Having declared victory and withdrawn from the costly supermarket price war, Washington's two biggest food chains now are experimenting with new kinds of stores to attract shoppers and boost profits.
Seeking strikingly different directions in surprisingly similar ways, Safeway Stores Inc. and Giant Food Inc. are trying to turn old, outmoded and underproductive stores into profitable alternatives to state-of-the-art supermarkets.
Neither Giant nor Safeway has put its own name on its experimental stores, but neither is hiding its brand name under a bushel. Instead, they're leaving just enough Giant and Safeway clues around to capitalize on the company's reputation while giving the stores their own identity.
Safeway calls its experiment the Farmers Market and is aiming for the fancy fruit and vegetables, live lobster and imported delicacies crowd.
Giant's week-old Save Right store, on the other hand, is a back-to-the-basics, low-price outlet that's still fighting the price war.
Save Right is in far Northeast Washington at Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue; Farmers Market is at Fairfax Circle on Route 50, 13 miles from downtown.
Though the neighborhoods and marketing approaches are different, the stores have many similarities. Both cut the usually overpowering assortment of dry grocery products back to a limited selection, then beef up the rest of the store with more meat, an expanded produce department right inside the front door and specialized offerings.
Opened in June with so little fanfare that not even Supermarket News discovered it for weeks, Farmers Market is what amounts to a boutique supermarket.
The fruit boutique is piled high with fresh-picked apples from Winchester, Va., and offers Fairfax suburbanites the same produce selection as Safeway's Georgetown store, generally regarded as Safeway's best profit center on the East Coast.
The health food boutique at Farmers Market is even bigger than the Georgetown Safeway's. The meat selection also outdoes Georgetown with preskewered shish-kabobs and lamb roasts. Poultry fans get nothing but Frank Perdue's designer chickens with the gastronomic equivalent of an alligator on every breast. You can wash it down with more than 1,000 brands of wine and a hundred-plus beers. Quality rather than price is supposed to provide the competitive edge.
"We're really pleased with the results so far," said Safeway spokesman Earnest Moore. Safeway is still experimenting with the assortment of products in the store and has no plans yet to build another.
"People are not necessarily doing all their grocery shopping at the Farmers Market," Moore added. "They come in for the produce, the meat, the seafood, the beer and wine. The dry groceries are more of a convenience."
Moore said Farmers Market is stealing little business from a big new Safeway a mile away that replaced the Safeway store in what is now the Farmers Market.
After leaving the old store vacant for almost a year, Safeway turned the store into the first Farmers Market anywhere. The California-based chain is trying out a similar venture under the name Bon Appetit on the West Coast.
While Safeway's Farmers Market offers kill-it-yourself lobster for freshness fanatics, Giant's Save Right store sells clean-it-yourself fish for bargain hunters.
The Riggs Road store operated as a Giant until a week ago, then closed down for a couple of days and was born again as Save Right last Wednesday. Instead of the standard assortment of 10,000-plus grocery items, Save Right has about 3,500, said Giant spokesman Barry Scher.
During the transformation, the produce and dairy departments were enlarged and the meat case doubled in size. The meat is mostly the company's lowest priced "Giant lean" grade; there's nary a Perdue poultry part in sight and the black-and-white boxed generic bacon was selling for less than $1 a pound last week.
Scher acknowledged that Giant has abandoned some of the supposedly cost-saving techniques it tried last year in an experimental store at Clinton, Md. In that store, many items were dumped in bins and lots of others were sold from cut-off shipping cartons.
But cutting off a carton takes just as much time as opening the box and unloading it, Scher said, and it clutters the store with old cardboard.
The Clinton experiment found only one effective way to cut costs, the Giant spokesman said -- eliminating marking prices on individual items, the controversial innovation that Giant introduced when it set off the supermarket price war earlier this year.