Activity is heating up for vacuum-packaged, sliced deli meats. In the last few months, retailers have been re-evaluating how they merchandise these products, which they view as ideal for convenience-hungry consumers who might otherwise bypass the deli.
Others are getting into vacuum-packaged deli meats for the first time, while a few are giving the category a rest.
Any way you slice it, the nine deli executives polled by SN said vacuum-packaged sliced meats, which started cropping up in delis in several marketing areas about three years ago, still have good sales potential. They said the appeal has been boosted as manufacturers have offered more varieties and better packaging. Tactics many of those polled are using to boost sales include adding variety and creating bigger and better-placed displays to attract attention to the products. "You have to have enough variety or people won't shop the
area. There's still a lot of potential in this category. We can do a better job with it," said Rick Piccinini, bakery-deli director at 91-unit Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. He said he's committed to increasing varieties and display space in all stores this year.
One Midwestern chain is currently building mass displays in a dedicated space to give the category "a better shot" and another is introducing vacuum-packed meats this spring with a fanfare that includes extensive demos.
Of those taking out the products, they view the move as temporary. They were removed from the deli lineup, they said, because customers prefer service when buying sliced deli meats, or are too price-conscious to pay the higher price -- up to 50 cents per pound -- for the vacuum-packed product.
An executive at a Midwestern chain said his company, which is increasing display space dramatically, will turn the spotlight on vacuum-packed sliced meats this year. The chain has carried five or six varieties for more than a year, but hasn't merchandised them aggressively, he said.
"I think we need big displays to call attention to them. They get lost if you just have one or two rows in with something else. We'll be dedicating 4 feet in every deli to just vacuum-packed meats, no cheese. We'll buy new cases where it's necessary," he said. Varieties will be added, too, he said, but how many is still to be decided.
"We're going to test that out in a couple of stores -- whether to go all the way with blood and tongue or just stick to the basic best sellers," he added. After a chainwide test last summer, Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark., is pulling out vacuum-packed meats to make room for more prepared foods, such as beef barbecue, fried chicken and chimichangas.
"But I haven't by any means given up on vacuum-packaged meats. It's a great idea, but we're giving them a rest because they just aren't moving in this market area," said Kathy McDade, director of deli merchandising for the 54-unit chain.
"It surprises me that they didn't sell. Everything logically says they would, with people in such a hurry these days, but here, if they want sliced meat they want to see you slicing it, or putting it, shaved, in a zip-lock bag for them. We're a service-oriented deli, and service is apparently what customers want when it comes to deli meats," McDade said.
This was the second try for Harvest, but not the last, she said.
"We tried them three or four years ago shortly after they came out, but they didn't sell then. Last summer we decided to try again. We thought they'd be good for incremental sales. We did everything we could do. We switched the placement of displays around to see what worked best, made displays bigger, used good signage, changed out different varieties, put them in our ad. We tried everything, even cross-merchandising in the salad case, but they never got off the ground. After six months, we're taking them out, but we'll try again," McDade said.
B&R Food Stores, Lincoln, Neb., intends to build on moderate success it has had with vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses by revving up displays in the next few months. "We're going to at least double the eight to 10 varieties we have now and we'll make more display space for them," said Steven Nelson, director of deli for the eight-unit independent.
Meanwhile, 60-unit Tops Markets, Buffalo, N.Y., ran a half-page newspaper ad last month devoted entirely to vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses. "Your favorite brands that you have become accustomed to at Tops NY Deli are also available freshly sliced, vacuum-packaged and ready to go when you are at Tops value prices," the ad read.
A 4-inch-high photograph shows rows of sliced, shingled, vacuum-packed products.
Officials at Tops could not be reached for comment.
New packaging was a factor in the decision almost a year ago to introduce vacuum-packed meats at Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.
"We're using the one that has a reclosable zip-lock package. When we saw the package, we said yes," said Meg Richardson, deli merchandiser for the 13-unit retailer.
"We had tried vacuum-packed meats several years ago, but their time hadn't come yet, and I think manufacturers hadn't perfected the process or maybe it was the packaging, but the product didn't look as good then. But this new reclosable packaging is great and the product looks fresh," she added.
Richardson said she believes in variety. "I think you need at least eight different ones to make a good display. We started with 15 varieties and will probably add more," she said. The meats and cheeses are displayed in 3-foot coffin cases in the takeout deli, "where we have quick-to-fix meals."
All items in the line are doing well, Richardson said, and she estimates that most are additional sales. "We're getting people who don't want to wait in line."
Those customers who don't want to wait are being targeted by Save Mart in its new focus on vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses, Piccinini said.
"There's been a pickup in this category in the last year. We're getting people that might not have shopped the service deli," he said.
"They can see what they're getting before they buy it. And I think some people are uncomfortable asking for a small amount in the service deli," he said.
