APPLETON, Wis. -- Taking a page or two from the restaurant industry could help retailers boost their home-meal replacement sales, according to food-service veteran Jim Sullivan, director of marketing at industry supplier Anchor Foods, based here.
As Sullivan sees it, service is what the restaurant business has over supermarkets, but it comes in so many forms that retailers can adapt many of its elements to suit their efforts.
He said it is particularly important for supermarkets to emulate restaurants, because consumers inevitably compare any HMR items with what they would get in a restaurant.
"Given that, the opportunity seems to lie in the ability to first identify, then tap into, adapt from, and ultimately improve upon the consumer's restaurant experience," Sullivan said.
"You can't be 100% better than your competition, but you can be 1% better than them in 100 different ways. It means thinking more like restaurateurs," he said. The marketing executive spoke about the topic in Los Angeles at MealSolutions '97, sponsored by the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute.
Under the broad heading of service, he said, are elements easily adaptable to supermarket operations such as a pleasant greeting, bundled meal components, value meals, drive-through kiosks in the parking lot, and a strolling host or hostess in the deli area at peak times pointing out specials or suggesting items to go with what the customers have in their carts.
Sullivan brings to the discussion years of experience working with restaurant chains. His background includes a stint with Brinker International when he was in on the development of Chile's casual Mexican concept.
Before joining Anchor -- which is the producer of the trendy stuffed jalapenos called "poppers" -- Sullivan was a consultant whose training and marketing programs have been used by Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Boston Market, TGI Fridays, Subway, Starbucks and Applebee's.
He emphasized a half dozen ways of providing service and boosting marketing that restaurants routinely rely on, but that he thinks most supermarket deli/food-service departments do not employ.
First is quick access between the customer's vehicle and the point of sale. Second is a proactive greeting, and third is a service staff comprehensively trained to cross merchandise.
He said a fourth key to effective service in restaurants is that the employees' compensation is tied to individual sales/service performance. The use of customer-specific and customer-loyalty marketing constitutes the fifth key, while the sixth is home/business access to the customer after the sale, he said.
By way of contrast, he described what he considers a typical experience in the supermarket deli/food-service department.
"To begin with, associates don't seem to be able to handle multiple orders like restaurant servers routinely do.
"Meltdowns occur when I order three different pounds of meat and cheese and salads," he said, "and the deli servers have their backs to me while they prewrap cheese.
"Not only that, I have to go to a different area of the store to get dessert. Applebee's doesn't send me across the street to Dairy Queen for dessert. Bundling of meal components is rare in grocery store HMR," Sullivan added.
To get associates trained doesn't need to be a huge undertaking. It just means starting to think like a restaurant operator in the hiring process, he added.
First, hire associates based on their personalities, keeping an eye out for people who smile and greet you. "Great customer service begins with who you hire," Sullivan said.
"Usually, I'm greeted in the supermarket deli with 'Twenty-three! Does someone have 23? Next,' instead of 'Hi. How are you today?' After you've hired a person on personality, your No. 1 priority should be retaining that person," he continued. Training, incentives and rewards are all part of that.
Just three elements need to be put across in initially training associates. "They need to know their products, and this can be done via preshift team meetings everyday." Sullivan suggested that the supermarket food-service executives require that their deli/food-service managers have daily preshift meetings with associates, during which they market the daily special to the associates. And he suggested getting associates engaged in a dialogue about the specials, not just delivering a monologue to them. Get associates to use sale props such as chalkboards and buttons to point out a special or suggest sales, he said.
"Start thinking of training as a process, an ongoing one, not an event," Sullivan said.
He addressed one of the objections he said he hears often from supermarket executives. "I hear retailers say, 'What if we train our deli servers to sell and they leave?' And my answer is: 'What if you don't, and they stay?'
"And, this is important: Get them to use the 'Sullivan nod.' Slowly move their head up and down as they suggest an item," Sullivan said. He demonstrated nodding his head as he said, "Would you like a large ice tea with that?"
Lastly, he advised setting shift goals, another technique that restaurants routinely rely on, to keep their employees' skills sharpened.
"Set a goal for sales per hour. Get them to see how many chickens they can sell. Then, reward them for meeting or exceeding the goal."