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With a new prototype scheduled to open in the fall, Swiss Farms is leveraging its role as a drive-thru retailer, positioning itself as a faster, more convenient alternative to the supermarket's express lane.
Armed with a sleeker building design, updated graphics and new marketing tools, plus an expanded variety of fill-in grocery items, the 40-year-old retailer is looking to attract consumers "who don't know at 4 o'clock what they are having for dinner that night," said Paul Friel, CEO of the soon-to-be 13-store chain, based in Broomall, Pa. "Those people are a huge opportunity for us, and we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of that opportunity. Traditional convenience stores are not."
With 2008 average sales exceeding $1.6 million per store (more than $60,000 greater than its 2007 average store sales), the retailer serves an average of 650 daily shoppers who drive up on either side of a barn-like structure and are served by associates who come to the car. Currently, sales skew slightly to the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daypart, with 29 percent of products sold during that time. A few more items per transaction take place in the p.m. hours. Weekends are especially busy.
The newest location, which like all other Swiss Farms will not sell gasoline, was poised to open at press time in Ridley, Pa. In short, the prototype better positions the retailer to be "America's Drive-Thru Grocer," Friel said.
"The new store is an updated, bigger, better Swiss Farms, but still very much what we have been," he added. "We're positioning ourselves away from what some people perceived as a convenience store to what we really are: a fresh market.
"Picture driving your car into the local supermarket and picking up what you need and driving out of the express lane -- that is our brand filter," he explained. "We will never be a convenience store offering immediate consumables. We won't be adding candy or fountain drinks to the stores, but we have 40 SKUs of bread, from artisanal loafs to whole wheat rolls."
Most shoppers now come to Swiss Farms for a planned purchase on their way home, Friel said, picking up a gallon of milk, a gallon of tea, a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs.
To grow sales, the retailer is beefing up its produce, bakery and other fresh food SKUs, and expanding the meals-to-go offer, which is supplied by a local restaurant and a company that packs meals under the Swiss Farms brand. The new store also will offer made-fresh rotisserie chicken.
"We're pushing the idea we can help the consumer fill their evening meal needs -- and they can have a hot meal," Friel said.
"If you look at the top 100 items moving through the express lane, produce is on that list in many forms. We can't have the variety of a supermarket, but have some of the top movers: tomatoes, bananas, bags of potatoes, items people use to fill in."
To better convey its role in the market, Columbus, Ohio-based design firm Chute Gerdeman jettisoned Swiss Farm's barn-like structure in favor of a more streamlined red, white and metallic silver building with a few signature barn elements. A new logo features a rooster, sun and horizontal swipe that communicates "fresh from the farm" and "speed."
"We didn't want the logo to feel 'down on the farm,'" said Lynn Rosenbaum, Chute Gerdeman's director of retail environments. "The concept is about speed and efficiency. The curved horizon line in the logo communicates swiftness, getting in and out quickly.
"We did not want an expected barn feel. Everything about the environment eludes to the speed of the shopping trip; a trip to Swiss Farms will always beat out the slow process of going to the grocery store, getting out of the car, walking the aisles and walking back out."
Rosenbaum and his colleagues, who have worked extensively in more traditional retail environments, had to think about how the consumer and car work together, how someone shops from a car and how to make the store more visible and transparent from the street level, he noted.
"All of the parameters present in a traditional retail environment were thrown out," he said. "We had to expose as much of the store's interior as possible to serve the person shopping -- and making impulse sales decisions -- while sitting in their car and already queued in line."
The new design -- elements of which will be retrofitted into existing stores -- features a longer queuing area to get cars off the road as quickly as possible and floor-to-ceiling glass, allowing greater visibility of the product offer, especially the chain's meal options.
"Our biggest challenge is telling customers what we have in the store," Friel noted. "How do we attract new customers? How do we educate them about our extensive line of dairy items, different types of bread?
"Typical point-of-sale materials, endcap displays and merchandising strategies mean nothing to us. The inside of our store is a pick warehouse, set up to be most efficient for our employees, based on sales volume."
Swiss Farms relies on its gregarious store-level employees to tout the stores' specials, such as two gallons of lemonade for $4 or a dozen large eggs for $2.29. Sampling, especially from the ready-to-eat meals menu, also is a large component of the chain's marketing strategy.
Supporting those tactics, the new location will feature menu boards and a wall of eight flat screens that creates a promotional landscape inside the store, but visible to queued-up drivers. The screens' message changes by daypart and weather conditions. During a hot day, for example, the store may promote iced tea or ice cream. Digital signage on the street pylon sign mimics those messages.
Under the new site plan, traffic is routed in opposite directions on each side of the building so that drivers are always next to the employee serving them. At existing stores, drivers on the left side of the building talk through the passenger side window.
"Our employees have personality and are a bit entrepreneurial," Friel said. "We try to make Swiss Farms a fun place to work, and the face-to-face contact is an important piece of the shoppers' experience."
The new store will also feature four service locations, two on each side of the building, which is double the current number. "We may have 70 cars coming through an hour. This design significantly increases our throughput and decreases wait times," Friel said.
The prototype location can serve customers and complete transactions at four points, and includes a bypass lane on either side of the building so the second car in line can leave once a transaction is completed. At existing locations, customers in line behind the front car position must wait for the front car to leave before the employee can complete the transaction. The retailer is considering the use of handheld point-of-sale devices to further speed service.
The prototype store will include a covered outdoor area, which can be used as a farmers' market-style merchandising center. "We will put seasonal vegetables or other seasonal items, such as Mother's Day flowers or packaged beverages, depending on the seasonal opportunity and varying from township to township based on zoning restrictions," Friel said.
Also for the first time, Swiss Farms is franchising the retail concept, now offering stores in eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware and New Jersey. Franchisees are advised to have $250,000 in liquid capital and expect a total investment of $750,000 to $1.29 million.