MADISON, Wis. -- Supermarket operators getting into the meals business say they're hungry for practical tips on how to figure out what will work for them.
And the goal of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, based here, is to keep them well fed, according to Carol Christison, executive director.
The association brings to the table a full menu of resource materials, and how-to tools in print and on video and, most recently, on CD-ROM, Christison said in an interview with SN.
The centerpiece of the IDDBA's efforts is the ShowPlace Merchandising Theater, which in two weeks will be set up right on the show floor at Dairy-Deli-Bake '98, the IDDBA's convention, to be held June 14 to 16 in Philadelphia.
"Our mission is to make sure that not only do we present cutting-edge ideas, but that we give retailers and vendors the tools to duplicate those ideas. They need to understand the work that's involved in execution in order to determine if it's right for them," Christison said.
The ShowPlace this year will focus on selling meals, she told SN. Selling stands out as a theme, too, in the line-up of educational seminars at the show, including how to attract new meals customers, keep them coming back and encourage them to buy more.
It's the kind of show-and-tell that the IDDBA hopes will keep its members coming back for more, just as the lessons learned and practiced by those retailers will hopefully keep the consumers coming back, too. Highlights of SN's interview with Christison follow.
SN: What do you see as the major issues facing your members this year?
CHRISTISON: More of everything. More competition. More technology. More mergers and acquisitions. More labor shortages. More food-safety and sanitation issues. More training. More satisfied customers. More unsatisfied customers. More, more, more.
Of particular concern is the record number of food mergers and acquisitions. In 1997, we had a record high of 734 from the food industry alone. The big get bigger, the small survive, and those in the middle just seem to go away.
SN: What have your members indicated they want from IDDBA?
CHRISTISON: I hate to sound like a broken record, but they want more. They want more information through original consumer and industry research; they want more help with training; they want more ideas for merchandising and selling products; they want to know how to reach more customers; and they want more new products. The list goes on and on. We're fortunate that our members see us as an information resource. Our training programs and research studies are being used more than ever. Our category management program and new deli basics CD-ROM program are being ordered before they're off the press. Our Web site is attracting 15,000 people a month who are reading our newsletters and downloading information from our different sites.
Bottom-line, what our members are really looking for is someone to help them wade through the tons of available data and provide insight and direction. The learning curve is so steep these days, that you need all the help you can get.
SN: What are the challenges ahead this year for IDDBA? How does that differ from last year?
CHRISTISON: I think managing our growth has always been our biggest challenge. With record exhibits, registration and membership, we're challenged to maintain the level of personal service and support that our members have come to expect. We use technology as a tool to help us execute our strategies. We can't work any harder, so we have to find new ways to work smarter.
We've never wanted to be the biggest this or the biggest that. We've only wanted to be the best we could be at providing the services and products our members need to carry on their own business.
SN: What about new or accelerated trends in the industry? What's happening and what's IDDBA's role?
CHRISTISON: Technology is driving a lot of the innovative changes we're seeing. Food safety is reaping the benefits, especially the new testing systems for detecting bacteria, the new vaccines from vegetables and the approval of irradiation.
Our job is to identify the trends and innovations and tell our members about them so they know how their operations may be affected. By tracking the trends, we can provide topical information.
We have four newsletters that keep our members up-to-date. We publish new research, white papers and our annual trends analysis.
Even with all the advances in science, food safety will remain the most critical issue we face. The tools that control sanitation and bacteria should be considered as additional control measures; they are not, and were never meant to be, substitutes for good food-handling and safe-sanitation training and practices. When you get right down to it, irradiated poop is still poop.
For years we've heard about the advances in functional food or food-as-medicine. You know, the "good for you," fortified, value-added, we'll-protect-you-in-spite-of-yourself types of foods. Just look at the meals-in-a-can market. That isn't about food that tastes good; that's about getting the maximum number of nutrients with the least amount of fuss or effort. And if it'll make you healthier, skinnier or more energetic, well, the consumers just drink it up.
SN: What is IDDBA doing about the speed of change -- in particular, helping members to keep up?
CHRISTISON: The speed of change is a way of life, for the consumers and for our industry. For the consumer, speed is measured in how fast they can shop, how fast they can get dinner on the table, and how fast they can eat it and then clean up. Speed and convenience go hand in hand. Recognizing that simple fact is what has driven the meal-solutions business. Providing home-cooked or home-style meals in a variety of formats (ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat, ready-to-cook) is one of the major drivers in the success of this segment.
