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Tips to keep centre store relevant

From merchandising opportunities to in-store tech, industry experts offer their advice

It doesn’t get a lot of love these days, what with the current focus on fresh, but centre store is still a force to be reckoned with.

“Centre store absolutely has an important role to play in large stores, and research shows that this area of the store is a key profit driver — 75% to 80% of grocery bottom-line profit is contributed by centre store,” asserts Ron Hughes, senior manager of shopper strategy and innovation at Coca-Cola.

“On the other hand, we know millennial consumers believe the centre store is uninteresting and unappealing. In fact, 25% of millennials say the ‘centre store is a boring part of the store,’ and 23% say, ‘I almost get claustrophobic when shopping centre store.’ Given that millennials are a key shopper segment for growth, this presents a notable challenge,” he says.

Meanwhile, Shelley Balanko, SVP at The Hartman Group, believes the section “has lost a lot of relevance in modern eating. Today’s consumers orient toward fresher eating and immediate consumption, so they are more inclined to shop the perimeter to meet their fresh-quality expectations and get inspired for immediate or very near-term cooking.” Unfortunately, the majority of conventional centre store aisles fail to have a strong assortment of “fresh packaged food” and therefore lose their relevance, says Balanko.

How can the centre store get its groove back? Here's some expert recommendations:

1. Engage shoppers through a spectrum of solutions

“It is important that we appeal to all cohorts, but especially millennials,” advises Hughes. “We can do this by developing complete solutions that fit with their busy lives, that are environmentally conscious, and offer authenticity, which is very important to them. Calling out product features and benefits when defining value is very important as well.”

These complete solutions would “cross departments, from centre store, frozen, produce and beverages, and ways to link perimeter purchases to key centre store items can be effective,” he adds.

Balanko cautions, however, that retailers shouldn’t implement a single fix for all customers. “Provide a continuum of solutions for consumers who vary the degree of involvement in cooking from occasion to occasion,” she suggests. “Not everyone desires a complete solution or scratch ingredients all of the time.”

2. Focus on product offerings

“Despite declining to flat dollar sales earlier in the year, the centre of the store continues to provide consumers with essential products to fulfill their everyday needs,” observes Jordan Rost, VP consumer insights at Nielsen. “Encouraging the purchase of certain items can often drive higher overall basket sizes. Many centre-of-store edibles, such as popcorn and gum, rank highest as basket builders for driving larger purchases in-store.”

Beyond the staples, retailers should spotlight the special. “Increase the proportion of premium products – clean label, no legacy branding, contemporary cues of quality sourcing and production — to capture consumers’ attention and share of wallet,” advises Balanko. In fact, she predicts the centre store of the future will offer “a much smaller footprint with primarily young premium brands, because consumers will be increasingly interested in trading up for freshness and premium quality, and there will be little room at shelf for brands that don’t deliver on quality expectations.”

Research firm Mintel puts forward a case for carrying more items that encourage shoppers to stimulate their taste buds: “entre store categories that facilitate flavour exploration, such as spices and seasonings and hot sauce, … generated better-than-average growth in between 2011 and 2016. … nternational foods overall are projected to continue to generate moderate growth, driven by consumers’ expanding palates and exposure to a wider range of ethnic foods as the U.S. multicultural landscape evolves. The strong performance of these categories points to an opportunity to position the centre store as a focal point for exploring new flavours and cuisines through serving ideas and recipes highlighted at the shelf and cross-promotions with perimeter departments.”

3. Up the ante on merchandising

When deciding on the right mix of items, retailers should make sure they’re accessibly placed. “We must get shelf presence right,” notes Hughes. “Most of us get pretty overwhelmed by too much choice. If we can make the category both visible and shoppable, then we will have a better chance of turning shoppers into buyers.”

Retailers shouldn’t stop there, however. “Many centre store aisles today adhere to the ‘come find me’ approach to merchandising and product presentation,” he points out. “If we want to win with shoppers, we have to make shopping a much easier task, and much more fun and exciting.”

Balanko agrees that retailers should be more assertive in this area, suggesting they “merchandise to inspire consumers for a variety of meal and snack occasions.”

4. Incorporate tech into the shopping experience

“Embracing technology and social media in the in-store environment in an intentional and purposeful manner is a staple of future innovation,” says Hughes, no doubt thinking of computer-savvy millennial and Gen Z customers. To lure these “digitally engaged shoppers” to centre store, supermarkets will need to understand the way they use technology and adapt accordingly.

E-commerce is another important consideration. “While online shopping can deter in-store traffic, centre-of-store packaged items are the top areas driving online growth, meaning potential growth opportunities for retailers and manufacturers alike,” says Nielsen’s Rost.

It’s not just the internet that retailers should be leveraging, though. “We also know that shoppers will want a mobile-led interaction and multisensory solutions with intentional use of lighting, digital, scent and sound experiences,” observes Hughes, adding, “Technologies such as informational and self-service kiosks will become more pervasive throughout the total path to purchase of the future store.”

5. Make optimal use of physical space

Even as they acknowledge the importance of technology, supermarkets shouldn’t neglect the unique attributes of their brick-and-mortar centre stores. Hughes says grocery sections of the future “will enable like-minded consumers to converge and connect in their physical spaces, especially with sampling/trial and connections with food-and-beverage pairings, which must be integrated into the traditional centre store format,” and that “destinations with one-stop shops — i.e., store-within-a-store concepts — for all similar-occasion needs will become more and more the norm and will deliver on shopper convenience.”

Ultimately, notes Hughes, “While there isn’t a perfect silver bullet to grow retail sales or re-energize the centre store, we are confident that if retailers are prepared to test new solutions and try new things, they will stay ahead of the game.”

A version of this article originally appeared at It also appears in the December 2017 issue of Progressive Grocer.

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