—By: Richard Turcsik – Article for Grocery Headquarters—
Open wide and say “WOW!” That’s the most common reaction of shoppers as they walk through the doors at Metcalfe e fry Foods in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, Wis. As classical music wafts in the background, shoppers stroll isles, admiring the eclectic blend of contemporary, classic and rustic-brick architecture while eying mouth-watering displays of fresh produce, store-made salads and rack upon rack of locally sourced breads, pies and cakes.
Thanks to a state-of-the-art lighting system, bottles of wine shimmer in the liquor department; in produce, peppers pop in brilliant hues of green, red and orange, while azaleas bloom in an explosion of pink, red and fuchsia in floral. In fact, everything—right down to the boxes of Hostess Twinkies and packs of Duracell batteries looks more colorful and vibrant than similar products at the Pick ‘n Save across the street.
Olive carpeting in the checkout area muffles the clanging cans and beeping scanners, adding to the serenity, as does something else-silence. Employers wear headsets that ensure shoppers at Metcalfe Sentry Foods will never hear the fingernails-on-chalkboard screech of a page.
“Our goal is very simple,” says Tim Metcalfe, a fourth generation grocer, who, with his brother Kevin, co-owns the Wauwatosa Sentry, along with units in Madison and Brookfield, Wis. “When someone walks through the front door, we want their shoulders to soften, the muscles in the side of their cheek to relax, their jaw to open and the word ‘wow’ to come out. We do that not by overstimulating them in terms of graphics and music and things moving, but with selection and presentation. That’s not different than what a lot of guys do, but we created a decor package and atmosphere within the store that makes the shopper feel comfortable.”
Key, to that atmosphere is the lack of paging. Shoppers will never hear, “Clean up on Aisle 4,” “Register 9 is now open,” or even “Now serving Number 29. 29? Number 29? 30?” in the deli.
“When shoppers hear that, the hair on the back of their neck goes up, their anxiety level goes up, they think ‘They’re busy. I better get my stuff and get out of here,'” Metcalfe says. That’s why all Metcalfe Sentry associates wear headsets. If a customer has a question about product location the employee simply asks into the headset where it is and then escorts the shopper to the product.
“I challenge every retailer to go into their stores and listen to the stupid intercom and then ask yourself is this really adding to the experience of shopping my store?” Metcalfe says. “I don’t want my customer standing in front of the meat counter trying to make a decision worrying about the front end of my store.”
Likewise, he doesn’t want his customers fretting over Top 40 tunes in the background, so only classical music is played. ‘We get many, many comments about the music that we play,” Metcalfe says. “I don’t want people singing a song in their head. I want them looking at merchandise and making decisions on what they need to do.” He admits that employees and some customers – have requested that Top 40 tunes be played. ‘To me the purpose of the music is not to make the day go faster for the employee, but to create an environment that makes the customer want to come back and shop.”
And that’s what they are doing.
Since Sentry had its grand reopening in January, it’s been winning back shoppers from other area stores, reclaiming its position as Wauwatosa’s favorite supermarket. “We’ve been very, very pleased with the results,” Metcalfe says.
Fleming Cos. operated the store as Sentry Foods for years, and it grew to be one of the top producing units in the chain. Then, according to Metcalfe, in the now-extinct wholesaler’s “infinite wisdom,” Fleming converted the store into a Rainbow Foods, “a no-frills type of operation selling five-quart pails of Miracle Whip that was really beyond this community,” he says, referencing the town of stately brick and stone homes, well-kept yards and tree-lined streets. Sales plummeted. Shoppers fled in droves to Pick ‘n Save, Jewel-Osco and the new Sendik’s store that opened across town in an abandoned Kohl’s.
Because of the Rainbow’s condition, the Madison-based Metcalfes were able to buy it for a fraction of what Fleming wanted when it was a Sentry.
They teamed with Supervalu, which now owns the Sentry banner, changed the store’s name back to Sentry and set out to do their remodel.
First came the minor things- bringing back the deli and the bakery and expanding the selection of produce and grocery. Then in February 2004 the big remodel started. “Vie went to upscale the store by improving our deli, meat and bakery, and just giving the store some eclectic character,” says Metcalfe.
