BOSTON -- Supermarkets need to start communicating with customers if they're going to succeed in the home-meal replacement business.
That's what Stephan Kouzomis, president and founder of Entrepreneurial Consulting, a Louisville, Ky., consulting firm, told seminar attendees at the New England Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's New Horizons Conference & Exposition at the World Trade Center here.
"The supermarket industry is the only industry that has contact every day with large numbers of its customers and yet we're not taking the opportunity to ask them what products they'd like to be able to get in the department," Kouzomis said. "If we don't know what our customers want, how can we develop the products that they'll buy?"
Kouzomis urged retailers to look at how competitors -- such as quick-service restaurants -- are communicating with their customers.
He pointed out that food-service and fast-food operations understand their potential customers and know what they value in carryout foods. Then, they make sure they tell the consumer the point of difference or value they're offering, he said.
But instead of doing that, most supermarkets are conveying the attitude of "Here it is, take it or leave it," Kouzomis said. "We're trying to sell deli carryout foods like we would a can of peas, using price points to create value," he added.
Ad circulars, direct mail, signage and sampling are necessary ingredients in getting the message across about the points of difference that set a supermarket's meals program apart from others', Kouzomis said.
He held up one chain's ad circular that had devoted nearly a quarter page to touting sliced turkey at a special price, but even the special price was buried beneath huge letters that said "March Madness."
"What are we advertising here?" Kouzomis asked, as he pointed out the space could have been used to better advantage even when using price as a value. "Some supermarkets are doing a good job of telling customers what they've got. Balls in Kansas City, for example, at their Hen House stores. They communicate with signage and direct-mail pieces and they let you know what they'll be offering next week, too," Kouzomis said.
But the first step is finding out what customers in each store's market area would like to buy at that store, he said. He urged retailers to go into their frequent-shopper database and contact the 100 households that shop the store the most.
"Tell them you want to offer carryout foods, but first you want to know what they want to buy," Kouzomis advised. "It's crucial to know what they want."
Then, product sourcing is a key step in the success recipe, he added.
"Sourcing the product is one of the key areas where we need to expand our minds. Think about strategic alliances with local sources. Catering operations, commissaries and regional manufacturers are possibilities," he said.
"But remember that the quicker you source the product your customers want, the faster you can penetrate the market," Kouzomis added.
And, the meals department itself can be the store's point of difference. "It can be the destination department that will bring customers in who will eventually shop the whole store," he said.