Super experiments

Lee Armbuster has been in the supermarket trade long enough to remember the din generated by a bank of mechanical cash registers and how much quieter things got when they were replaced by barcode-scanning terminals and their softer electronic tones.

"The front end on a Saturday morning was almost deafening from the pounding of the mechanical registers," says Armbuster, president of Supervalu Corp.’s Shop ‘n Save division since April. "You could hardly hear yourself think."

The most notable distraction at a Shop ‘n Save store checkout today might be the television screen that faces the customer in line, flashing news headlines, lifestyle information and advertising.

While the cacophony of the old front ends might have served to blunt the thinking process, the information age terminals are capable of collecting data that can be crunched and collated to help skilled marketers make smarter, more informed decisions.

Arguably one of the most profound changes that Armbuster and his colleagues have witnessed in their industry is the emergence of technologies and tools unimagined when he first tied on a clerk’s apron in 1970. Retailers had relatively crude methods to measure sales data three decades ago, but barcode scanning and IT advances have revolutionized the quality of information available to buyers and merchandisers.

"The data can be segmented into what you sell in an hour on any given Tuesday," says Armbuster.

Technology provides the tools but not the techniques for success, however. The successful retailers will be the ones that can tie together bytes and business sense. And Armbuster is in a position to have a critical impact on the changes the chain implements as its 19 company-owned and 60 independently owned stores — with a combined 8,300 employees — battle to compete with myriad competitors, traditional and nontraditional, local and global, that are vying for the consumer’s retail dollar.

Armbuster minimizes his own role in the process of keeping Shop ‘n Save competitive in the marketplace.

"Shop ‘n Save has never been about who is president," says Armbuster.

Although he plays down his importance, it seems no accident that Armbuster’s career with SuperValu — a wholesale and retail operation that supplies more than 1,400 stores under an assortment of regional banners that will approach $20 billion in sales this year — is steeped in the skills that retail experts expect will be most crucial in the future.

Armbuster moved up the ladder and around the company — six cities during one 11-year span — through various merchandising positions, including vice president of sales and marketing with the St. Louis division of Shop ‘n Save, and as vice president of general merchandise and health and beauty products for SuperValu.

His touch is already noticeable in one of Shop ‘n Save’s showcase corporate stores in Wilkins Township. The departments and product categories on which supermarkets are betting their futures are in evidence here. New is a section with $1 items, designed to appeal to the value shopper attracted to the proliferation of dollar retailers, and an expanded health and beauty products section with a third more items than previously stocked, located and configured so that shoppers will find it nearly impossible to miss.

And there is a heavier emphasis on perishables, particularly the massive and diverse produce department, the bakery and delicatessen. The prepared foods department, the one that supermarket operators have used to retrieve a portion of the food dollars that restaurants have taken away, has gotten a facelift and more space.