

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