Lowes Foods revamping stores with ‘homegrown’ focus

Employees do the chicken dance at Lowes Foods on Robinhood Road in Winston-Salem. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

Employees do the chicken dance at Lowes Foods on Robinhood Road in Winston-Salem. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Shoppers in some Lowes Foods stores could suddenly get the urge to do the chicken dance, clip some herbs or cakewalk, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

These are all new store concepts that the supermarket chain based in Winston-Salem has started as part of its local “homegrown” focus.

The chicken dance? Whenever an automated chicken chandelier is activated at stores with the Chicken Kitchen, employees can been seen flapping their arms, moving their feet, clapping and wiggling their “tail feathers.”

The Chicken Kitchen includes a wide variety of prepared chicken, including wings, and fried and fresh-roasted chicken.

Since completing a remodel of its grocery store in Clemmons in November 2013, Lowes Foods has revamped five of its almost 100 stores. That number will jump to 13 by the end of October.

The renovated stores offer more local products and produce, as well as local recipes and décor than in the past.

“We are a local product, therefore we support local,” said Tim Lowe, the president of Lowes Foods. “There are a lot of people that try to come in and say they’re local, but they are owned by folks in other states. They’re owned by companies overseas.”

He said that Lowes Foods works with more than 200 local farmers and has a partnership with N.C. State University to help farmers bring their products to market.

Other key concepts include the Community Table, SausageWorks, Pick & Prep and The Beer Den.

In the Community Table area, shoppers can sample and learn how to prepare local foods. Various events are offered in stores every day. SausageWorks offers more than 20 flavors of sausage. The Pick & Prep area provides shoppers an opportunity to choose fruits or vegetables from the produce department, then have them chopped, sliced or julienned in the store.

The Beer Den features a craft beer collection. Shoppers can buy 64-ounce growlers and then have them filled with craft beers direct from the tap. The Beer Den also offers hundreds of craft beer bottles.

Checkout aisles are named for local streets. For example, at the Robinhood Road store, instead of Aisle 1, shoppers might go to the Robinhood or Buena Vista checkout lanes.

The renovated stores feature a new front that is designed to give the store a greenhouse feel and look. A sign over the front door says, “Welcome to our farm.”

Getting employees involved

Many of the revamped stores have an area just inside the entrance where shoppers can buy an entire pot of herbs or clip and store what they need in a small bag for 99 cents.

The Lowes Foods on Robinhood Road is the latest store to receive a makeover. It will have a “grand re-opening” Aug. 23, starting at 10 a.m. The store, like all other renovated locations, has remained open during the changes. It is the chain’s new prototype store because it has features that are not available in other Lowes Foods locations — The Cakery and The Boxcar Coffee & Chocolate Co.

The Cakery has a whimsical atmosphere and vibrant colors. All the cakes are square, and children can make wishes and blow out giant candles. Squares on the floor give shoppers the chance to cakewalk, or as employees like to say, “cakerywalk.” Winners of cakewalks receive free cake squares.

“It’s very geared towards children of all ages,” said Kelly Davis, brand director for Lowes Foods.

Lowe said that even the whipped icings for the cakes fit into the homegrown focus.

“Our icings are all made right here locally, and they’re all butter cream icings,” Lowe said.

The Boxcar Coffee & Chocolate Co. offers specialty drinks, hot chocolate and chocolate bark. The specialty drinks include lattes and cappuccinos. People can sit, drink and eat in a seating area the shape of a boxcar. The coffee will be roasted on-site, and the bark comes in white, milk and dark chocolate.

“When you come in, we’ll have chocolate that will be melting, and there will be seasonal flavors,” Davis said. “Like in November, we’ll have cranberries in them. We’ll have pumpkin seeds in October.”

Melanie Burgess of Winston-Salem recently visited the Robinhood Road store with her three children.

“The presentation is set up very nice, and it allows you to see many items that my kids are enjoying,” Burgess said of the renovations and new concepts.

She said that seeing so many sweets in the bakery area “made me want to add more to my carbs because of all the decorations.”

Lowe said that company officials started challenging employees in the summer of 2013 to develop concepts and ideas that would help Lowes Foods stand out in a supermarket industry in which “everybody is trying to play the same game.”

Company officials pulled together a team that worked with Martin Lindstrom, a brand expert based in Denmark.

“He has done a lot of work with folks like Lego and McDonald’s,” Lowe said. “He’s worked with several of the world’s top companies.”

He said that focusing on “local” was the company’s No. 1 priority.

“We were born in Wilkesboro in the Carolinas,” Lowe said. “We moved our office down here to Winston-Salem quite a few years ago.”

Lowes Foods has one store in Virginia, but its other locations are in the Carolinas. The supermarket chain is part of the Alex Lee family of companies. Alex Lee is based in Hickory.

Lowe declined to reveal the cost of the renovations but said that Lowes Foods has made a significant investment back into the community.

“Not only is the investment in our bricks and mortar, but it’s in our people,” Lowe said. “We are creating new jobs through this process. We are hiring additional people.”

Innovation required

Lowes Foods’ revamping efforts come at a time when competition in the grocery store business is heating up in Forsyth County.

Publix Super Markets Inc. hopes to open its first grocery store in Winston-Salem by the end of 2015. The store will be built on the former site of the Masonic lodge on Miller Street.

Harris Teeter is constructing a 56,057-square-foot store in Pine Ridge Plaza shopping center on Reynolda Road. The new store is going into the area previously occupied by a Rose’s, which has been demolished.

Walmart recently opened a 41,000-square-foot Walmart Neighborhood Market in Kernersville. In Winston-Salem, a Walmart Neighborhood Market is expected to open on Country Club Road near Meadowlark Drive in the fall, and Walmart has plans to open a grocery store in the former Shopper’s Paradise and Kroger site at Northchase Shopping Center on University Parkway.

Walmart also plans to open a grocery store in the former Bi-Lo in the Clemmons Village Shopping Center at the intersection of Clemmons and Lewisville-Clemmons roads in Clemmons.

Ray Collins, the president of Collins Commercial Properties Inc. in Winston-Salem, said he believes that the various “boutique departments” in the renovated Lowes Foods stores is “their effort to further position themselves as an upscale food store, high on customer service to enhance their competition not only with Harris Teeter, obviously, but also in response to Publix coming soon.”

He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Sprouts Farmers Market enter the North Carolina market within the next three to five years.

“North Carolina is one of the top 10 fastest growing states in the country,” Collins said. “With that, there will continue to be a heightened focus on grocery stores that are not here to possibly come into this market.”

Sheri Bridges, an associate professor of marketing at Wake Forest School of Business, said that freshness is just as important for grocery stores as the products they sell.

“Staying ahead of the competition requires staying ahead of current and potential customers through innovation,” Bridges said. “Sometimes the innovations deliver real shopper benefits, such as changes in the type and assortment of offerings — for example, more organics or a garden/flowers section; upgrades in store layout and design; or enhanced customer service.”

She said that the innovations can also be symbolic, such as logos and color modifications, which “are intended to signal that the company is always moving, growing and changing right along with its consumers.”

For shoppers wondering when the changes will occur at their local store, Lowes Foods has put Pick & Prep and Chicken Kitchen items in all of its locations. But other concepts may take a while.

“We’re prioritizing the stores as we go through,” Lowe said. “We basically have almost 100 stores. It will take us the better part of four to five years to get to all of the stores that we can touch with different versions of the concepts and everything.”

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