Building a Dominant Deli

The latest in menu, merchandising and training trends from an array of industry experts.

The deli is arguably the most modern of all supermarket departments in the sense that it must constantly keep abreast of an ever-broadening, ever-changing national and/or local taste range that varies from Japan to Mexico, but is still centered somewhere south of Lebanon bologna.

Three of the key areas that supermarket deli operators must master are what to carry and/or serve, how to present it to the customer, and how to get and keep the people to perform the first two tasks.

General Tso's chicken from Tyson Deli is known and accepted across all markets.

Menu planning is the cornerstone of today's — and tomorrow's — deli. The Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's What's in Store 2012 notes that 82 percent of consumers enjoy visiting supermarket delis that feature new and trendier items, regardless of whether they regularly purchase these items.

As Connie Hays, director of deli-bakery at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer Inc., sees it: "The world is becoming more homogenized with ingredients and flavors, and customers are looking for these innovative flavors to be carried in the deli. We closely follow trends that occur in the restaurant industry and are also starting to see a need for more flavor fusion in product."

"We carry specific ethnic items that our customers are looking for in particular markets."
— Connie Hays, Meijer

Citing egg rolls as a prime example, Hays says the once-traditional Asian item has migrated far beyond traditional ingredients to include various Latin and Mediterranean fillings, served with complementary sauces that develop bold new flavors. Korean flavors also seem to be an emerging trend that's gaining popularity in the restaurant industry, and which Hays anticipates will begin transitioning to the deli domain as well.

In the realm of deli menus, Jenny Anderson, director of research and consulting at Chicago-based market research company Technomic, says: "The old home-meal replacement moniker of a few years ago implied that offerings were designed to replace home meals and thus were homestyle in nature and rooted in basics. What we now call retail meal solutions (RMS) can rightfully be described as ‘restaurant meal replacement' as well, because retailers have become much more savvy about incorporating current food trends and have also expanded their programs to offer much more variety and put them in a position to capture more frequent visits."

Jonna Parker, director of account services at Nielsen Perishables Group in Schaumburg, Ill., adds that deli prepared foods now account for more than 53 percent of sales in that department, while "a trend towards larger meals — family- versus personal-size packages — is worth noting and mimics a trend unfolding at quick-service restaurants (QSRs)" such as McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell.

"Expanded flavor options are influencing all areas of the deli, but especially in service deli cheese and meats," says Parker, adding that "today's bulk deli counter is increasingly becoming a place for variety and quality."

A compendium of deli experts at Yardley, Pa.-based McCaffrey's Markets believe that the deli menu will include more dinner selections and that fast, convenient and family satisfaction are key to the expanding menu, which at McCaffrey's includes such recent additions as pulled pork, dinner-sized hams and home catering selections. Next-generation in-store delis, according to the McCaffrey deli crew, will still have some of that "corner deli feel," but with more diverse offerings.

Meanwhile, at Pennington Quality Market in Pennington, N.J., long known for its innovative deli, director of food service Diana Meskill sees two menu trends: healthy items and sale items. Executive chef Mark Smith adds that items on sale make up the highest percentage of deli rings.

On the supplier side, Eric Le Blanc, director of sales development for Tyson Deli at Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc., sees two opposing deli menu trends in the retail marketplace: some diversification toward the most popular ethnic cuisines, including Asian and Mexican, and a focus on traditional American or comfort cuisine.

"If the most effective sales tool you have is the appearance of the food, you better get it right."
—Eric Le Blanc, Tyson Deli

"I see success in both directions," Le Blanc points out, "the obvious caveat being, do what you can do well, what appeals to your customers, and that your operation can execute and sustain. Over-reaching is, in most cases, the worst option."

Regional tastes and dishes are a factor in today's deli menu planning as well. Notes Meijer's Hays, "We believe it is important to be in touch with the communities where our customers and team members work and live, so we try to offer a broad selection of options that fit the regional tastes."

In the Chicago area, which has a large Hispanic population, Hays says Meijer stores carry the highly popular Pepe's hot food line.

Mintel Menu Insights notes that "consumers are not only aware of global cuisine, they are also more aware and interested in the regional specialties that define American cuisine. Whether it's Kansas City or Memphis barbecue, New England chowder, or Low Country grits, more consumers are looking at the regions and cities in the U.S. to identify the ‘best of' cuisine."

