Consumers may start thinking about the typical weekday dinner at about 4 p.m. that afternoon, but holiday meals are another story -- for many households, they are still events to be cherished and planned for.
That dinner event can be a plum for supermarkets that are committed to the specialized but high-margin "holiday-meal replacement" market. And just as increasing numbers of stores are offering to cater the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal, some are also expanding into Easter or Hanukkah.
But can a consumer who wants to plan ahead find support and ultimately success searching for supermarket-prepared meals for Easter?
Service is service, whether the customer is standing at the counter or on the telephone, and SN decided to test the waters over the phone lines by calling stores with questions about the availability of freshly prepared Easter meals.
Apparently, consumers would be well advised not to plan too far ahead because their supermarkets are not doing that either, at least judging from phone calls to more than 30 stores around the country.
When called during the week of March 15 to 21, one month before Easter, most store-level employees in the prepared-food departments knew next to nothing about what meal packages their departments would be offering, if they had any idea whether any kind of Easter meal would be available at all.
Many deli employees were stumped, and if their department managers knew, most of them were inaccessible at the time SN called.
Perhaps a month out is too early to expect a lot of detailed information from store employees about a special program. But if an operator is committed to the special-occasion meal business and hopes to reap the benefits to sales and image from such a program, the question its executives might consider is, should that be too early?
The Secret Shopper survey did net some results that speak well for store-level performance. All the stores on the call list, for instance, were very prompt to answer the phone, usually by the end of the second ring. (The only exception was at a Piggly Wiggly unit in Raleigh, N.C., where after 20 rings with no answer the caller gave up and moved on. It took another attempt the next day for anyone to answer the phone at that store.)
Out of all the stores called, only one call was transferred to the wrong department. But even in that instance, the seafood counter clerk at the Randalls Food Markets unit in Houston said, "Oh, I'm sorry. You've reached the seafood department. Let me transfer you."
Raleigh proved a sore spot a second time, when on hold during a call to a Winn-Dixie Stores unit, the caller was treated not to music but to 45 seconds of two employees arguing about the hours they were to work and when they were supposed to be off.
At the deli departments, the employees mostly provided prompt and friendly greetings. But after being posed the question of what kind of Easter meal specials could be had, most employees responded by cupping over the mouthpiece and yelling something like this, heard through the palm of a deli employee at a Larry's Market in Bellevue, Wash.: "Hey! Are there going to be Easter dinner specials?"
However, employees at some stores were quick to offer alternatives to a formally structured, traditional Easter dinner special. Among the nontraditional solutions: the deli clerk at a Kroger Co. store in Atlanta suggested that party platters were always crowd pleasers for events. And at a Harps Food Stores unit in Fayetteville, Ark., the clerk offered a pasta dinner as another party favorite.
At a Publix Super Markets store in Jacksonville, Fla., the caller was greeted with, "This is Karen in the deli. How can I help you?" Although Karen said there were no plans for an Easter meal special that she knew of at the time, she cheerfully suggested coming in and perusing the store's catering books.
The caller did not come up empty-handed at all the supermarkets; some did have Easter dinner specials, and had employees who were able to describe their features over the phone to a potential customer trying to plan a special event.
The delivery of those descriptions, however, was often speedy. Employees seemed to be reading off the list of dinner components as fast as they could. Even after the caller pleaded that she was trying to write down the information, most of the employees simply raced through their list again.
On the other hand, an employee at a Boston Market in Norridge, Ill., took more time to answer the caller's questions regarding the HMR outlet's banquet dinner special, explaining that, for $59.99, customers can order the same banquet meals that were available for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When asked what was in those meals, she explained that two varieties of entree are available, turkey or spiral-cut ham, both freshly cooked in the store. With the main entree, the dinner also includes 12 mini-cornbread loaves and five 2-pound sides, she said.
"And gravy is always free," the Boston Market employee added. When questioned about desserts, she skimmed through the available options, but noted that they are not included.
"But," inquired the caller, "if I wanted to switch out one or two of the side dishes and replace them with an apple pie, could I do that?"
"We should be able to do something like that. Just talk to us when you call to place your order, and let us know what you want," the employee replied.
Not many supermarkets appeared as flexible or their employees as knowledgeable when it came to substitutions.
When the caller mentioned the possibility of substitutions on a ham or turkey Easter special dinner to the deli clerk on the phone at a Supersaver store in Madison, Wis., the clerk quickly responded, "I have no idea about that. You'd need to talk to the manager."
When this same employee was asked if the ham in the dinner special was or could be spiral-cut, the employee's answer was, "What's that?" After the caller explained what a spiral-cut ham was, the employee remarked, "Oh no. We don't have anything to do with that here. We've had those before, and they didn't sell."
Sweetness and Light
Employees tended to provide vague answers when asked about purchases that could be tied to an Easter meal order, such as an Easter cake.
Usually, the answers ran along the lines of, "I'm sure there will be some cakes or cupcakes," as an employee at a Whole Foods Market unit in St. Paul, Minn., assured the caller. "But you'd need to call the bakery department."
Rarely did employees offer to transfer the caller to other departments, such as the bakery.
The deli associate at a Minyard Food Stores unit in Coppell, Texas, however, did pass the call to a bakery employee.
But even then, the bakery employee had "no idea what the cake decorator has in mind.
"It's different every year," the bakery clerk offered. "You'll have to call back when the decorator is here. She'll be back in 15 minutes or so."
In general, deli employees, while friendly and polite, seemed either too busy or simply unwilling to pursue the over-the-phone service opportunity beyond asking co-workers nearby if they knew anything.
A single clerk, at an A&P in New Providence, N.J., offered to take the caller's name and number and call back with the information requested.
And a particularly helpful employee at the deli in a Wegmans Food Markets store in Rochester, N.Y., searched through old files in search of information on past holiday dinner programs. This level of willingness to help, however, was the exception and not the rule.
Most often, the best answer that the deli employees could provide to challenging questions was, "Call back later." The trail to real information most often led to the department manager, but it was also a dead end because the manager was not available at the time. That's what you get for trying to plan ahead.
Checking the List
Each year, more supermarket operators across the country are offering fully prepared, soup-to-nuts dinner programs for holidays, including Easter meals built around a ham or a turkey. But while many prepared-food executives have doubtless been plotting their strategies -- some of them since virtually the week after last Easter -- the word had not trickled down to many stores by mid-March.
Here's a partial list of the operators and store locations that SN reached in its secret shopper survey. The stores were called at various times of day during the week of March 15 to 21.