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    STORE OF THE MONTH: Store for all seasons

    The Sandpoint, Idaho Yoke's Fresh Market keeps snowbirds warm in winter and hikers hydrated in summer -- and wields service and signature programs to keep Wal-Mart at bay.

    By Stephen Dowdell

    It's Fresh Friday at the Yoke's Fresh Market in Sandpoint, Idaho, and the store is already buzzing, even though it's only 10 a.m. Sampling stations are going at full speed, and every half hour or so the P.A. system interrupts the scene with another round of an instant-prize contest. It's like a shopper-sized bingo game using numbers embossed on brightly colored spots on the floor positioned throughout the store, which customers dash to and stand on just before the announcer reveals the latest lucky one.

    "We even have special T-shirts for Fresh Friday," says Denny York, s.v.p. of store development at Spokane, Wash.-based Yoke's Fresh Markets. "It's the focus of a lot of in-store activity, and the associates like it as well as the customers," he says of the promotional program, before encouraging a nearby shopper to claim the spot in the frozen aisle.

    Fresh Friday is a twice-monthly one-day promotion for the perishables side of the store.

    But as its name implies, at Yoke's Fresh Markets, fresh means much more than an excuse to create some buzz in stores every other Friday. Fresh products, many of them signature offerings that rivals can't duplicate or undercut, are key ingredients in this independent's scheme for survival against big-chain competitors, including the four biggest in the business.

    Yoke's hasn't been shy about its goal to be the best grocer at produce, meat, seafood, floral, deli, and bakery in its markets -- and in many respects it's a boast the 13-unit chain can back up, judging from what it has accomplished at the remodeled 60,000-square-foot Sandpoint store, which the company unveiled last May.

    Yoke's has operated the store since 1988, but its last remodel had been 10 years ago. The gap between then and now was lengthened by Yoke's chainwide initiative, started in 2002, to upgrade its real estate to the Fresh Market format, replacing the more price-oriented Yoke's Pac N' Save banner. The Sandpoint revamp was also held up by the opening of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in direct competition to the location. It's not as if Yoke's hasn't faced giants before. It also competes with Safeway, Kroger's Fred Meyer, and Supervalu's Albertsons. In the face of these and other competitors, Yoke's has built and thrives on a culture of inclusion as an employee-owned business. After a rocky period, the grocer has emerged with a small yet crack fleet of stores under the Fresh Market banner that excels in perishables and service.

    Sandpoint is Yoke's highest-volume store, and has always been a bright spot for the grocer. Since the remodel's completion, the store's business is up at levels Yoke's has never seen before in the location.

    "But also, our customer service offering is great now, and that makes a difference," notes York. Adds his store development partner, Joe Hanson, v.p. of grocery operations: "This store has truly exceeded expectations, and we had pretty lofty expectations."

    Designing a destination

    The Sandpoint unit represents the next iteration in the Fresh Market format design.

    "We really ratcheted this store up," says Hanson. "It's now more of a destination store, as opposed to more of a generic supermarket experience, as it was before."

    In tag-team style, York continues the line of reasoning: "The philosophy for Fresh Market is to make a strong statement on freshness, with perishables and a high level of service."

    The tactic includes "creating 'wows' throughout the store -- merchandising and displays that slow them down, get them to more fully experience the store," he says.

    "There's a great variety here, and it's intended to service all walks of like, all the demographic range you've got here," stresses York. "There are folks with a lot of money here, but also lots of folks without a lot of money, and they're encouraged to shop here as well."

    Adds Hanson: "What we've done in some departments -- the wine section, the cheese department, etc. -- is to price to the high- to middle-income customer. The old format didn't do that.

    "That allows us to compete on a level outside of price. We're still competitive in the market, but with the Fresh Market format we decided we wouldn't get into the pricing games that other operators engage in," says Hanson.

    For Sandpoint, the Yoke's development duo spent a lot of time examining other markets to learn what was working, especially against Wal-Mart.