Today's deli aisle has become a bazaar of tastes ranging from the mainstream to the exotic.

Tyson's Le Blanc sees the biggest effect of regionalism on the most mainstream products, like meatloaf, BBQ sauce and macaroni and cheese. "We offer products like General Tso's chicken, Mongolian Chicken Glazers and Jamaican Jerk wings, all of which play credibly everywhere, because these items are known and accepted in all regions," he says.

However, Le Blanc believes a bigger challenge is "offering an item associated with a particular region in that region — jambalaya in Louisiana, for example, and passing the hurdle of authenticity."

Technomic's Anderson feels that another important menu trend, ethnic fare, is a deli area "where I think retailers are even ahead of the curve compared to many restaurant chains." Examples from Technomics' latest RMS Monitor Category Review that illustrate this trend include exploration of less familiar cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Korean and Greek. Anderson adds that ethnic deli influences extend to adventurous spices and seasonings for that "most familiar deli favorite: chicken." Hispanic influences here are chipotle peppers and chimichurri, while Asian influences explore Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, with Cajun, Greek and Indian influences also on the radar.

In addition to a broad selection of ethnic food, Hays says: "We carry specific ethnic items that our customers are looking for in particular markets. These would include such items as Italian meats like prosciutto or mortadella in our Chicago-area stores, and tabbouleh and couscous for the Middle Eastern communities in the Detroit region."

Meanwhile, Pennington Quality Market's Smith notes that there are a number of ethnic influences and selections in both the dinner and chef cases, including Indian curry sauces, Latino choices like burritos and fajitas, and "a chicken curry stir-fry this week, which is doing real well."

Pennington VP/GM Michael Rothwell adds that vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free deli items are also trending high at the grocer, as are traditional pastas and meatballs.

"We're not even scratching the surface of social media in merchandising."
— Michael Rothwell, Pennington Quality Market

McCaffrey's Markets recognized the popularity of hummus and tahini early on and has since posted what can only be described as remarkable sales ever since. But even more influential than ethnic fare has been the demand for healthy selections, which dominate McCaffrrey's deli meal menu. The company has a certified nutritionist on staff and will soon introduce a menu that identifies the healthy attributes of offerings.

Variety, quality and taste are key deli merchandising factors, and the main merchandising challenge is finding new products, combinations and tastes to present to customers — before they find them elsewhere.

Certain product categories tend to be more dynamic in retail meal solutions, adds Technomics' Anderson, among them side dishes that "extend well beyond the deli staples of potatoes and macaroni and cheese, and there is often a broader range of choices than found in most restaurants." Upscale examples include cakes made from potatoes and other veggies, as well as gratins — casserole-style preparations with a browned crust — and rice and beans.

Anderson also sees soup as another supermarket deli category that is "staggering" in the number of choices compared with restaurants, and "trend-setting" in several instances, like hot-and-sour or wonton soups accompanying Chinese food programs. Sandwiches, too, bear watching, she notes, as they branch out into international variations such as Mexican torta sandwiches and Vietnamese-style baguettes.

Supermarkets use a variety of sources for their deli menus. At Pennington Quality Market, Smith points to the Internet and food shows as ready idea generators, and Rothwell adds that customer feedback plays an important role.

However, Tyson's Le Blanc feels that "most customers do not want their first exposure to a flavor or cuisine to be in a deli. We therefore look to casual-dining menus for good sources of food trends that are established and ready for adoption in the deli channel."

Given that the art of deli merchandising is vital to a dominant deli, Meijer's Hays says, "Freshness, healthy options and convenience are three very important factors we take into account in our deli merchandising programs." Related options, she adds, can be found in new salad offerings where more produce and lighter dressings are helpful in offering nutritional eating options.

"We are also in the process of adding NuVal to our delis," she says, "which is a program that allows our customers to compare items based on their nutritional values."

Pennington Quality Market's Meskill also touts "eye-appeal" as a key merchandising factor — all the better when supported by high-visibility elements such as the store's recent successful Super Bowl deli merchandising platform spearheaded by sampling and product demos.