We've used our very successful ShowPlace Merchandising Theater to demonstrate sourcing and selling ideas and options. Not only do we encourage retailers and vendors to visit it, we also invite them to take photographs, to ask questions, and to take home the leaflets and manuals on execution that we offer there.
We know it's working, because retailers have told us that the information we provide becomes a blueprint for their own operations.
SN: You're having a "mini bakery symposium" at this year's show. Doesn't this represent a renewed focus on bakery?
CHRISTISON: To have a "renewed focus" implies that, somehow, the focus slipped. That's not the case at all. Bakery has continued to be one-third of our membership, our exhibits and our educational focus. We've continued to develop bakery merchandising videos, category management, consumer research and educational programs for bakery. The bakery presence on our show floor is phenomenal and continues to grow at a very fast pace. Our membership and exhibitor list reads like a "who's who in the bakery biz."
The genesis of the mini symposium came about because our Bakery Steering Committee had seven topics they wanted presented and a very limited amount of programming time. SN: You zeroed in on meals merchandising at the ShowPlace last year. Will you do that again? What will be new there? Will bakery have a role there?
CHRISTISON: Yes, we're doing meals again this year, but it's different. Last year we focused on product sourcing. We provided retailers with a blueprint on four basic ways to develop meals and meal programs for the consumer.
This year our focus is on selling and value-added: how to get the consumer to buy more by understanding the purchase drivers and buying triggers of the customer. If we can teach the customer the value of meals, how to shop the total store, how to be creative in their component shopping, then we've raised the bar (not to mention the total ring).
Our retailers tell us that they need ideas on executing programs that don't take a major capital investment or redesign, and/or can be executed in phases as they develop their expertise and systems. So last year we focused on sandwiches, entrees, rotisserie and pizza programs. This year, again with the value-added emphasis, we're focusing on pasta and salads, one-hand eating, and meal components/options.
The themes for these sections are a lot of fun. First we have "The Liberty Deli" and then "Yankee Noodles and Dandy Greens" and "Uncle Sam's Mini-Meals," for when you only have a minute, man! The themes tie in with the great history surrounding Philadelphia. Bakery has been incorporated into all sections. You'll see traditional buns, rolls and variety breads, of course, plus wonderful handheld, open-faced European-style sandwiches, desserts, bread soup and salad bowls, and lots more. All the day-parts, too, will be well represented.
SN: We keep hearing that it's necessary for the different segments of the industry -- retailers, suppliers, brokers, distributors -- to work together, especially as the meals trend has developed. What is IDDBA doing to help facilitate communication between the different segments?
CHRISTISON: Our annual seminar and expo has become a must-attend event for these groups. So much so, that many of them hold satellite meetings in conjunction with our show. When you bring all the major players together in one location, it just makes sense to maximize the time by holding broker/buyer/ principal meetings.
Most recently, we commissioned Technomic and McMillan/Doolittle to do a competitive analysis of the current state of meal solutions and to offer strategies for closing the gap between expectations and reality. They're examining this from the retailer, the broker, the manufacturer and the consumer angles. By focusing on how to become top of mind for the consumer, we'll be able to show how to increase the bottom line. The results will be premiered at the show and published during the summer.
SN: Has there a been a shift in your membership? Either in proportion of retailers to suppliers or in categories represented? Bakery, deli, dairy? What do such changes signify?
CHRISTISON: Actually, no, there hasn't been. The last shift we had was back in 1990 when we added "bakery" to our mission and name. At that time, we already had a good representation of bakery members and when we added bakery to the name, it just took off. Right now, we're pretty much equally divided among the three categories and that includes a similar balance between retailer and manufacturer.
Because we have this balance among the three groups, we felt that our name still very much represented the constituent groups we served.
We've changed our name five times. Each time mirrored a shift in our membership. Our last name change focused on the three groups we serve and still does. We saw no need to change to a broader umbrella that would require us to add new product categories. We're not a perishables organization that covers the waterfront. With the exception of a few cross-over products, we don't cover frozens. We don't cover produce. We don't cover floral. We don't cover fresh meat. Our focus has been, and continues to be, to do the best job we can for dairy, deli and bakery.
SN: Did you commission any consumer research this year? What kind of reaction did you get from members to the consumer study you did last year?