    One challenge is that the Sandpoint store draws from as far 40 miles away, which is the broadest radius for any Yoke's store. Its territory reaches into Montana and Canada. Closer in, the demographic profile varies from new money to an old guard. Classic lake country, the Ponderay area is a destination for outdoor pursuits in both summer and winter. As with most resort markets, the traffic is fairly seasonal, with a huge spike in the summer. But the town also lies in the shadow of Schweitzer Mountain, a major skiing center, so snow brings traffic as well, and the year-round population has been growing.

    "For sure, there's a lot of relatively new money that has been moving to Lake Ponderay, and property values have continued to shoot up all around the resort area. It's why we did what we did with this store," confirms York.

    At the same time, this store carries plenty of products that don't necessarily cater to big money, whether old or new, but rather to the unique demands of a far-flung market with rural overtones. For example, it carries a lot of institutional items ideal for local restaurants and other small businesses, as well as to meet the demands of customers who venture into town once a month to stock up before returning to the mountains.

    Open plan

    The expansiveness of the great outdoors finds its way inside, too. The extensive overhaul made the Sandpoint store one of the most open layouts in the Fresh Market format. The merchandising approach manages to present a lot of variety without feeling cramped.

    The presentation begins as soon as you step in. "For the remodel we put wine, Nature's Corner (the organic and natural food department), and produce all at the front, to reinforce the offering of freshness and also healthy food," says York.

    Standing just inside the entrance, Hanson agrees. "We really opened this store up. The combination of a big wine department, the full natural foods section, fresh produce, and floral over in the corner is all very powerful."

    Right now that power is shared by a sizable display of peaches practically tumbling from atop their packing boxes. They're "Sweet Dream" peaches from Valicoff Family Farms, a favorite local source.

    "These are the finest peaches we have ever seen, and we have them here for 88 cents a pound," says Hanson. "The quality is just outstanding, and we get the farmer right into the store selling."

    "This is the kind of merchandising we're talking about when we say we position fresh to be a draw to our stores," offers York. "It's something our big-company competitors cannot even come close to doing."

    Just behind the freestanding peach display is the columned entrance to the Wine Cellar. The section is sizeable by supermarket standards, holding 1,500 to 1,700 SKUs.

    "As you can see, we're big into wine, and with a heavy emphasis on the Northwest," says York. Indeed, at least half of the labels hail from the region. Signs sprinkled throughout the assortment point out origins and grape varietals, but there are also descriptions such as "value wine," while other signs suggest food pairings. It's the kind of user-friendly orientation many experts say wine departments need more of.

    "The more of that kind of communication we can do, the better," agrees Hanson. An on-staff wine steward adds substantially to that communication strategy. Fresh Market tries to install a steward at every store.

    Directly adjacent to the wine, and still part of the first impression offered at the entrance, is Nature's Corner, a destination for natural and organic selections that cuts across all food categories. Among the department's features is a refrigerated and frozen section, sporting 26 doors.

    "In Nature's Corner we significantly boosted the refrigerated merchandising space," notes York, adding as an aside that Yoke's replaced 85 percent of the refrigerated cases in the store in the course of the remodel.

    The deep selection of chilled foods speaks to the chain's overall commitment to health and wellness, and makes for a hearty presentation of natural and organic in one place. It's at least partly why about 6 percent of the Sandpoint store's volume is natural and organic, according to the execs.

    "The secret of having a department like this succeed is to have somebody that knows the product and the category well, who's here to talk about it with customers as they're shopping the section," adds York.

    Service is evident at the Mountain View Floral department, which overflows from the front right-hand corner of the store, drawing shoppers into produce. The Floral shop's backdrop is a mural-sized photographic rendering of Mount Spokane.

    Another huge mural, depicting a bucolic farm setting, graces the east wall in Windmill Farms Produce, which the execs say is one of the largest produce departments in Idaho. It offers 600-plus items on average.

    "As much as 20 percent to 25 percent of the produce assortment will be locally sourced at any time, and will expand out to 50 percent in season," explains Scott Brower, the store manager at Sandpoint.

