BOSTON -- A group of consumers in the Northeast wants to redefine "drive-by." This group says it wishes supermarkets would offer call-ahead ordering of prepared meals and a drive-in window where the dinners could picked up.
Better still, if the stores would deliver. The message, apparently, is that if supermarkets want to be in the meals-to-go business, they've got to make it convenient, and more convenient than they have been.
Those are but a few of the opinions heard directly from the horses' mouths, when retailers questioned a panel of six consumers at a conference hosted by the Northeast Fresh Food Alliance seminar in Boston.
The panel discussion also indicated that consumers may be learning to love store brands over brand names; are more interested in quality and taste than in low prices; and want supermarkets to offer more chances to sample prepared foods in the deli.
These findings, however, are just current opinions on updated versions of not-so-new information, according to consultant Art Turock, president of Turock & Associates, Kirkland, Wash., who gave a keynote address on consumer wants and needs before introducing the consumer panel.
Turock told the assembled retailers that most of the information they are likely to get their hands on is inevitably out of date.
"Ask retailers how they find out about their future customers, and they say through focus groups, market research, etc. Well, that's the same as finding out about today's customers," Turock said. "That's a huge underestimation of the unpredictability of the marketplace. Who would have predicted the changes of the past 10 years?"
Turock ticked off a few of the changes, perhaps not fully foreseen, that he thinks are rocking the industry. "Mobil Oil is opening convenience stores that sell food, some retail chains are putting in gas pumps, and supermarkets are getting into the restaurant business with home-meal replacement programs."
Without a serious attempt to predict the future needs of their customers, retailers will not be able to construct a serious strategy that will guarantee sustainable sales growth, said Turock. Most stores have no such strategy, he added.
"Most organizations have two main strategies. The first is: Do more of the same, better. I call that shooting yourself in the foot and admiring your marksmanship," he warned.
"The second is copying the competition; but has anyone ever really said, 'Our objective is to be a world-class me-too company'?
"These strategies used to be OK, when changes were small -- prices, product line extensions, etc.," he continued. "Now the changes are big: HMR, private labels, category management, home delivery -- things that could take years to implement."
Now more than ever, retailers must try to look at least two to five years into the future or "latent" needs of customers, Turock advised.
He pointed out how the meaning of the word "convenience" has changed for consumers during the past few decades. "In the 1960s, convenience meant close to home. In the 1970s, it meant longer hours, hence the 7-Eleven convenience stores; In the 1980s, it meant faster service, so we put in more lanes and scanning. In the 1990s, it means trip assurance, or that we carry the right stuff.
"You could be offering 1970s convenience to 1990s customers. That would be doing the same old thing, better," Turock said.
During his talk, Turock handed out a two-page list of 24 questions to help retailers figure out their consumers' future needs. Beyond foretelling the future, he also said, stores must do one thing above all else to sustain growth and excellence.
"Stand out as original in the customer's mind," he said. "You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do."
Using Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead as an example, Turock said the most successful organization is the one with "the greatest imagination at its fingertips."
He also cited a few examples of imaginative retailing that he's witnessed in his travels around the country.
"At Admiral Thriftway in Seattle, Terry Halvorsen has installed The Kiosk," Turock reported. The Kiosk has a cutting board and a cookstove, wines, flowers and other amenities.
"They prepare food there. They entice customers with the kiosk schedule once or twice a day. They offer a mini-education class with recipes that can be done in minutes. The idea originated with a chef from France," he explained.
Along with the kiosk, Thriftway offers chocolate doubloons and other chocolate treats from a retailer in Paris, and flies fresh bread from Paris each Thursday night for sale on Friday morning. The store also employs a nutritionist in the vitamin and supplement area to answer customers' questions.
"They have displays at the front end, because people will stop there and read," Turock said. "They use the waiting time at the checkout line for education."
The Seattle store offers package deals on five lunches and five dinners for couples in its Lucky Palate program. Meals are delivered to participants' doors every Tuesday.
"There's no shopping, no cooking, and they specialize in vegan vegetarian. Everything is customized. They ask your preferences up front."
He also praised a drive-through deli in Iowa that caters to the lunch crowd at a nearby corporation; and San Antonio-based H.E. Butt's Central Market in Austin, Texas, for offering concerts twice a week as a draw for its restaurant meals.
The six members of the consumer panel, meanwhile, ranged in age from 35 to retirees in their 60s. All said they shared a love of food and eating, but a few admitted they hate shopping for food. The panel was chosen for long-term research by NEFFA more than a year before.
"This is the first time I've seen shoppers interact with retailers," said Turock. "This is kind of like Jerry Garcia."
Whether single or married, with or without children, the panelists all admitted they buy prepared foods from the supermarket on a fairly regular basis; but while the food always looks good, they are often disappointed with the flavor. They expressed a desire for more taste-testing at the deli counter.
Suggested one woman, "How about a sign that says, 'Please ask for a sample'?"
Turock, in turn, offered testimony to the effectiveness of sampling by recalling one of his trips to survey a store's deli section. He had planned to go back to the hotel and order room service, but when he got within 4 feet of the prepared-food counter at a Whole Foods store he was offered samples. "The food was so good, I ended up eating right there."
The panelists indicated that for the most part they are not interested in eating right there. Their stated preference is for ready-to-heat. "I want to feel like I cooked from scratch," said one.
A retired lawyer on the panel criticized the "down time for customers at the deli counter," and asked if stores could "cross-train other employees to fill in at the deli when it's busy. Consumers don't understand that you have to clean the slicer. They don't want to stand around and wait."
"I want more help choosing pieces for meals," commented a married woman on the panel.
As for bakeries, Turock asked if consumers perceive that store bakeries are creating the pastries and breads from scratch -- sifting, measuring and blending ingredients.
One panelist laughed when she answered, "Yes. That's how I like to perceive it, but I know it's not true. I've heard half the baked goods are frozen."
Warehouse stores offer bakery samples, said another, adding, "If you like it, you'll buy it." Another panelist said she goes to specialty stores for baked goods "because of the taste."
When customers head for a natural-food supermarket such as Bread & Circus, it's often because they see the employees chopping and cooking behind the counter, the panelists said. All agreed that watching store cooks prepare food inspired confidence in the food.