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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2004

Meijer turns to theater designer to update supercenter concept

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Shiny tile flooring and modernized display stations are part of the renovated bakery area in a Grand Rapids store. Shiny tile flooring and modernized display stations are part of the renovated bakery area in a Grand Rapids store.
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Faced with increasing competition in the supercenter concept it pioneered in 1962, Grand Rapid, Mich.-based Meijer Inc. is retooling its store designs to help differentiate itself.

The privately owned company has tried prototype designs in two Grand Rapids stores and plans to incorporate the changes in five stores it will open this year, including one in Rossford.

Meijer's 158 stores, including four in the Toledo area and one in Bowling Green, will be converted over the next several years, spokesman John Zimmerman said.

Wal-Mart and Target have become key competitors. In metro Toledo, Wal-Mart has added three stores in the past year. Meijer knew from customer comments that it needed to make changes, Mr. Zimmerman said.

"Just because we were the first supercenter in the business, it doesn't mean we're unique anymore," he said.

The chain, which combines groceries and general merchandise under one roof, competes directly with 50 supercenters owned by Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart. Competitors operate about 100 supercenters in the five states in which Meijer has stores and, the Meijer spokesman said, there will be about 375 competing supercenters by 2007 in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky.

As a result, Meijer chose redesign ideas by the Rockwell Group, of New York, which is a theatrical stage set design firm. The designer, which hasn't done retail design before, was

chosen to give the chain flair and personality, Mr. Zimmerman said.

Some changes are subtle, including new color schemes, wider aisles, and more logical shelving, such as putting floral items next to greeting cards.

Others will be more pronounced, including new signs outside and throughout the store, wood and carpeted floors in the clothing section, the placement of health and beauty aids at the front of the store, the addition of a drive-through pharmacy window, a more defined electronics section, and a separate wine area.

The stores also will have larger delis and bakeries, more national brand grocery items, more ready-to-serve meals, and co-branded products such as Starbucks Coffee.

Retail consultant Fred Marx, of Marx Layne Inc., in Detroit, said the changes are necessary and welcome.

"They're looking around at what's happening, not just in this country, but in Europe. It's not just about price anymore, but the whole shopping experience," he said.

Customers, he explained, notice different personalities in Wal-Mart and Target, but not so much at Meijer. The Michigan chain needed to separate itself on more than just price, he added.

Ryan Mathews, a Detroit-based grocery industry analyst with FirstMatter, of Westport, Conn., said Meijer cannot lose sight of the bigger picture: service.

"Staying contemporary is something every retailer should do every day," he said. "But the other point is you want to master what you're doing before you take on other things. I think their Michigan stores have got a huge service-execution problem."

Meijer, he said, should focus on jazzing up its offerings of perishables like meat and produce, "because that's where Wal-Mart is a lot more vulnerable."

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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