The big sweep

Joe Virgona just spent $2.3 million renovating his store.

On an early Wednesday morning in April, Joe Virgona is conducting a tour of his recently renovated Fiesta Farms grocery store in midtown Toronto. Its shelves brim with $13 chocolate bars and $17 bags of granola. The meat counters exhibit game meats including ostrich and bison next to beef and poultry from both commercial producers and local farmers. It’s no wonder this 30,000 square-foot store is a beacon for Toronto foodies.

There’s little in-store traffic at this early hour, and Virgona greets every customer he encounters as he makes his way through the aisles. Some receive a friendly pat on the shoulder, while others are treated to a corny joke or even his thoughts on a product they’re contemplating. Between these brief diversions, Virgona proudly points out elements of the store’s $2.3-million renovation, which was done between April 2008 and April 2009.

Opened 21 years ago in a one-time 7Up factory, Fiesta Farms now boasts all new coolers, counters and freezers–“We’re not sure if were from the Greeks or the Romans,” Virgona quips–and the checkout area has been completely revamped. New signs highlight grocery staples, while written descriptions of the various departments have been replaced by stylish signage depicting the likes of a fishing boat on a stormy sea or a dairy cow grazing contentedly in a pasture.

Everything is immaculate, but Virgona knows how quickly things can change. Dropped jars of condiments leave stains if they’re not cleaned up properly; tape used to put up weekly specials leaves behind an adhesive backing that yellows and clings to shelving; flyers and other bric-a-brac collect in the entranceway, turning into a messy slurry when mixed with rainwater or snow. Without proper attention, even the most well-crafted store renovation can turn into a disorganized, spaghetti sauce–splattered mess in no time.

Virgona is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen to his store. He’s constantly on the lookout for the little things that will upend its new-store feel. We followed Virgona through the aisles of Fiesta Farms as he pointed out areas to which he devotes special attention. We also spoke to retail experts and other grocers who helped devise these eight tips to make sure your store maintains that newly renovated look.

1. Cleanup in aisles 1 through 13

A U.S. airline executive once made the astute observation that “coffee stains on the flip-down trays mean that we do our engine maintenance wrong.” As this executive understood, customers have their own way of sizing up the companies with which they deal. So while a couple of stains may not seem like a big deal, they are huge indicators to customers of, say, how sanitary your deli is or whether bakery employees wash their hands after sneezing.

In fact, cleanliness is the single biggest factor in how customers perceive a grocery store, says Anthony Stokan, a retail consultant with Anthony Russell Inc. in Toronto. Things like cleaning up spills, wiping down shelves, and keeping coolers clean need to be done on an ongoing basis, not just when dirt accumulates. “The key is daily consistency,” says Stokan. “If you think it’s something that can be done on a soft day and let go for a couple of days, you’re wrong.”

In addition to using a contracted cleaning company, Fiesta Farms has two full-time employees whose sole task is cleaning the store. Each department manager is also responsible for emptying and cleaning his or her counter each week. “If you don’t have a maintenance program you’re dead,” says Virgona. “You could spend $1 million and it’ll still look like hell within a year.”

2. Do sweat the small stuff

John Distefano, manager of Longo’s grocery store in Thornhill, Ont., says regular maintenance is as important as cleaning when it comes to ensuring your store retains its newly renovated look.

That means promptly repairing cracked floor tiles and fixing broken shelves. “You should always keep in mind that was an investment, and you always want your investment to yield as much value as it can,” says Distefano. “You do that by just maintaining it.”

Another thing to keep in mind is signage. When a store is renovated, all the signs are crisp, new and consistent. Over time, though, as new merchandising displays are introduced and old signs are replaced, that consistency gets lost. Take photos of your aisles before the renovated store opens. Then every year on the anniversary take photos again and do a comparison. Chances are you’ll spot signage that doesn’t work with the appearance you strived for during the reno.

3. Let there be light

Dim lighting may help set the mood at a restaurant, but it’s not nearly as welcome in the soup aisle. Stokan calls burned-out lights a “major sin” that indicates a lack of care. “There’s nothing more infuriating than a that is humming all the time or lights that flicker because they’re burned out,” he says. “All those things are very disruptive.”

Neil Kudrinko, owner of Kudrinko’s grocery store in Westport, Ont., recommends replacing bulbs en masse rather than on an individual basis. “If you’re seeing light fixtures burning out here and there, chances are you’ve already reached the better part of the maximum life expectancy of your bulbs,” he says. Kudrinko also suggests switching lighting in frozen food cases from fluorescent to LED. “You’re going to get much better presentation of the products, and if your product looks better you’re going to sell more.”

4. Be shelf-ish

Shelves are among the most visible items in a grocery store, and it’s imperative that they be inspected regularly. While price data strips that clip onto shelves are becoming increasingly common, stores haven’t entirely eliminated tape–creating a potential for unsightly residue. “You can’t always avoid tape, so the important thing if you are going to use it is regular cleaning and maintenance,” says Kudrinko.

At Fiesta Farms, employees methodically make their way through the aisles twice a year, replacing outdated price stickers and removing any tape residue. Also important, says Virgona, is fronting stock to create the illusion that all the shelves are well stocked.

5. Entrance fees

Stokan calls the store entryway “the ministry of first impressions,” and advises keeping it free of excess clutter. The worst offender, he says, is an abundance of lottery information. “How many times have you walked past a store where you can’t even see inside because they’ve got seven or eight posters referring to various lottery opportunities?” According to Stokan, the only information that should be displayed at the entrance is store hours, current specials and notices of upcoming closures because of statutory holidays.

6. The air in there

Installing an air curtain over a store
entrance not only prevents outside air from entering your store–thereby significantly reducing your heating and cooling costs–but can also repel insects and other airborne contaminants that impact cleanliness and overall appearance.

Essentially a fan with an air outlet that can be directed toward an incoming air stream, an air curtain creates a highly effective seal against outside air. While it represents what Kudrinko calls “a couple of thousand dollars” investment, an air curtain can quickly yield dividends in terms of energy costs. “It should be on the top of the list for anybody, but especially if you’ve got issues where prevailing winds are blowing in through the entranceway,” says Kudrinko. “It’s definitely worth the investment. We want to make sure we’re maintaining a climate where a customer doesn’t feel uncomfortable.” After all, the longer people stay in the store, the more they’re going to buy.

7. Check out your checkout

Is that bin of 99-cent Easter chocolate next to the checkout providing a sales lift, or is it merely cluttering the area, slowing down the payment process and annoying customers? According to Stokan, the area around the checkouts should be kept free of excessive end-aisle displays, extraneous signage and an abundance of impulse purchase items. “The key to that area is efficiency: people want to get out of the store as quickly as possible once they’ve made their purchase,” he says. “The more stuff that disrupts the speed with which they go through there contributes to the frustration of customers behind them.” Impulse sales displays don’t need to be removed entirely, but they do need to be positioned without giving customers pushing shopping carts the impression they’re navigating a Formula 1 course–or worse, a demolition derby.

8. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

It’s becoming less of an issue in today’s anti-smoking culture, but stores need to strictly enforce the no-smoking rule around the entrance. Employees are often the worst offenders, Stokan notes. “Nothing sends out a more negative statement to a customer entering the store than seeing an employee lingering at the entrance having a smoke. After all, these people are handling your food.”

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