By Edward Lee
In-store associates bake breads in full view of customers.
Sweetbay designed its bakeries, though largely self-service, to encourage customer interaction with associates.
Large cheesecake slices, packed two per container, are displayed to generate impulse sales.
The aroma of fresh baking has improved sales of Sweetbay's cinnamon pull-aparts.
First-time shoppers on a recent Tuesday in the new Sweetbay Supermarket in Seminole, Fla., near Tampa may have thought they had walked into the middle of a pep rally. At the Bake Shop, a group of some 18 store associates formed quickly, began applauding in unison and continued for nearly a minute, overwheling the ubiquitous canned music and a couple of public address announcements.
The clapping let up. The bakery manager announced—not a featured promotion nor hot-priced special—but that one of her associates had enlisted in the military and would be leaving that week for basic training. After extending their best wishes, the associates enjoyed slices from a quarter sheet cake, decorated in a camouflage theme for the occasion. Just as quickly, the associates dispersed, returning to their respective departments.
The impromptu gathering was a "huddle," one of two to three that each department conducts weekly as part of Sweetbay's strategy to encourage team-building within departments and throughout the store. Department managers call huddles for many purposes, such as to recognize an associate who received a customer's compliment, to celebrate an associate's birthday or to taste a new product. All available store associates are invited to participate.
Building esprit de corps among associates would become crucial to achieving goals Sweetbay set before opening the Seminole store, its first, last November. Early last year, Sweetbay, created from the Tampa-based Kash n' Karry Food Store chain, embarked on a four-year plan to retire Kash n' Karry from the Florida marketplace and replace the entire operation with the Sweetbay concept. The Sweetbay name comes from the Sweetbay Magnolia tree, common to West Central Florida.
Almost immediately, the company closed 34 Kash n' Karry stores in Orlando and eastern Florida, leaving more than 100 stores from Gainesville south to Naples.
The company is seeking to carve a niche where Publix Supermarkets has dominated the landscape and Wal-Mart continues to open supercenters. Other major competitors include Albertsons, Winn-Dixie and Save-A-Lot.
Sweetbay conducted extensive market research to learn what consumers want, notes Craig Geer, vice president, merchandising. He and other officials also visited other supermarket operations across the nation "to make sure we not only offered what consumers asked for but also things they didn't know they wanted," he says. "We're not just putting a new name on our stores; we could do that in six months. This is a ground-up transformation from the inside out, which includes the employee base as well as the physical operations."
Randy Deschaine, director of deli/bakery operations, continues, "We had a blank sheet of paper to design our bakeries, based on what consumers said. In bakery, they wanted good customer service, as well as top quality." To meet those needs, Deschaine and his merchandising team designed a format to encourage customer interaction with associates.
Inviting bakery design
Positioned near the store entrance, immediately after produce, the bakery is laid out to be self-service but appears to offer service along the lowprofile displays in front of the open production area visible to customers. "This format invites customers to speak with our people when they want service," Deschaine says.
Having associates accessible to customers "has made a big impact," explains Dawn Wesley, bakery manager, at the Seminole store and a 20-year Kash n' Karry veteran. "For example, I sell more cinnamon pullaparts than I ever did at Kash n' Karry. That's because customers see our bakers preparing and baking them and know they can buy them while they're hot."
Storewide, Sweetbay carries about 8,000 SKUs not offered by Kash n' Karry. This largely involves the perishables departments, including bakery, where "we stepped up our game, putting more money and effort into our people," Geer observes.
The bakery did retain a few products from Kash n' Karry, including its popular Cuban bread. Made from frozen dough, the authentic bread contains lard, rather than vegetable shortening. Sweetbay also kept a nationally branded artisan bread line, prepared from par-baked product.
Artisan and other crusty bread sales "have taken off at Sweetbay," Deschaine says. "The key is execution. These breads need to have a focal point in the bakery, complete with repetitive sampling."
Sweetbay took sampling to a higher-level with its taste ambassador program, which he credits, in large part, for the breads' invigorated sales. Each Sweetbay store has a dedicated employee, a taste ambassador, whose job is to oversee active sampling and to ensure that all store associates taste all products. The corporate-office selects items to be demonstrated each week. For bakery, the program director and the company's three bakery merchandisers train taste ambassadors in their respective districts.
Relay bakery message
"Our taste ambassador helps promote bakery products by walking throughout the store with them and introducing them to customers," notes Bakery Manager Wesley, who ensures that the taste ambassador receives all information to sample the products correctly.