That meant ripping out the drop ceiling over the perishables and front end areas of the store. The exposed ceiling was painted dark brown and track lighting was installed. “You call see the effect of the lighting best in floral, where it really punches the color up,” says Marty Peck, principal of Creative Lighting Design & Engineering, the Germantown, Wis. Based firm the Metcalfes hired to design the lighting for the remodel. Peck opted to install 70-watt ceramic metal halide bulbs, along with a new design of track lighting.
Shoppers entering the store arc greeted by displays of flowering plants. Straight ahead, through a sliding electric door, a walk-in cooler overflows with roses, carnations and other fragrant blooms. To the right, a self-service coffin case holds easy-to-grab bouquets. “It’s right off the front end, so if the customer doesn’t want to get it right away she can get it at the end of the shopping trip and come over and grab it,” Metcalfe says. A circular customer service counter is also at the entrance, just to the right of the front door and marked by a three-foot-high sign in brilliant blue neon. “In most grocery stores, customer service ends up being boxy and unattractive,” Metcalfe says. ‘We tried to put some attractiveness in it by creating this atmosphere.”
The same can be said for the prepared foods and deli counter. After visiting stores in New York City, the Metcalfes decided to lead with prepared foods, followed by produce. “When you walk into our Hilldale [Madison] store you’re hit with a sea of produce. But the business is going to foodservice,” Metcalfe says. “Because of that our deli distribution in this store is much higher than Hilldale because we led with it, and our produce distribution is very close. So we improved our deli, but we haven’t hurt our produce operation.”
In addition to tiered self-serve cases filled with chilled entrees and specialty items there is plenty of service.
The service deli begins up front, starting with a sushi bar and hot pasta station, and zigzags all the way to the back. Overhead illuminated light boxes direct shoppers to the different offerings.
One whole case is filled with panini and roll-up wraps, another with baklava and hummus. Store-made salads, like Wild Rice Citrus and Chicken Chopstix, are merchandised in black bowls. There’s a service salad bar, fried and rotisserie chickens and a large case filled with shaved roast beef, ham and corned beef, in a fluted ball style called rosebudding. “It’s a technique that our deli manager taught us,” Metcalfe says.
That’s followed by a 27-foot case of sliced-to-order luncheon meats, including many German specialties, like headcheese and blood and tongue loaf. Because of the size of the department and the breadth of selection, shoppers don’t take a number, they simply move down to the next counter, most of which are staffed by at least two associates.
Also housed in the deli area is a kiosk for whole-bean Alterra Coffee, Milwaukee’s answer to Starbucks. “They have their own coffee shops and are in only eight supermarkets in the state,” Metcalfe says, including two of his stores. ‘The stores they go into are very eclectic, and the reason they’re in our store is because we don’t put them in the coffee section. We put them by produce and deli, and that says to the shopper there is something special about these guys.”
The L-shaped produce department runs from the beginning of prepared foods, all along the side wall. As part of the remodel, windows were punched into the wall to let in natural light and break up the wall. An antique-looking extruded aluminum cornice adds some class to the department. “We’ve got a lot of five-deck cases because produce is really moving toward pre-packaged,” Metcalfe says.
Produce signs are small and mostly written with white lettering on a black background. “We don’t shout out price,” Metcalfe says. ”What we’re selling is the quality of our food.”
Perhaps that quality can best be seen in bakery. Although store-baked offerings are largely limited to par-baked items, the department still has an enormous breadth. That’s because Metcalfe Sentry has teamed with some of the best local bakeries in the state. In addition to Sentry’s own Crestwood brand, there are breads, cakes, pies and cookies from Clasen’s Bakery in Madison, some 80 miles away, and, from Milwaukee, Mila’s European Bakery and East Side Ovens, famous for its cherry dumplings. But the piece de resistance are the pies from The Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago, Wis. They’re baked inside a paper bag, keeping the steam inside to make a rich, crunchy crust.
“If you go to other Sentry stores you’ll find all they have is Crestwood,” Metcalfe says. “We took a different tack and said we’re going to promote the daylights out of Crestwood, but my customers don’t want just Crestwood. When we came to Milwaukee we went and found every baker and asked them to come into our store.”
