(Sept. 22) Sure, Wal-Mart has come to town. But that’s not a competitive concern for Peter Ross, produce buyer for the 15 Cleveland-based Heinen’s Inc. stores.

He’s more concerned about losing business to fast-food chains.

“The majority of our business is done from 4 to 7 (p.m.) every day coming home from work,” he says.

HEINEN’S WORKS TO GAIN ADVANTAGE

Since McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., and Wendy’s International Inc., Dublin, Ohio, put the promotional push on their new salads this summer, he believes it’s hurt the grocery business in Cleveland.

Otherwise, Heinen’s competition mainly is the 53 Ohio Tops Friendly Markets, owned by Ahold USA Inc., Chantilly, Va., and Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Inc., which operates 85 stores in the Cleveland market.

It’s not like the stores compete for new business.

“We’re in a declining population in Cleveland. There’s only so many people. … Everyone is getting a little piece of the pie, but it’s not enough to sustain anybody,” Ross says.

To stay vital and compete with quick-service restaurants, Heinen’s is building up its salad and fruit bars and focusing on packaging for convenience.

The ring for the ever-expanding salad bars goes to produce in the older stores that don’t have a prepared food section.

The profits from the colorful and well-maintained fruit bars in each store go to produce. The fruit bar always features five or six cut items, which are prepared in-store, Ross says.

Packaging is the convenience key to making customers happy, he says. Nearly every item is available packaged so customers can grab and go.

To add personality to the produce ad, Ross writes a weekly column. “I try to make it fun. It’s different than the competition,” he says. He discusses the most seasonal produce in the column to let shoppers know which items are the best they will be all year.

That makes the store different.

“A lot of times, I feel other retailers have a set game plan. They did this last year and they are going to do it this year at this time and they don’t care what’s coming on. Every year (what’s coming on seasonally) is different. It depends on Mother Nature. It could be two weeks early or two weeks late,” he says.

Organic sales have increased 50% in the past year, he says.

While Ross attributes that increase to more product and better presentation, organics isn’t what sets Heinen’s apart from the competition.

GIANT EAGLE

Giant Eagle is gearing up to make organics and its whole foods Nature’s Basket program a destination category and point of differentiation, says Brian Ferrier, store director for the Giant Eagle store in South Euclid, Ohio.

Giant Eagle entered the Cleveland market in the late 1990s by purchasing seven Stop-n-Shop stores and 53 stores from Riser Foods Inc.

Some in the market look at Giant Eagle as the corporate Goliath come to overtake the established old-timers. But Giant Eagle is in the game with its own strategies. The natural products, including organic produce and soy, grouped together in the back of the store under the Nature’s Basket banner is one point of differentiation.

Giant Eagle also has several produce destination categories — peppers, herbs, mushrooms, tomatoes and time-savers (value-added products), Ferrier says. The stores carry numerous varieties of those items, giving them ample space.

To affect consumer choices, the chain is making efforts to get produce at the center of the plate. It holds meal solutions events at least once a month in each store. The ad highlights the meal idea, which is followed up in-store with demos and all recipe ingredients merchandised together, Ferrier says. Recently the chain had a grilled portabella mushroom event tying in fresh bread and salad dressing.

Giant Eagle is getting ready to take demos to a new level, he says. It will begin outsourcing the demos and conducting them several times a week.

FOOD CO-OP

At the opposite end of the competitive spectrum are the independents. Cleveland’s single Food Co-op is owned by its members, who pay a lifetime fee of $35 to join, says produce buyer Natalie Coppola.

The members technically own the store, so the staff answers to them, not to a corporation or president.

Since no individual dictates what has to be done, freedom in produce procurement and merchandising reigns.

Coppola uses that freedom to purchase 60% organic and 40% conventional produce — and merchandise them separately.

The price of the conventional produce appeals more to the store’s low-income customers, while area university students and high-income shoppers appreciate organic, she says.

“The major difference to me (from chains) is we have a wider space for creativity,” she says. She has strung an artificial vine of flowers across the top of the wet racks, made some of her own signs and cut out interesting produce articles to display in a prominent corner.

The other difference from chains, she points out, is that she knows her member customers. “The same people come back. It’s a friendly, laid-back atmosphere,” she says.