CHRISTISON: We decided that there really wasn't anything new that consumers could add to the home-meal replacement shopper study we did last year, so, the answer is, no, we're not doing consumer research this year.
That doesn't mean we're not doing research. We felt it was important to take the findings from last year's non-supermarket HMR shopper study and find out how retailers and manufacturers could use that information to develop strategies to attract those same shoppers. This is the new Technomic study I mentioned earlier. They're looking at quite a few top retailers and will be developing "best practices" case studies that can be used as a blueprint or yardstick.
In the past, consumers bought what retailers wanted to sell. In the future, the retailer will be selling what consumers want to buy.
SN: Have you found that health and/or food-safety issues are increasing or decreasing in importance in the minds of consumers? Are those subjects, food safety in particular, getting enough industry attention?
CHRISTISON: No one wants to get sick or die just because they ate contaminated or improperly cooked food. Any such incident is a horror story. Public awareness of poor food safety or food contamination has increased dramatically and has changed the way consumers think about their food.
Sometimes, it's a government or corporate mandate that dictates how food will be cooked
or preserved. Sometimes it's the result of food scares. Sometimes it's just new information that has finally sunk in.
The public has an increasing awareness of food safety, but that doesn't mean they're sophisticated enough to know what precautions should be taken.
That's changing. When the public starts demanding that hair restraints, clean aprons, gloves, and proper cooking/refrigeration techniques are used, then we'll know that they're accepting responsibility for their own food safety. When they understand that food contamination can happen through their own mishandling, we'll all rest easier.
SN: Have you updated your deli training materials to include more about meals?
CHRISTISON: We've produced several videos with a focus on HMR merchandising, and our newest training program, a deli basics CD-ROM, will include meals.
It really annoys me when people in our industry think "deli" and "meals" are different. They're not, certainly not in the minds of the consumers. Consumers don't think, "Oh, I'll stop by the supermarket and pick up a home-meal replacement." They think, "Oh, I'll stop by the deli and pick up something for dinner." It's about time that we started listening to the consumer and selling the way they shop.
And meals don't just come out of deli. There are wonderful meals coming from the dairy department, the bakery department and, of course, the deli and food-service outlets. When we "territorialize" a department or meal, we actually hurt the other sections. That isn't progress.
We need to think "total store" and how to teach consumers to "forward buy" more than one meal at a time. It just doesn't make sense to approach it any other way; there's enough competition without us competing inside the four walls. Is it progress if you teach a cannibal to eat with a fork?
SN: We're told that a key to a successful meals program is commitment from top management. What's IDDBA doing to foster that and have you seen more commitment from the top recently?
CHRISTISON: When we ask retailers what their biggest problems are, this ranks right behind training, labor and food safety. But getting a management commitment isn't limited to a meals program. It's getting them to understand the nuances of operating perishables departments that have high food-preparation costs, high labor, high shrink, and high costing equipment/space needs.
Fortunately, many enlightened management teams are beginning to understand the resource commitment needed.
SN: A lot of retailers are talking about how restaurant thinking has to be an ingredient in a successful meals program. Would you comment on that?
CHRISTISON: That is a great question. It's much deeper than just how you make and sell meals. It goes to the heart of the issue. More than anything else, it goes to understanding how consumers buy meals, the level of quality they expect and the opportunities for repeat business.
The most basic component in restaurant thinking is packaging. Not the carry-out container, but the meal itself. In a restaurant, you order a whole dinner. It's a complete meal.
In a supermarket, you order an entree, a few sides, a dessert, maybe some rolls or bread, a salad, and something to drink. Generally, these are all considered as "a la carte" items and are priced individually or by the pound. In a restaurant, the price is all-inclusive with the exception of the beverage. You know what your dinner is going to cost before you order it. Not so in the supermarket.
Customers don't like buying a la carte. That's why a few innovative retailers have embraced restaurant pricing and post "complete-dinner" prices. Whether you're buying dinner for one, two, four or more, you know what the cost will be and what choices are available.
When people shop for something to eat, they're looking for their next meal or the ingredients necessary to cook it. When a supermarket makes it easy by pre-assembly, precooking or item bundling, they've taken it to the next service level.
A lot of people talk about "restaurant-quality" cooking. I don't know what that is, unless it's the consumer's perception that items are freshly prepared. Which isn't always the case.