Across the rear aisle from the end of the deli counter, a yellow neon sign marks the service cheese case. “In our cheese case we have some bakery, poached pears, and we put some wine bottles in there to kind of connect the two. It’s been pretty successful for us.” Metcalfe says.
Cheese leads into service meat and seafood. There are a number of signature items, including a chicken breast stuffed with fresh asparagus and cream cheese. Service is followed by the self-service meat case, which is a five-decker to offer a greater variety, including injected and natural pork and air-chilled and ice-chilled chicken.
The meat case leads into dairy, which starts at the back wall and runs along the side wall. Hanging over the rear dairy case, where the drop ceiling is painted avocado green, is a series of oblong fluorescent lighting fixtures placed at varying heights so that from a distance they look like a wave. “We did that because if you go to the other end of the store, with just a flat white ceiling it would look like this big, huge giant store,” Metcalfe says. “We created a comfortable place to be in.”
That same avocado green if found as a trim on the grocery aisle manners, which hang over the rear and front aisles making it easy for shoppers to find product. “We put the aisle markers on both sides of the aisle, even though we have very short aisles,” Metcalfe says.
His next project is to replace the fluorescent fixtures in grocery, which shine light directly down, with fixtures similar to those used in the Madison/Hilldale store that aim light on the product instead of the aisle making everything appear more brilliant. “Think of the money that goes into designing these packages,” Metcalfe says, examining a box of Reynolds Wrap. “But then what we grocers do is put in high bay and kind of dumb it down.”
The next-to-last aisle is the 120-door frozen foods department. Adding such a large frozen section is one of the few things Fleming did right, Metcalfe says. As part of the remodel full-spectrum lighting was added to bring out the color of the product.
At the front of the frozen food aisle a large alcove houses alcoholic beverages. A Faux mahogany floor, dark beams and spotlights glinting off bottles give the department an elegant feel. Wines are merchandised off wooden shelves and locked cases hold rare varietals and over a dozen kinds of wine glasses from Riedel and Ravenscroft that retail for up to $12.99 apiece. “You won’t even find this in Marshall Field’s. It’s very specialty stuff,” Metcalfe says. “Each glass is designed for a specific wine.”
This being Milwaukee, beer is a huge seller, and sales really take off when the Brewers are in town, because the store is only about two miles from Miller Park. Wisconsin-brewed products are merchandised refrigerated under neon “Beer Here” sign, behind which is the semi-enclosed, brick-walled, walk-in beer cooler. “We have a walk-in beer cooler in our Madison store, and to a T every female customer said they hated shopping in it,” Metcalfe says. “We decided not to fully enclose it to not alienate a whole segment of the population.”
Nestled between the liquor department and the checkout along the front wall is the greeting card department, marked by fabric “cocoon” lights.
At Sentry the checkouts also make shopping a pleasure. The area is carpeted, making it more comfortable on the feet of cashiers as well as shoppers. Illuminated lampshades serve as lane markers, and the typical magazine racks have been replaced with spinner racks that eliminate clutter. There is also no gum or candy at the front end. “That’s not made to maximize sales, but to maximize the experience,” Metcalfe says. “We’re more interested in the next purchase than this purchase. Our focus on the front end is that we do not want to fail here. It is a critical point of sale to the experience.”
Judging from the return traffic, shoppers love the Metcalfe Sentry experience.
Sentry’s success is trickling down to the rest of the neighborhood. The store not only draws customers from Wauwatosa and the neighboring lower-income Uptown Crossing area of Milwaukee, but from Brookfield and other surrounding towns too. Expect more customers to soon be walking through the door. A massive housing development for senior citizens is rising on an old industrial site directly across the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks that run in front of the store. About a half-mile down West State Street, past a row of ramshackle factories and across the tracks from the Sears Outlet Store, a luxury gated condominium complex has sprouted.
Metcalfe expects the rest of the area to give way to housing, retail and other purposes. “The area that we’re in is industrial, with foundries and other plants that are just now starting to get bought up and developers are looking at them,” Metcalfe says. “I give them five to seven years and they’ll all be gone. What is interesting is the remodel of our store is going to help facilitate that.”