Supermarkets are putting home-meal replacement on the front burner this year with a lot of improvements planned for menus and systems.
So said supermarket deli and food-service executives around the United States in interviews with SN as the holiday crunch abated and 1997 got under way.
Most said they will add more chilled, self-service displays. All said they'll be listening more closely to their customers in several ways.
Most notably, the retailers said they'll be tracking sales per product more closely, as one operator put it, "Just as restaurants do."
Retailers told SN they are planning to set themselves apart from the competition with signature products, and have resolved to more carefully monitor which products sell best in each store's particular market area. They're also planning to accelerate their meals' marketing efforts.
The general attitude was clearly that they are taking the meals business very seriously.
"Home-meal replacement will continue to gain in popularity," said Will Dunlavy, director of food service for Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C. "It is also likely that as this trend continues, there will be a greater emphasis on using third-party manufacturing and developing commissaries."
After experimenting in test stores over the past year, some chains are rolling out "basic" HMR programs to all their stores. Some are putting uniform, centralized systems in place for the first time to maintain consistency and profitability. Others are taking a first step into the category with a build-out of their existing rotisserie programs.
Scheduled changes differ according to what stage of evolution the retailer's HMR program is in, and also on the demographics and lifestyles in each store's marketing area.
Among the additions or switches retailers have set for 1997 are bigger displays and more variety, particularly in self-service, to, as one put it, "let customers know we're in the meals business." They will bring out banners and lighted menu boards, experiment with centralized costing and centralized production and trot out more efficient and appealing packaging.
"We've had more growth in self service, so we'll definitely increase self-service displays," said Tim Kean, deli-bakery-seafood merchandiser at eight-unit Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind. "Our ratio of self-service displays to service now is about two to one. We'll bring that to three to one by the end of the year."
Kean added that since the company's smaller stores have limited refrigerated space, the plan presents a big challenge. He said it will mean bringing in self-contained refrigerated units and more closely scrutinizing the deli's self-service selection to make more room for meal components.
Rice Food Markets, Houston, will double self-service space for meal components from 4-foot cases to 8-foot cases in its seven Rice Epicurean Markets, said Douglas Dick, director of food-service operations at the 23-unit chain.
"We've been very successful with service in our prepared foods. This year, we're going after self service vigorously," Dick said. That effort will include the addition of small, quick-chill and heat-seal packaging equipment in each Rice Epicurean store to protect the integrity of in-store produced items.
Self-service space will be increased by up to 50% this year at Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., said Kurt Krahn, deli director. The company has 17 corporate stores and supplies other stores as a wholesaler in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Food Circus Supermarkets, Middletown, N.J., will at least double its self-service displays of meals and meal components this year in its 12 Super Foodtown stores, said officials there.
"We have several remodels scheduled for this year and the major focus at those stores will be on food service," said Joseph Azzolina Jr., director, planning and development, at Food Circus.
"We'll devote more space to food service, develop more defined menus tailored to each store's area and promote it more," Azzolina added. Ads in the company's circulars, banners and new signage are in the works to call customer attention to the home-meal replacement programs, he said.
Kean at Pay Less also said new signs and banners are a priority this year.
"We'll definitely be putting more emphasis on point-of-sale signs. We particularly need to address midlevel signage -- banners or signs that can be seen from 30 to 40 feet away -- so we can focus customers' attention on the meals area," Kean said.
Copps will add lighted menu boards, Krahn said; and Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash., will add hanging menus and danglers at meal-component displays, officials there said.
Some retailers will also give their packaging a redesign to grab attention and give customers more convenience.
"We're going from a black tray to a white tray and to dual ovenable from microwavable only," said Dennis Incontro, bakery-deli director at 11-unit B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb.
The company is also in the process of developing a colorful band with graphics that will go on the packages "to make them more eye-appealing," Incontro said.
"We are also going to be tracking sales very carefully, product by product. It's important that we know what is selling well and what isn't, quickly," he said.
Daisy King, home economist and spokeswoman at Steven's Markets, Nashville, Tenn., said she'll be experimenting with some ethnic additions to the menu.
"I'm looking at adding Asian and Latin American items. Anything with jalapenos is popular these days. I'll try something with those and I'm working on a black bean salsa and an Asian quiche. I think when you've been offering prepared foods successfully for a while, you can spend time catching up with some of the current trends," King said.
Kean at Pay Less said food-service departments need to be more in tune with what consumers are eating.
"We're in a constant state of menu development. We have to be because customers' tastes change. We all need to be thinking more like a restaurant. We'll be looking to better balance our menu this year. You need a certain number of entrees, sides and desserts, so the customer has choices to put a whole meal together," he explained.
Dunlavy at Harris Teeter said, "In response to the changing tastes of consumers, new dishes will be introduced. These will include basic entrees and vegetables and the expansion of our Chinese and Italian offerings. We will continue to promote these new meals, as well as our traditional items, through weekly rotos and in-store promotion on a market-by-market basis.
Regardomg menu balance, Nancy Rand, deli supervisor at Quillin's, La Crosse, Wis., said she's adding more side dishes. In order to increase the variety, she'll be sourcing additional ones from outside. She has also set up a restaurant-type menu in an acrylic holder at the service counter.
Some retailers have hired people with a food-service background to oversee their home-meal replacement programs and help them get in the restaurant mode. Among them are Copps and Ro-Jack's Food Stores, a Mansfield, Mass., retailer that launched its first home-meal replacement program last month at a new store in Seekonk, Mass.
A central costing system at Copps is currently being instituted, and Rice Epicurean is planning to consolidate production at a central location, both aimed at maintaining consistency and profitability.
Tidyman's will be taking a hard look at reducing shrink at each store and will try to take control in two ways: reducing the amount of a each product displayed and accelerating merchandising efforts.
"We're working with a manufacturer and a local broker to test a program at one store with 40-ounce pans of entrees in the service case," said Warren Marigny, supervisor, food service, at the 11-unit Tidyman's. "Previously, we had half pans which hold 70 to 96 ounces. Too much of those went as shrink.