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How produce at Bel Air Superstores rings up 11% of total sales.

Running a produce department in today's supermarkets involves more than stacking apples and oranges. Buying, merchandising, design, equipment selection, consumer relations and other various activities are all the province of the good produce man...and must be done well to achieve a top-notch department. No one knows that better than Bill Wong of Bel Air Markets.

Wong, co-owner and director of produce operations for Bel Air, a seven-unit operation based in Sacramento, California, has proven that he is one of the best produce men in the business. Under his direction, Bel Air's produce departments have evolved from a tiny stand in a mom-and-pop grocery store into moneymaking sections accounting for 11% of sales in superstores complete with service meat, deli, bakery, pharmacy, floral and other departments that can reduce the distribution of produce. The 66-year-old Wong's half-century of produce experience has culminated in the department at Bel Air's new 45,000-square-foot supermarket which opened in November, 1983 in Roseville, California.

Wong was reared on a small family farm in the Central Valley of California. When still in his teens, he decided he could make more money by selling fruits and vegetables than by growing them. In 1941, the first Bel Air Market was opened; five more stores were added during the next 40 years. By 1981, the family-owned company was ready to expand again.

"Roseville is experiencing strong growth because many high-tech firms are locating there," says Wong. "There is a population explosion, in the type of people who like to shop a store like Bel Air. They want one-stop shopping, and are oriented toward buying excellent produce, choice meat and other quality perishables."

Wong developed a progressive approach toward the merchandising of fruits and vegetables in the new store. He explains, "The farm-market concept has become quite popular here on the West Coast. By piling fruits and vegetables in wooden bins, you can create that fresh-picked look. I liked the way the bins merchandised products, so I decided to go farm-market style in the new store.

"The problem with the farm-market approach is that it gives the appearance of freshness, b ut in reality the fruits and vegetables are probably of lesser quality than in a conventional supermarket because those bins are not refrigerated. That saves on your energy bill but it causes the produce to deteriorate much more quickly."

After discovering that nobody manufactured a satisfactory refrigerated bin, Wong decided to construct one himself. He asked a local craftsman to transform a refrigerated dump table into a bin. After extensive planning and building, the cabinetmaker completed a fixture that satisfied the demanding Wong.

"With our custom-made fixtures, we can maintain the freshness of the fruits and vegetables while still merchandising like in a farm market. When people bite into an apple they buy at our new store, it will be crisp, not soggy," points out Wong.

The store has two four-by-12-foot refrigerated bins, plus one dry bin used for potatoes, onions and other non-refrigerated produce. A 96-foot-long, two-deck refrigerated wet rack runs along the wall across from the farm market fixtures; on the opposite side sits Bel Air's 150+item bulk food section.

To guarantee that the fruits and vegetables are as fresh as possible, Bel Air buys 90% of its produce directly from the growers and local brokers. By bypassing the wholesale market except for specialty and out-of-season produce, Bel Air minimizes the price they pay while maximizing product freshness.

According to Wong, buying direct allows him to purchase higher-grade fruits and vegetables than the chains that buy at the terminal market. He reports that Bel Air can easily match the prices of Safeway, Raley's, Lucky and other competitors while selling better quality fruit. "I know who consistently grows the tastiest melons, the top-quality tomatoes, the best peaches and so on because of my years of experience in buying from the different growers," comments Wong.

Since Bel Air operates an independent trucking line that serves the Central Valley, transportation from the farm to the produce warehouse is fast and inexpensive.

"We have always carried unusual produce products and through the years have developed a good program to move those fruits and vegetables," says Wong. At the Roseville store, most of the specialty produce is merchandised from wicker baskets arranged on top of the dump tables. Other specialty products are displayed on the refirgerated wet rack.

"We look at turnover and movement as closely as we look at the markup in our unusual fruit and vegetables," Wong remarks. "Most chains put a 40% margin on their specialty produce, then wonder why it doesn't sell. That's simple: the price are too high.

"We keep our markup on specialties just a few points above our standard produce margin. The prices are reasonable, so people are more likely to buy."

To let people know how the exotic fruits and vegetables can be eaten, the Bel Air consumer affairs department has prepared informational leaflets that customers can take home. Called "Bell Air Food Ideas," the green sheets provide information under the headings of nutrition, description, how to select and store, suggested uses and recipes. About 25 leaflets hang above the produce cases in each store, promoting the usage of daikon, prickly pear, fennel, lychee nuts and other specialty vegetables and fruits.

The produce director believes the recipes on the back of the sheets boost sales by giving consumers preparation ideas. Recipes include lychee and avocado salad, ginger root marinade, fennel parmagiana, and cactus fruit jelly. Even a novice cook can follow the easy recipes.

To acquaint all shoppers with the tastes of well-prepared specialty fruits and vegetables, Bel Air periodically samples these items. A demonstrator prepares the product, offer tastes to shoppers, and suggests that they buy some to take home and cook. When traffic in the store does not justify a live demo, the produce manager puts self-service samples out on a tray.

Bel Air holds an "Oriental Days" sale every six months during which the oriental fruits and vegetables are extensively sampled, and prices are reduced. The "Oriental Days" theme is promoted storewide.

At the new store, fresh oriental food is available daily from the takeout department in the deli. The store also sports a 60-item salad bar.

"After 50 years in grocery stores, I can honestly say that the produce business has never been more exciting. Consumers are becoming more interested in fruits and's a challenge for us in the industry to keep that interest building through how we operate our produce departments," concludes Wong.
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Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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