    The merchandising of that local fare and other fresh produce items is enhanced by specialty lighting accents throughout the department. "We doubled the lighting in the produce cases and added displays," says York.

    Other merchandising touches in produce include fixtures made from feeding troughs, and wooden tables. The effect is that of a farmers' market, and fits in well with the store's overall decor. Here and throughout the store, Yoke's has placed locally sourced antique farm implements and grocery store relics to reinforce the format's down-home image and approach to retailing. Sandpoint's decor theme is also punctuated by large-scale historic photographs from the area. It's another signature element of the Yoke's Fresh Market shopping experience.

    On the other side of the wall of cold cases is the Beer Haus department, with doors as well as a walk-in cooler. As in wine, informational signs dot the department to help customers make selections, and encourage them to try something unusual. A single-serve section almost overflows with microbrew and import labels, probably 300 to 350 choices.

    Against the back wall are packaged meats and cheeses, and then Pier 39 Seafood, a fully revamped and expanded fresh seafood counter that's another of the "wows" at the Sandpoint unit.

    "In meat and fish before, we had a small service counter with a case that was maybe 12 feet. Now we're close to 40 feet," notes York. "We put in a concrete base to elevate the display and make it more prominent, to bring it closer to eye level."

    The cases, from Bessemer, Ala.-based Southern Store Fixtures, are old-fashioned looking, set up to resemble ice tables. A border of tiny blue tiles accents the case and is meant to mimic fish scales. The counter also juts out from the wall, adding to its prominence and eye appeal.

    Bestsellers include salmon and rockfish, but the display just after Labor Day also has king crab as a cleverly merchandised centerpiece. If that doesn't get passing shoppers to stop, the jovial seafood clerks likely will.

    "The seafood guys have a lot of fun and interact well with customers," says Brower.

    Seafood flows naturally into The Cattle Company meat department, anchored by a large service meat case with butchers busy behind it broadcasting the same message of high-level service that the seafood clerks do.

    "We're doing a lot more prepared items in the store now since the remodel," York says of the extra space afforded the department.

    The meat department also features more signature items than before. The pork program carries the moniker Prairie Fresh, for example. But in fresh meat the centerpiece signature program is Yoke's Pride Certified Hereford beef.

    "Eighty-five percent of all our cuts come from Northwest cattle," says Hanson. "We buy 35 head at a time."

    Another especially successful offering is Wood's smoked meats, a line made by a small processor right in town that supplies local restaurants; the Sandpoint Yoke's is the only grocery store to carry the local sausages and other meats.

    Warming up frozen

    Yoke's Ice House frozen food department is back against the west wall and extends outward into a space that, like much else in the store, was redesigned to feel more open and inviting. The department features about 80 doors, plus four big coffin cases. The decor theme is extended here as well, with a mock ice box door swung open overhead, with tongs and big blocks of fake ice seeming to spill out.

    At the corner of the west and south walls is the Fresh Market Bakery, a roughly 40 percent scratch operation that, like all of the fresh departments, is marked by a high level of service and inviting product presentation. A cake decorator is at work behind the counter; decorated cakes are standouts in the department, and a growing business for Yoke's in general, says York. Another key category is pastries, with many products that are unique to Yoke's sourced from a high-quality baker.

    Adjacent to bakery is Yoke's Fresh Deli and Antonio's Pizza, along the front wall. Overhead signage identifies the items as "Delicious Food to Go." Melinda Lorge, Yoke's deli, coffee, pizza, and cheese merchandiser, says the reworked offering includes a lot more ready-to-serve and homemade items. Meal options abound. Deli salads comprise a section with a minimum of 24 options every day, at least half of them homemade, for example.

    The pizza counter offers pies in take-and-bake form as well as hot for immediate consumption. A lot immediate consumption goes on at the Sandpoint location, along with many items bought to be eaten shortly thereafter. "We get a big lunch crowd," says Lorge. "This store is one of our best for lunch business."