Variety, quality and taste are key deli merchandising factors, and the main challenge is finding new products, combinations and tastes to present to customers — before they find them elsewhere.

Hays sees a key deli merchandising innovation in pre-packaged meal options, which she categorizes as "increasingly becoming more popular. With new manufacturing processes like high-pressure pasteurization, we are now able to offer fresh products with little or no preservatives that have superior quality and flavor over frozen food items."

Pennington's Smith points to digital signage as a merchandising innovation, and notes that the in-store deli recently installed flat-screen TVs with zip drives, creating "beautiful, crisp displays." Rothwell adds, "We're not even scratching the surface of social media in merchandising," and points to Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market as an innovator in this area.

Deli training in proper handling procedures and food safety is a priority at McCaffrey's. Training there is also evolving to include selling, because with all of the new products and types of foods in the deli — prepared meals, gourmet cheeses, olive selections and more — it's imperative to know the product and match it with customers' requests.

At Meijer, Hays notes:"Training is becoming even more important in our delis, as customers in general are becoming more passionate about understanding what they are eating and asking more key questions about products. We want our deli staff to be able to assist them in making the proper choices for their needs."

Indeed, IDDBA research indicates that consumers are more aware of where their food comes from, and they want more from their grocer than a simple buyer-to-seller relationship. They want to know the where, when and how of the food they buy. Consumers indicated repeatedly to IDDBA surveys that they would welcome the chance to create ties with farmers and artisans via their local supermarkets and delis, and this can be accomplished by thorough and thoughtful training of the associates there.

Recognizing and capitalizing on associates' talents is an extension of training, says Pennington's Smith, who points to the creativity of the women in the store's cheese department as talents that were recognized and brought to the fore, resulting in satisfied shoppers and higher cheese sales. "Find your associates' strength and nurture them," he advises.

Tyson's Le Blanc adds that "store associate training is critical in merchandising. No one is born knowing how to merchandise food appetizingly, and if the most effective sales tool you have is the appearance of the food, you better get this one right. Whether it be in a cold case behind the glass or in a clamshell container in a self-service area, the product has to look attractive, fresh and high-quality."

Thus, it would seem that, based on the opinions and ideas from behind the slicer, the key to creating a dominant supermarket deli, like God, is in the details — and their execution.

'Le Blanc's Law' Helps Build Destination Delis
Eric Le Blanc of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Deli, encourages grocers to adopt what he calls "Le Blanc's Law of Merchandising: Have it and tell people you have it."

He points out that, for instance, the No. 1 reason for trying a new product is simple: "Customers saw it." With this in mind, Le Blanc says the following steps are most effective for closing the sale.

"Get your offer as close to the main traffic flow as you can. Use mobile merchandisers whenever you can. Signs are good, but product is better. Trial and repurchase can only happen after you have created awareness, so place the product where it is visible, add signage, feature it and get your store associates to talk about it."

Ultimately, adds Le Blanc, "Only three things will influence the success of your new menu offering: awareness, awareness and awareness."

Pedestal ice displays, frequently used for seafood, are also more frequently — and wisely — being used to display refrigerated prepared foods in the main traffic aisles, which Le Blanc notes is "an elegantly simple, low-cost way to drive awareness of a refrigerated self-serve product."

What Your Deli Customers Want
The Madison Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA) hired Thomas Opinion Research of Manassas, Va., to survey 4,000 deli consumers, and the top 10 influences found were:

  1. Every penny counts for me now. Price matters.
  2. What I get by way of value for my money matters. If it spoils quickly or gets stale on day two, I feel like I'm throwing my money away.
  3. I want it fresh.
  4. I want it to look good and appetizing before I'll buy it.
  5. I don't want to get sick because of something I ate. I have to trust you to handle food safely. I would like to see some proof of that to enhance my trust.
  6. I want nutritional information. Tell me what's in it. How many calories does it have? What's the sodium level? Does it have nuts in it? We have health and allergy concerns in our family that I have to watch out for; I can't be buying mystery food.
  7. Which food choices will help me keep my diabetes in check and/or watch my blood pressure?
  8. I don't have time to hang out waiting to be served.
  9. I want variety. I get bored with the same old choices. I like to see new things to try.
  10. If I like it, I will probably buy it. Let me taste it first. And don't make me feel guilty for asking.