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    For More Grocers, the Kosher Option Is Proving a Keeper

    The consumer segment that requires or desires kosher is an increasingly worthy target for grocers. It's a market growing in double digits, and catering to it can bring a well-needed boost to center store sales overall.

    The kosher-certified soups, sauces, crackers, and other items that take up most current kosher sections in the dry grocery aisles are just a starting point for a more sophisticated program that can attract a customer base well beyond observant Jews.

    As a market boasting double-digit growth for the past 15 years, this center store segment's healthy sales can also offer a vital profit center for grocers that know how to optimize the potential. The key, experts say, is to balance the authenticity and respect that's a given in proper kosher merchandising with modern innovation in variety and promotion that should help build excitement.

    The market is there. To capture a growing piece of it, grocers must make sure finding kosher items in the store isn't hard work for shoppers.

    Some grocers, such as Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie, are going so far as to employ a store-within-a-store concept, where local demographics justify the space and effort.

    "Positive customer response to our first implementation in Tamarac, Fla., drove the decision to use this concept in Jacksonville," says Jim Carrado, senior merchandising director at Winn-Dixie. "We're rolling it out as fast as we can."

    Many mainstream products throughout the typical supermarket sport kosher certification. However, grouping traditional ethnic kosher products together boosts sales by giving kosher customers the chance to take all of the items in at once, says Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, senior rabbinic coordinator and v.p., communications and marketing for the Orthodox Union, based in New York.

    "Research shows that only 50 percent of kosher customers are Jewish," notes Carrado. The remaining half, he says, includes Muslim shoppers, who consider kosher an alternative to halal when the latter isn't available; customers in search of higher-quality products; vegetarians and vegans; the lactose-intolerant; and shoppers allergic to gluten.

    Winn-Dixie's kosher marketing isn't just for the core Jewish consumer, notes specialty foods category manager Deborah Shapiro. The chain carries about 800 kosher dry grocery items, and every store has a kosher section, ranging from four to 48 feet.

    "We've seen many more kosher items being purchased by mainstream consumers, because it's perceived as being healthier or safer because of the certification guidelines," says Wayne Bailey, v.p., merchandising and marketing at Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets. "About 70 of our stores carry ethnic kosher in dry grocery, with category sets ranging from four to 32 feet, depending on the demographics of the area surrounding each store."

    Despite this obvious appeal to mainstream customers, some operators still rely on cues from store-level demographics to dictate the decision on how far to go kosher.

    "We feel that kosher best practices include correctly defining demographic areas that have an actual need for kosher products, and then working to make it a true destination for this important niche customer," says Yakov Yarmove, corporate category manager, ethnic marketing and specialty foods at Minneapolis-based Supervalu. "Many of our stores have kosher grocery sets, with some stores boasting a complete aisle or two. We carry upwards of 2,500 kosher grocery products, depending upon the store's set."

    Given its prominence in and around the metro New York market, the Elizabeth, N.J.-based ShopRite banner has a comprehensive kosher marketing program, including twice-monthly kosher swing pages in the weekly circular, circulars for holidays, and in-store advertisements. "All of our stores have some kosher representation," says Wakefern Food Corp./ShopRite spokeswoman Karen Meleta. "Our kosher sections range from four to 100 feet. About 30 of our stores have over 50 feet of kosher grocery."

    Based in Bethesda, Md., Balducci's creates separate kosher sections in its stores on a seasonal basis during Hanukkah or Passover.

    "The rest of the year, kosher products are typically located within their own product sections," says Al Romero, Balducci's merchant for grocery and candy. "Seasonally, we display kosher products on a white tablecloth, to focus on the importance of cleanliness." About 7 percent to 10 percent of the chain's dry grocery is kosher.

    Publix's kosher dry grocery sets range from four to 76 feet, says Stevens. His advice for keeping kosher interesting as well as authentic: "Retailers should provide variety within the kosher section. A good balance between 'traditional' kosher items such as matzo ball soup mixes and 'nontraditional' products like candy and snacks helps keep the section fresh and exciting for the customer."

    Healthy growth in the variety of new kosher dry grocery items can also help keep the category vital for consumers.

    "We're bringing in more Israeli items," says Winn-Dixie's Shapiro. Israeli foods are important new additions to the category, agrees Menachem Lubinsky, president and c.e.o. of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based LUBICOM Marketing Consulting. "The Jewish community is more affluent, looking for new and different products, and has strong links to Israel, which is producing exceptional products nowadays."

    New sauces, gourmet items, and snack foods are also important, the experts say.

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