WASHINGTON -- Consumers rate supermarket food service about midway between fast-food fare and a home-cooked meal when it comes to freshness, nutritional value and quality, according to a new research study from the Food Marketing Institute here.
However, there are ways to lure consumers away from both fast-food and home cooking and into a supermarket's food-service department, says the study.
Previewed at FMI's food-service conference in Atlanta last fall (see SN, Oct. 2, 1995), the full study is now available and includes advice to supermarkets on how to accent the positives in their food-service departments and attract previously unconvinced consumers.
Entitled "It's Mealtime . . . Are Supermarkets on the Menu?," the study categorizes consumers of takeout food in six distinct groups and outlines ways to urge each category of customer to choose supermarket prepared foods over other options. Recommended strategies urge retailers to identify and target customers accurately, and to capitalize on the spontaneous nature of consumers' food-service decisions.
Forty percent of consumers buying prepared meals from the grocery store decide to do so after they have arrived in the store, the study reveals.
"That says to me that signage at the front of the store, or better yet, a pop-in, pop-out, self-service area with prepared foods upfront is important. This also reinforces the importance of sampling. Every customer should be challenged to take a taste. There's no better way to convince them of quality," said Brian Salus, president of Salus & Associates, a Midlothian, Va.-based consulting firm. Salus was an executive with Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.
Among consumers who decide prior to entering the store, 43% decide in the hour before they arrive there, the FMI research shows. "I think the categorization of takeout customers is important, and the fact that so many consumers don't decide until the last minute should influence advertising decisions," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio-based consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
"For example, advertising [food-service items] in a circular is a total waste. We're recommending drive-time radio and billboard ads to our clients. The study also points out some people like to cook at home when they have the time, like on weekends. So if you do the same thing all week to promote your food-service department, you [the supermarket] might be disappointed," Solganik added. One fact uncovered in the study could be regarded as both good news and bad news: a full third of consumers profiled as "food-service users" are not currently using supermarket food-service departments for their needs. One reason is that they don't trust supermarkets to provide fresh, high-quality food "that hasn't been sitting around for too long." But supermarkets could change that perception, the researchers pointed out.
While 88% of respondents in the FMI study said they want food that is prepared fresh, only 44% "agreed or strongly agreed" that supermarket food-service items are fresh, compared with 91% for home-cooked meals and 28% for fast-food outlets.
Meanwhile, 37% of consumers surveyed "agreed or strongly agreed" that supermarket food-service items are nutritious. That compares with 10% for fast-food offerings and 89% for home-cooked meals.
Thirty-four percent "agreed or strongly agreed" that supermarket food-service products are "high quality," compared with 11% for fast-food takeout and 91% for home-cooked meals.
The six categories of take-out customers identified in the report include all-around takeout, upmarket takeout, health-conscious takeout, meat and potato cooks, adventurous cooks and senior thrifty cooks. The first three categories represent the most frequent food-service takeout users, but the study stresses that the other three categories also occasionally buy prepared foods.
Suggestions the study makes for reaching the all-around takeout customer include: locate the deli at the front of the store if possible, feature daily specials that offer a grab-and-go meal, and place "total-meal" products within easy reach, for example by adding beverages and a selection of desserts nearby.
To reach upmarket takeout customers, the study suggests varying choices of specialty foods and gourmet items; featuring authentic, high-quality ethnic foods on the same day each week, and keeping up on the latest local food trends, especially through tracking local restaurant menus.
For the health-conscious takeout customer, retailers should provide ingredient lists for menu items, and provide associates with printed information, the study said.
No Place Like Home
Food Marketing Institute research showed frequent users of food services still rate home-cooked meals as tops for quality. But on the quality scale, supermarkets score significantly better than fast feeders, as the chart below shows.