Taste ambassadors also have become conduits for customers to express their needs. For example, customers increasingly ask about healthful eating, including questions about whole grain products, Deschaine says. Since opening the store, the bakery has added two whole grain items: honey wheat bagels and multi-grain bread.
Bakery managers follow a set planogram. Cakes earn top billing in product presentation, and for good reason. Cakes command nearly 20 percent of bakery sales; the Seminole bakery sells 25 to 30 cakes a day.
The cake display reflects the bakery's strategy to capture impulse sales, which, Deschaine emphasizes, drive bakery sales. Located immediately in front of the decorating station, the display offers only dessert cakes, no birthday cakes. "We want to entice customers with product. Fruit items have color and are positioned to catch customers' eyes."
Drive impulse purchases
For example, extra-large, fruitladen cheesecake slices, packed two to a clear dome container, are placed first to generate impulse sales for evening desserts, Deschaine says. "This is restaurant quality and size."
Because impulse purchases make bakeries successful, he adds, bakeries need to display what customers may not expect, as well as what they want, with purposeful, exciting presentations. For instance, the cake display features higher-end products first, then items with lower price points.
"Color and premium features draw customers, as we've seen with our upscale tres leches cake topped with Bavarian cream and garnished with extra fruit," Deschaine says. "But, if a customer wants a tres leches cake at a lower price point, we have a traditional cake with less fruit and no Bavarian cream."
Growing sales of Sweetbay's signature tortes show how effective signs can boost impulse sales. The four-layer tortes sport fresh fruit fillings and cream cheese between each layer. Each variety is displayed with a small photo of the torte's interior and a brief description of its contents.
Florida's significant elderly population also guides Sweetbay in selecting its bakery product mix. Seniors' purchases drive strong sales of individual cake slices and 8-in. and small bar cakes.
Enhance bakery theater
More older customers express concerns about weight control and type 2 diabetes yet want to enjoy bakery foods, he adds. Sweetbay offers about 15 varieties of no sugar and no sugar-added products. Pies, offered in whole and half portion sizes, sell best, followed by muffins. "This category is up and coming, and we expect to grow this business," Deschaine says.
To offer its unique and traditional bakery foods, Sweetbay chose a mix of on-premise produced items and fully baked products that enable baking throughout the day, interfacing with customers and delivering the products customers want when they want them. Bakers use mixes to prepare cake donuts and angel food cake, frozen par-baked product for artisan breads, and frozen dough and batters, supplemented with fully baked items, for the remaining products.
Baking all day is crucial to Sweetbay's concept. Decorators arrive at about 9 a.m. and work until 6 p.m. "We stage their work throughout the day so customers can view them and ask questions when needed," Deschaine says. "Doing this also conveys the theater environment all day.
"We particularly like to prepare products during the afternoon and evening that have strong, visual appeal, like making fudge and decorating cakes. In the end, we could cut labor from our bakeries, but we would be no different than Wal-Mart.
"That's the point. Sweetbay must be different from the other operators if we are to provide the products and high level of service that our customers say they want. That's why we're putting so much time and money into developing our people to create the best bakery departments."
Along the way, the associates enjoy some fun, too. Witness the huddles conducted each week.
A sampling of Sweetbay's prices
Glazed yeast-raised donut......................$0.55
Plain bagels, 5 count, 20 ozs....................$2.69
Danish, 4 count........................................$3.99
Blueberry muffins, 4 count, 16 ozs.........$3.49
Lattice apple pie, whole, 8 ins. ...............$3.99
Plain angel food cake, 18 ozs.................$3.49
Gourmet cheesecake with fresh
Mixed fruit tres leches cake, 24 ozs.....$6.99
Chocolate raspberry bar cake,
Brownie Destination torte, 4 layers,
Fresh strawberry torte, 4 layers,
Decorated cake, 8 ins., single layer......$6.99
Decorated cupcakes, 6 count ................$3.69
Focaccia, 16 ozs......................................$2.99
Baguette, 11 ozs.....................................$1.99
Multi-grain boule, 16 ozs.......................$2.99
Cinnamon pull-apart bread, 18 ozs........$3.49
Cuban bread, 11 ozs. .............................$1.39
Italian bread, 16 ozs...............................$1.59
Kaiser rolls, 6 count, 20 ozs....................$1.99
Sweetbay's at a glance
Headquarters: Tampa, Fla.