business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

"Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron: Proven Technology.  Innovative Thinking.  Intelligent Solutions for Fresh.

Content Guy's Note: "Fresh Talk" is a new MNB column, scheduled to alternate on Wednesdays with "Kate's Take."  It will examine all aspects of "fresh," in both the broadest and most focused meaning of that term (depending on the whims of the columnist). "Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron...which you can learn more about here…but which has no input into the subjects covered or responsibility for the attitudes taken.

My store of choice, when I'm in Connecticut, has, for 30 years, been Stew Leonard's.

From the first time I went in there, long before I ever started writing about retailing, I was captivated by the experiential nature of the store. While Stew Leonard's has long been referred to as "the Disneyland of dairy stores" (a description that it has long outgrown, since it now has some 2,000 items and dairy products are but a small percentage of sales), there's actually a different show biz reference that I'd make - it actually is the anti-"Wizard of Oz," because instead of keeping the magic behind a curtain, they've long exposed what normally would be going on in the back room for all to see.

That means creating the perception that the baked goods, meat, seafood and produce are, in fact fresher. And it means often creating the illusion that even the products not technically "fresh foods" are, indeed, fresh.

There's a lot to be said for that approach, and a lot of retailers have adopted it. There's an understanding that being an effective "fresh" marketer means creating a sense of theater and magic in those departments. Not only does it have visual appeal, but it implies a strong sense of expertise.

To use a formulation that I've often gone to here on MNB, it means that the store becomes not just a source of product, but a resource for information. And that keeps customers coming back for more.

(Case in point: I've been shopping at Stew's for 30 years. Let's say that I've spent $100 a week there… and that is very conservative … for 50 weeks a year. Well, you do the math…all I know is that it adds up to a vivid example of how fresh and theater can have a multiplier effect on the bottom line.)

Even when they move things around at Stew's, and bring in new and seasonal products to keep things current and relevant, which they do with regularity, I'm not usually surprised. In fact, I'm kind of used to it.

Until about a week ago.

I was midway between the service cut fruit department and the banana display when I saw something I'd never seen at Stew's before … an actual beehive.

And it was supposed to be there.

The company explained on its website:

The hive was home to more than 50,000 honeybees, measures 4 ft. x 5 ft. and "is one of the largest in the world." It was "installed behind a fully enclosed safety glass frame in Stew Leonard’s produce department.  A tube runs from the hive and out of the store’s roof so that the bees can leave the hive to get pollen and nectar, flying within a 2 ½ mile radius of Stew Leonard’s to do so."

According to the site, "an average observation hive is usually just a few 12 in. x 10 in. frames, but Stew Leonard’s observation hive will have 20 frames. To build it, Stew Leonard’s team worked with local, fourth-generation beekeeper Andrew Cote of Andrew’s Local Honey and Silvermine Apiary and Tim Cerniglia, Jr. of Bee Kind Farms."

And, the company says, "Stew’s bees will produce upwards of 100 lbs. of honey this summer – about 100 jars – which will be collected by Andrew’s Local Honey to eventually be sold at Stew Leonard’s!" Not to mention a lot more fresh honey that presumably comes from other bees.

Stew Leonard's used to say that "to get fresher milk, you'd need a cow." Well, I haven't seen the sign yet, but it seems entirely likely that they'll post one saying that "to get fresher honey, you'd need your own beehive." (If those are my two choices, I'd rather own a cow.)

And here's the kicker: Stew's spokesperson Meghan Bell tells me that "sales of Andrew's Local Honey have quadrupled since we introduced the hive."

Once again - theater and magic add up to increased sales, and even turn what usually is a packaged product into a fresh item.

This is the kind of stuff that retailers have to do in fresh, if they are going to create for themselves differential advantages that create new customers and incremental sales.

Postscript: A couple of days ago the beehive was gone…but only temporarily. It ends up, Bell tells me, that "the store was a little too cold for them to thrive, so we're installing a heater in the observation hive."

Carefully, I hope.

KC's View: