(May 10) CHICAGO — It hasn’t always been the case with Save-A-Lot stores, but produce is taking on a more prominent role with the lower price-oriented chain.

“Produce is taking more of a front row seat,” said Bill Moran, founder, president and chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Save-A-Lot Food Stores Inc., a subsidiary of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu. He gave the May 6 address kicking off United 2006.

Save-A-Lot’s business model is based on offering low prices by improving efficiency throughout the system, Moran said.

Save-A-Lots offer “an edited assortment” of products in stores that is smaller than those of most major supermarkets, he said. Smaller stores mean lower overhead, but it also means customers can more quickly shop. The limited product assortment means orders can be gotten on one truck and cuts down on shipping costs, he said.

The strategy has pushed Save-A-Lot to the fifth largest grocery chain under a single banner, Moran said.

Save-A-Lot didn’t offer produce when it was founded in 1977 and in the early years. Its franchises often sourced produce separately, sometimes finding substandard produce the company encouraged its franchisees to hide in the back of the store.

However, customers’ expectations have risen with the increased retail competition, he said, so Save-A-Lot has changed.

Now, Moran said, produce is integral to the chain’s assurance of the freshness and quality of its bargain-priced products. Produce was featured in its most recent commercials, he said, and the chain’s layout has evolved to showcase produce more. The produce department is more open, allowing customers to shop longer without feeling pushed through the store, he said.

The result has been increased sales, he said. Also, customers report feeling the variety of products has increased, he said, though it hasn’t.

Save-A-Lot limits the products offered at each store to 1,250 stock-keeping units. There aren’t several brands of ketchup competing for the customer’s attention, but just one. Likewise, the produce department is limited to 50 to 60 SKUs, he said. By offering fewer choices, Save-A-Lot offers convenience to its customers by doing some of their shopping for them, Moran said.

“Today, people don’t like to make choices. They have too many in their lives now,” Moran said.