A hot summer can make a deli executive feel quite comfortable -- as evidenced by the sizzling sales that supermarkets have been enjoying for their prepared food programs.
Interviews conducted with retailers across the country showed that in many markets, persistent high temperatures have been driving shoppers to the take-out case as an alternative to a homecooked meal.
Rotisserie and fried chicken programs, deli salads and sandwiches, and microwavable prepared entrees have been gaining volume this summer, retailers told SN.
What this is adding up to, they said, is a boost in total deli sales over last year -- in some cases as high as a double-digit increase.
"Deli sales for July and August this year were up 20% versus the same period last year," said Phillip Grasso, director of deli operations, Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C. The hot temperatures really helped our prepared foods program."
Grasso said an increase in picnics has undoubtedly lifted the chain's sales of sandwiches.
"We have a good sandwich program and we advertised it every week. Our deli has about eight sub-departments -- hot food, sandwiches, salads, cheese, etc. -- and we tried to hit key buttons of each of those departments almost every week," Grasso said.
But the trend goes beyond that. "This summer, we found them coming in for lunch and dinner. We hope to continue the same trend," he said.
Nancy Rand, deli supervisor at Quillin's, La Crosse, Wis., said her stores also enjoyed double-digit increases on average this summer, which she attributed to the intense heat.
"There was no slowdown in sales of traditional deli items such as meat and cheese. But there was a lot of response to our fresh salads. We saw increases in a lot
of convenience foods. We saw big growth in movement of our rotisserie and fried chicken," Rand said.
At B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb., deli sales this summer were up about 5% to 10% in comparison to the same time last year, said Steve Nelson, deli director for the 11-store independent.
"When it is hot out, people don't want to cook, so they come to the deli and pick up sandwiches, chicken or entrees. Sales of salads, fried chicken and microwavable items were great," he said.
Nelson was reluctant to attribute the increase solely to the soaring temperatures experienced this summer, however, citing that the company was also benefiting from the volume of three stores added this summer through an acquisition.
At Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., the hot weather caused a shift in the time when consumers would shop the service deli. They began waiting until later in the evening to avoid the hot afternoon sun, said Jim McClaskey, director of the service deli division.
"We felt it was a successful summer for us in the service deli. It was at least as good as last year, if not better. Our food-service programs benefited," he said.
It was not hot enough for some operators, however. The service deli merchandiser for a retailer that operates stores in the far Northwest, for example, complained that uneven weather kept summer deli sales slow.
"Last summer was hot in our area and we had the best deli sales we ever had. We had six weeks with no rain and temperatures ranging from 85 to 100 last summer," the executive said.
"This summer, we didn't have hot weather. It was great, until it started to rain. The hot weather affected us greatly for about three weeks this year.
"Our summer deli sales are slightly down in percentage vs. last year, but the rest of the year has been up," she added.
"It would have been easier for us if we had the hot weather that hit in other parts of the country. We find in general that weather does affect deli sales. When it is hot, people don't want to cook at home. If a retailer has a lot of prepared food, which we do, it is great for consumers to come to our deli," the deli merchandiser said.
Not content to leave it all up to Mother Nature, a number of retailers tried some different strategies in the deli this summer to help sales.
What follows are excerpts from deli executives' descriptions of the tactics that helped make this summer a good one.
Phillip Grasso director of deli operations Ingles Markets Black Mountain, N.C.
This summer I put together a promotion for Ingles that I had done before when I worked for a different chain -- offering customers a free pound of potato salad when they buy a pound of a certain deli meat. We ran this promotion for the whole month of August. We had six-foot banners up in the stores and posters.
Also new this summer, we offered Ingles Mega Meal; we saw that KFC had a meal promotion. Ours was an eight-piece chicken package -- either a whole rotisserie chicken or 8 pieces of fried chicken -- with baked beans, potato salad or mashed potatoes, cole slaw and dinner rolls, for $8.99. This was advertised with posters in the stores. It seemed to do really well for us. I think we beat everybody's price at $8.99.
We also did some 'two-for' deals with hot dogs and barbecue sandwiches. Another promotion we did this summer featured our iced tea, brewed in-store. We offered a free large iced tea with purchase of a lunch or dinner entree. The iced tea was one of our least costly give-aways because it is brewed in-store. The offer enticed more people to eat with us instead of cooking at home.
Steve Nelson deli director B&R Stores Lincoln, Neb.
We introduced a couple of signature sandwiches this summer. One we named, Sub Italiano; it is a little Italian submarine sandwich. We featured it in our ad and also used it as part of our Privilege Plus preferred shopper program. That really helped sales of that sandwich.
Our other new signature sandwich is called the Star City Sandwich, because Lincoln, Nebraska is often called Star City. We use a kaiser roll for this sandwich, which looks like it has a star on the top. Inside it contains higher end meat such as honey pepper turkey breast, cinnamon maple ham and gourmet mustard.
We advertised both sandwiches when they were introduced. At the same time we printed little recipe cards in our ads that told customers how to make these sandwiches. Each ingredient needed for the recipe was also featured in the ad. By letting customers know how to make it themselves and advertising our version ready-made we performed a double whammy.
We were not concerned that we would lose sales by sharing the recipe. We were really marketing to two different customers. The ready-to-eat customers would buy our sandwiches for lunch as a take-out item. The recipe and ingredients would be of interest to the moms who prepare lunches for their husbands and children. So the ad was hitting two groups.
Service deli merchandiser for a Northwestern retailer
This year, what we did differently is we made certain we advertised the freshness of our products -- and all of our fresh products, not just meat and cheese; we also have fresh salad and fresh marinated rotisserie chicken.
We emphasized that we prepare our food fresh daily. This makes us stand apart from other retailers.
We have opened six more stores in the last year and expanded the number of food-service programs. Our fresh from scratch programs have grown from two last year to six today, and soon we will have seven.
Jim McClaskey director, service deli division Hughes Family Markets
Signage in the store reflected or exposed more food service, which was a little different from last summer. The trend was leading that way anyway. We did not do it just because of the heat.
Also this summer, we introduced a heat-and-serve meal program we call, Family Recipe Meals to Go. Consumers can choose from a menu of entrees sold with a choice of two side dishes and one type of bread. Meals can be bought that will serve from one to six people. It is going as well as we anticipated.
Nancy Rand deli supervisor Quillin's La Crosse, Wis.
We brought in a new item: rotisserie turkey breast, which we promoted as a dinner in our ad. The dinner included a two pound net weight turkey breast, four baked potatoes wrapped in gold foil, and four corn cobbettes. The dinner for four was promoted at the special price of $9.99.
We priced it low so we could educate our customers about the value. The turkey breast has no waste, unlike a whole rotisserie chicken. We have had several requests to offer it again. We plan to make it an everyday item in the near future, but have not yet determined what the everyday price will be.
Also, right now we are looking at upgrading our deli salads. We are experimenting with some special salads prepared in-store from our own recipes in one of our units. A lot of salads offered in the deli are pre-made for us, but we are finding that people really appreciate a high end salad that tastes homemade.