For many harried Americans, the dinner question is answered by a trip to a drive-through or prepared foods department of the supermarket. But for those making the evening meal themselves, the question is rather, "What will I make?"
Those are the people whom retailers are targeting with meal solutions that trim the steps of deciding what to prepare and combing the aisle for the ingredients. These programs involve creating a display with the Center Store ingredients - sometimes paired with the fresh ingredients - needed for a quick meal.
"If you ask a whole lot of meal preparers - and most of them are women - if you ask them, what are the big hurdles, they say it's planning," said John Stanton, food marketing professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Such initiatives are far from commonplace, but the center of the store is ripe for such solutions, said John Carlson, partner at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. He says that after focusing on differentiating themselves via the perimeter of the store, retailers need to return their focus to the center aisles, and programs like these could be one way.
Publix Super Markets' 5-year-old Apron's program is a well-known example. Each week, stores display ingredients for a new meal (a main dish and side dish), usually designed to be prepared in 30 minutes or less.
"Convenience was at the core," said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. "There's still part of our customer base who wants to cook a meal for their family and doesn't want to spend a lot of time doing it."
Shoppers find the ingredients situated near the front of the store. The recipe can be found at the display as well as in the circular and on the Lakeland, Fla.,
chain's website. A chef demonstrates how to make the meal and hands out samples. Such demos take place up to a few times a week, depending on the store.
"The whole idea was that customers can come into our store, sample the product, and then be able to take a recipe card and recreate the recipe at home with their families," Brous said.
Retailers' cooking programs often emphasize pricey, high-margin ingredients, but Apron's emphasizes meals that are affordable by offering everyday menus, often using sale items. Examples of recipes, which are created by Publix's in-house chefs, include meatball ravioli with Italian salad, and Asian chicken tenders with honey-glazed carrots and tropical fruit rice. "Our customers want great food, great meals, great value," Brous said.
Publix has been upgrading its Apron's program for the past year. Originally, the cooking was demonstrated at a simple burner, with the prep work having been done behind the scenes. That setup is being replaced with kitchen kiosks made to resemble a cooking show set, with a countertop where the prep work can be carried out along with the actual cooking.
The upgraded kiosk should be installed in 525 stores by the end of 2006 and eventually in nearly all 875 Publix stores.
Another model is Clemens Family Markets' Meals in Minutes. The program resembles Apron's, but without the cooking demonstration. Each week, the ingredients are bundled on an endcap or display table at the rear of the store. The suburban Philadelphia chain has run a form of the program for years, but in the past year has been emphasizing meals that not only can be assembled quickly, but are healthy. Its hearty chicken taco soup calls for reduced-sodium ingredients as well as fat-free sour cream, for example.
Like Publix's, Clemens' program was designed to be an answer to people's busy lives, said spokesman Mark Clemens. "It's great for soccer moms and anybody with kids," he said. "Everybody's on the run. I don't think people shop with a list the way they used to."
Each week, shoppers can find the ingredients to a main dish and a few side dishes whose recipes were created by the retailers' in-house nutritionist. The recipes are typically promoted in the weekly ad for extra exposure. The recipes call for everyday items, although Clemens tries to use items in its gourmet private-label brand, 213 West Main, as much as possible.
For the private-label sales and marketing firm Federated Group, meanwhile, boosting private-label brands, along with meeting shoppers' demand for a quick meal, was a main goal of its Hy-Top Half-Hour Helpers program.
The program, introduced in July, calls for retailers to create endcap displays using ingredients for recipes. If perishables are required, the retailer would have signage directing shoppers to their location in the store.
Hy-Top Half-Hour Helpers was inspired by the Food Network program, 30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray, said Ed Dudley, director of quality assurance for the Chicago-area company.
"We realize consumers are pressed for time," he said. "We constantly hear children aren't being taught how to cook. People want to feel like they're preparing something for their family, but don't have the time to cook from scratch."
Federated supplies the recipes to retailers, which are encouraged to create their own display, fliers and signage. "Because our retailers are small- to medium-sized hometown retailers, as opposed to national chains, they feel there's some value in creating that display material themselves," Dudley said.
With takeout meals costing three times as much as home-cooked, there's a market for programs that make it easier for do-it-yourselfers, said Harry Balzer, longtime food analyst at the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. "Anything that makes life easier is the direction that food is moving in, in this country," he said.
Committing to such a program requires retailers to break out of the promote-what's-on-sale-this-week mentality, Stanton said. But the potential payoff is big. Such suggestive selling can entice people to pick up high-margin, unusual items they wouldn't normally buy. "If you ask people to buy something, they will," he said.
Still, such programs are far from commonplace. One reason is the time and money required.
Publix, for example, creates its recipes in-house, then has them independently taste-tested and sometimes reworked - a lengthy process.
Coming up with recipes is the most time-consuming part of executing Meals in Minutes, Clemens said. Then, it's a matter of communicating the program to the stores and ensuring consistency, which he said could be harder for bigger chains to maintain. Money's a factor, too. Because ad space is precious, Clemens doesn't always promote Meals in Minutes in its circular. Keeping the displays stocked, and merchandising fresh and dry groceries together also requires valuable labor and square footage.
Publix uses bunkers with refrigerated/nonrefrigerated sections that accommodate dry and fresh groceries.
Clemens handles the perishable ingredients in various ways. Sometimes they're placed in a spot cooler beside the grocery items. Or, there's a sign directing people to the needed perishables. In other cases, the whole display is set up in the rear of the store near the perishable departments.
It's also hard to measure the return on such programs. It could be argued that putting meal ingredients on a display makes it easier for people to avoid the Center Store altogether.
Publix looks at scan data to see what's selling, and while it sees increased movement on sale items, it can't prove the items sold because they're part of the weekly menu or simply because they're in the ad. The retailer says sales growth isn't the primary goal, though. "The payoff is really about our customer loyalty," Brous said. "Our customers rave about the Apron's program and the recipes. We know it's working when customers call us a month later and ask us for a recipe they once had."
Similarly, Clemens said Meals in Minutes is about meeting a shopper niche, which pays off in less measurable ways. "You can't eat rotisserie chicken everyday," Clemens said.