Piccinini has added varieties in the last year and created more space for display. Stores have the option to carry up to 28 varieties of sliced meats and cheeses vacuum-packed, he said.
Piccinini, like the other retailers SN polled, said he is receiving the products already packaged by the manufacturer. "We have vacuum-packaging equipment that we use for chunk cheeses, but the manufacturers do a much better job with vacuum-packing sliced product than we could do in the store. Some of the products look particularly attractive the way they shingle them with paper between the slices," he said. Judy Williams, bakery-deli director at 23-unit Consumers Markets, Springfield, Mo., who plans to launch several varieties in a big way this spring, said the same. She particularly mentioned thinly sliced prosciutto and other specialty Italian meats.
She said she sees vacuum-packaged products also presenting tremendous opportunity to sell small amounts of specialty meats such as prosciutto and mortadella. "You could be turning away sales if you don't have these. Often there's just one person in a family that likes one of these, and the person doing the shopping is shy about asking for only a quarter of it at the service deli, and since they're slow movers there, you have to be constantly fronting them," she said.
Williams said she plans to launch a display dedicated to Italian meats, in addition to another which will feature traditional best-sellers such as ham, turkey and roast beef.
She's already hired a demo service that will help launch an Italian line with sampling in every store for three weekends in a row. The demo stations, decorated with posters, recipe booklets and other colorful point-of-sale materials, will be alongside the display of product, "so that after the customer tastes the product, they can just grab a pack of it," she said.
"The Italian meats are higher-ticket items. Why not sell them?" she said, adding that totally vacuum-packaged sliced meats and cheeses will occupy at least 6 feet of display space in Consumers' delis.
But merchandising aggressively is the key to selling all vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses, Williams said.
"Displays have to be placed properly. The customer has to see them as he's walking up to the service deli. The person who buys this product is probably on his way to buy sliced meat, not a fried chicken dinner. To me, it doesn't make sense to put it in with prepared foods. It should have its own display that can be seen as you approach the service deli," Williams said.
She expects to feature a different meat, with 10 cents off per pound, once a month in the store's deli ad.
The best-sellers in vacuum-packed meats, most said, are turkey, ham and roast beef, the big three sellers from the service deli.
But at Martin's Super Markets, the surprising best-seller is olive loaf, Richardson said. "My figures show it was at the top the last three months," she added. "Maybe it's because it looks good shingled out, and in a nice package. It's more appealing than in a loaf," Richardson said, adding that it's not the best seller in the service deli.
Like Harvest Foods, Fiesta Mart, Houston, Texas, has found customers want service when it comes to deli meats, said Larry Jones, deli merchandising manager for the 30-unit chain.
"We tried them two years ago, but they didn't move at all," Jones said of the vacuum-packaged meats. "We lost more than we sold even though we'd displayed them well in a 4-foot section," he said.
"What we do that has increased sales tremendously is shave and preslice meats in the deli so the customer can get in and out quickly. We have trays piled up with sliced meats, up to 10 varieties at a time. Customers like it, I think, because of the perception that it's fresher than prepackaged product," Jones said.
And Jeff O'Neill, store manager at Boyer's Super Valu, Womelsdorf, Pa., said Boyer's made the decision last year to not carry vacuum-packaged meats because the company felt it would take away from its carefully cultivated "fresh" image. "Our customers expect to be served in the deli," he said.
A Tennessee retailer said his customers' price-consciousness was a factor in the lackluster performance of vacuum-packaged meats when he tried them last summer.
"What hurt was the price. On some items there was a difference of as much as 50 cents a pound. Still, I was surprised they didn't move any better than they did. They moved so slowly that in order to save some we were opening the packages and making sub sandwiches out of them," said Darrell Bruff, deli-bakery supervisor at 16-unit E.W. James & Sons, Union City, Tenn.
"We tried four varieties from a manufacturer that's using a newly developed vacuum package with a reclosable zip-lock. They looked great and we had them well displayed, but it was the price," he added.
Other retailers and other industry sources confirmed that vacuum-packaged sliced meats retail for 35 to 50 cents higher a pound, depending on the variety, than their counterparts sliced in the deli.
Bruff said his customers also wondered aloud about the long shelf life of the vacuum-packed meats.
"The contrast was there, because they know we suggest using the meats we slice to order within three days," Bruff said, adding that the delis' scales are programmed to produce a "use by" tape. "They see that date on the tape on the package we've wrapped for them in the deli,"he said.
Bruff added, however, that there's a sales future ahead for the category. But there's work to be done.
"Retailers are going to have to educate people about the products, about what vacuum-packaging does," Bruff said.
Tops Markets is doing just that with its newspaper ad. The ad lists several attributes of vacuum-packaged products, but most notably, it reads, "All products are fresh sliced and immediately vacuum-sealed to assure of the custom-cut freshness. They will keep longer in your refrigerator. A natural for picnic coolers. Packages can be immersed in ice."