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CHARLOTTE, NC – One of the most revealing things about the new Bloom store being opened here tomorrow by Food Lion is that, during an extensive tour and discussion of the store and its position in the marketplace, nobody ever used the word “prototype.”

That’s a good sign, because “prototype” implies a finished product, which Bloom very definitely is not. Bloom is just the beginning of an evolutionary process for Food Lion, the latest symbol of a company intent on creating open communications among its various departments and personnel, among the other US and Belgian divisions that belong to Delhaize, and between the store and the shopper…though not necessarily in that order.

Bloom is a big idea for Food Lion, not just the kind of small, timid step that some retailers take and define as progress. It is a store that at once embraces the importance of produce and fresh foods in the grocery retailing mix without abandoning the price orientation upon which Food Lion has built its reputation. It is a store that embraces technology, but uses technology to address specific consumers needs and desires, as opposed to imposing technological advances on the store for technology’s sake.

“It’s about putting the customer first,” says Robert Canipe, vice president of business strategy with Food Lion. “It is not about us. It is about creating a unique experience, a hassle-free experience” that gives the shopper an emotional connection to the shopping experience.

Robin Johnson, a “concept creator” who is on the concept team that has been laboring over the Bloom format for some two years, notes that as the company did research – talking to countless consumers and visiting stores in the US and Europe – it came to some basic conclusions:

  • There were three basic shopping trips that needed to be addressed by the store – the major weekly shop, the “tonight’s dinner” shop, and the fill-in shop.

  • There were four things that the store needed to do – minimize the irritations and hassles connected to the food shopping experience, cut down on the amount of time spent in-store, help the consumer address the question of “what’s for dinner tonight?”, and help the customer be more efficient.

  • At the same time, the concept team learned that customers wanted ease of navigation and personal assistance when they need it, plus a pleasant checkout experience and prices that were in line with expectations.

All in all, a tall order. “People just want a sensible, uncomplicated, hassle-free shopping experience, says Johnson.

In concocting the Bloom approach, the creative team at Food Lion decided to create a series of universes within the store that would allow customers to visit the departments that they needed when they needed them…and, even m ore importantly, to avoid the ones not needed during specific shopping trips. The old conventional wisdom about supermarket shopping – make people walks every aisle during every trip – was tossed out the window.

A key factor in the creation of varying universes was the development of the Table Top Circle at the front of the store – a 1,400 square foot circular section just inside the front door devoted to high-traffic convenience items such as milk, bread, eggs, soft drinks and beer, as well as frozen and chilled meal solutions offerings that will be rotated in and out in order to keep the selection fresh. There’s also a self-service Boston Market case with a number of entrees and side dishes. The goal here is to provide options that are ready to eat, ready to heat up, or ready to cook – therefore meeting the various “need states” of local consumers.

This is a power section in the best sense of the word; it has its own checkout, and provides an easy-to-access convenient alternative to people wither looking for that night’s dinner or for a quick fill-in on basic commodity items.

Go straight back through the Table Top Circle section, and one finds the nicely laid out produce department, featuring both bulk and specialty items; go off to the right, and you find the service deli and bakery, both of which seem better merchandised and staffed than might be expected at traditional Food Lion stores. (People are being hired at the store based on attitude, and then being trained for specific jobs; management believes firmly that they’ve got to keep associates upbeat, engaged and optimistic in order to create an upbeat, engaging and optimistic shopping experiences for consumers. It sounds like a no-brainer…but amazingly, this is a leap of faith taken too rarely by many food retailers.)

There are other elements that impress.

  • Bloom is adopting the self-scanning technology used by its Delhaize parent, allowing customers to scan items as they take them from the shelf and bag them as they go into the cart.

  • The store features eight different informational kiosks, some of which serve as interactive directories to the store, and some of which key into specific departments. In the wine department, for example, consumers can either browse for information on the kiosk, or choose a bottle of wine, scan it and then get data about price, origin, taste, and even meal and serving suggestions. The kiosk even allows user to plan parties by the kind of liquor enjoyed by guests, and whether guests are non-drinkers, moderate drinkers, or “party animals.”