    "We added substantial seating," says York. "It had been seating for 16, but we moved the video department, again opening things up -- and now we have a dining area with a flat-panel video screen and a fireplace, making it much more comfortable. We have seating for 50 people, and even an outdoor seating area that's heated."

    The lunch customers, especially those speeding through to get back to work, must appreciate the well-stocked walk-around case with a grab-and-go assortment from the prepared food department.

    Next to that is another walk-around featuring about 100 varieties of cheese, from a wide selection of imports to domestic goat ("This Montana goat comes from an organic farm -- really neat people," confides Lorge) sheep, and cow's milk offerings. The section carries as much Northwestern-made product as possible.

    The enthusiasm of merchandisers like Lorge can be infectious, and Yoke's takes care to train store associates well enough that they can become Yoke's brand ambassadors, and are not only able, but also eager, to help educate shoppers about products throughout the store.

    Taking credit

    Brower, the store manager who is also Yoke's remodel specialist, kept the store open throughout the extensive overhaul, which he found to be an operations challenge, but far from an insurmountable one. In fact, the Sandpoint store managed modest sales increases all through the period.

    Now that the work is done and the new store is making its mark, Yoke's is seeing its efforts bear fruit.

    "For many regular customers who have been shopping this store for years, the reaction was one of profound appreciation, as if we did the remodel just to make their personal shopping experience better," says Hanson. "They've been thanking us for what they consider our giving back to the community.

    "We'd reworked the aisle signage to make it more effective at delivering an institutional message, and we're tying to take more credit for all that we have at Yoke's that makes us different," he continues. "We've gotten a lot better at this than we used to be, but we need to get better still."

    "The whole Fresh Market concept has been a continual evolution for Yoke's," adds York. "To be sure, a lot of other grocers in this market try to use fresh as a point of distinction, so keeping up with it is really tough, and we will have to stay on our toes."


    Alternative endings

    Part of the merchandising makeover at Sandpoint Yoke's Fresh Market was the rollout of an end cap strategy to make that valuable real estate more productive, and not in the usual "sell to the highest bidder" way.

    The custom-designed fixtures at the aisle ends merchandise products on all three sides, with special hutches and multiple shelves finished with warm, wood-toned accents. The end cap displays are built with more care, to feature multiple related products together, but at the same time maintain the overall look of mass display that draws eyes and spurs impulse buys.

    The end cap merchandising strategy also gives store managers the flexibility to change which products are on display more often, enabling the managers to make intelligent choices tailored to the local customer base about which tie-ins to offer for promotions.

    Pieces of history

    At Sandpoint and all of Yoke's Fresh Market stores, local history is a vital contributor to the decor and the format's distinctive shopping experience. Working with its outside store design firm and marketing firm, and also tapping into the expertise of some of its own employees, Yoke's custom-builds a running tableau of historic images and artifacts for each store.

    "At the location of each Fresh Market, we go to the local historical society and ask them for old images," explains s.v.p. of store development Denny York. "We’ll then choose images to blow up for the decor. As these are photographs straight out of the town's archives, there have been many times over the years that we've printed additional copies and given the photos to the family of the subjects in the photos.

    "Also, we do the antiques ourselves," he adds. The grocer's meat merchandiser and floral merchandiser are weekend antique collectors, who put a lot of their own time into sourcing the many antiques that Fresh Market places as decor elements throughout the store. Many of the pieces at Sandpoint are related to farming or food production -- plows, butter churns, and so on -- or even food retailing, including some exquisite old-time scales that would serve as great museum pieces.

    On the other hand, some decor elements are a bit more animated, such as sounds that emanate from some of the fresh departments. According to York, "That's part of the fun, the 'wow' that we've got stashed around the store.

    "The intent is to make the store feel local, homey, and comfortable, but not to feel too expensive or precious," says York of the antique props. "This is an example of offering a 'wow' but not too much of a 'wow' so that customers think, 'This store is going to be too expensive for me to shop in.'"

    By Stephen Dowdell
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