  • In the pharmacy, a kiosk allows people to measure their blood pressure, weight and body mass – and then store the information in a private account so they can track their progress on a day-by-day, week-by-week, or even month-by month basis.

  • Half the store’s eight checkouts use self-scanning technology, reflecting consumers’ desire to get through the end experience quickly. The staffed checkouts allow the cashier to sit down, European-style, and utilize pop-up cash drawers seen in Europe. (The Delhaize influence can be seen in such innovations.)

The store has been separated into food and nonfood sections, with the food aisles running front to back and nonfood sections running side to side; but it is in how the food categories are merchandised that Food Lion is making an interesting statement.

In many stores, all Coke products will be merchandised together, as will Pepsi products, private label soft drinks, and so on. But at Bloom, all the colas are side-by side, as are the diet colas, the citrus-based sodas, and so on. The goal, according to Canipe, is to organize the experience the way shoppers want it, not the way vendors prefer it.

Mike Haaf, senior vice president of sales, marketing and business strategy, put it bluntly: “We are creating a sales-driven organization.” One, by implication, that is driven by consumers not vendors – from how products are merchandised to what products are chosen.

A word about the creative team that put Bloom together. Made up of a number of people from within the Food Lion organization, this group was supplemented by people who had experience in Delhaize’s Hannaford and Kash n’ Karry chains, as well as from corporate headquarters in Belgium. This is more than a little interesting, because it seems clear that while many organizations have trouble breaking down internal silos, Delhaize is intent on doing that as well as smoothing the lines of communications among its various operating entities. Again, this would appear to be a no-brainer…but it doesn’t happen a lot.

This is just the beginning for Bloom. Five test stores are planned for the Charlotte area; this 38,000 square foot store is the only one that will be a ground-up venture, with the others being remodels. And as different concepts are tested in different units, according to Cathy Green, the company’s senior vice president of fresh merchandising, distribution and quality assurance, “We hope to learn from concepts here to see what is applicable to the rest of the Food Lion chain (1200+ stores).
KC's View:
It is, we think, an interesting dilemma in which Food Lion finds itself.

Sunday afternoon, we drove from Myrtle Beach, SC, to Charlotte, NC, with Jimmy Buffett on the CD player and the stark humidity outside the car threatening at any moment to break into an enormous thunderstorm. During the more than three-hour trip, the Food Lion sign popped up more than any other, in front of both freestanding stores and strip shopping centers. And it occurred to us that it could not have been that long ago that Food Lion probably figured it had it made – it owned all the best locations in the southeast US, and it owned the low price food image. It probably figured that in those two areas, the Food Lion name was pretty much untouchable.

This, of course, turned out not to be true. One of the other things we noticed during our drive through the Carolinas was how many dollar stores there were, many of them sharing shopping centers with Food Lion. And, at a certain point in the drive, you start seeing Wal-Marts. The geography is getting crowded, as is the competition in the low price side of the business. Food Lion clearly needed to do something different.

When we posed this scenario to Food Lion’s Mike Haaf, he emphasized that Bloom is not a response to specific competition, but rather a response to specific consumer needs. “We looked for the competitive white space, and then filled it in,” he said. And we think that’s a pretty good definition of what Food Lion has done.

What’s also interesting is to speculate what’s possible in the future. While the folks at Food Lion and Bloom prefer to think in terms of the next four stores they plan to open, we couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities that Bloom creates.

We looked at the Table Top Circle (a name Food Lion has trademarked, by the way), and see 1,400 square feet that could in fact be spun off as an independent c-store concept. It has all the makings of a fresh-oriented convenience unit, and it would be interesting to see it either standing alone on a street corner or incorporating a gasoline station into its operations. We can also imagine a time when Bloom could embrace an e-commerce strategy, and use Table Top Circle c-stores as depots where large orders from full-service supermarkets could be picked up.

This first Bloom, it appears to us, is just the foundation. There are many different directions in which the format could venture, many different shapes that it could take. As it is, we are impressed. As it will be…well, we look forward to it with anticipation.