In the drive to recapture sales from food-service operators, supermarket delis are appropriating their competitors' most obvious and effective marketing tool -- the menu.
Both retailers and marketing consultants said that strategy is sound. But in practice, the menus being churned out by many supermarkets have not been hitting their targets.
The major problem is focus. Experts said retailers have to learn how to aim their efforts like a restaurateur instead of a like a grocer.
Retailers and industry analysts interviewed by SN agreed the trap prepared food strategists keep falling into is the expansive menu. It was bred from the "one-stop-shop" sell ingrained in the grocery mentality, and by extension into the typical deli department's approach to assortments.
"Supermarket delis can offer more things that can be sold in a finished form than most restaurants," said Tim Kean, deli merchandiser at Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind.
That sounds like a plus -- but is not necessarily helping the marketing effort when it comes to menus.
"The variety of products we offer is not known to the customer," said Kean. "If we would prepare a menu with all these options, we would blow people's minds. It would be information overload."
"What customers expect out of a supermarket food-service operation, in terms of variety, is not more than they would expect from a restaurant," said Tim Pettygrove, director of deli operations at O'Malia Food Markets, Carmel, Ind.
"Delis should stick with the basics of what the customers might buy and be more focused to reflect what type of food-service operation they are," he said.
In other words, the good intention of promoting department variety and expansiveness can cause failure when applied to the menu. Menu formats supermarkets selected most often include:
Operators are making those format choices for different reasons. But industry analysts said focusing the menu tightly gives deli operators a better chance to sell to the customer.
One consultant said the ideal message is, "This is what we are offering for dinner," rather than, "Is there something we can sell you?"
Mike Eardley, senior director of fresh foods for D & W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., said the problem was an intellectual habit that needed breaking.
"Supermarket operators need to shift from their shelf awareness, or always watching the shelf, to more of a food-service approach of watching customer awareness," he said. "This shift would then help us to focus on the experience, which is not just about buying food."
A well thought-out deli menu, he explained, can help both retailers and consumers focus on the food and should result in selling more product.
As Eardley sees it, the supermarket prepared foods executives are not clueless when it comes to creating menus; their efforts just need refinement.
"Supermarket deli operators already know how to draw up a menu," Eardley said. "Items are kept in categories. But what happens is too much graphic emphasis can be placed on price -- where a restaurant uses price as a value-added statement to the menu selection."
Greg Rapp, a Seattle-based restaurant consultant, suggested that supermarkets narrow their focus by following the trail of profits, then planning and assembling their menus based on that trail.
"In a supermarket deli, figure out where the profit is, and lay out the menu, or the case, along the same lines," he said.
"Menus should even be laid out much like a grocery store shelf. Profitable and popular items should be up-sold. The most profitable items should stand out."
Rapp suggested categorizing products into four groupings, based on their levels of popularity and profitability:
Rapp proposed fully describing chalkboard menu items from the puzzle and star groupings because they are what operators most want to sell. Along the same lines, plowhorse items should be underplayed, but not omitted.
"Use full descriptions, lots of copy, with boxes or a logo, or even an illustration or picture. Simply list plowhorses," he suggested.
Kean said that at Pay Less' three food courts, the prepared food menus typically push 10 items out of 35 rotated through the program and produced in the retailer's central kitchen.
Kean goes for a multilayered menu marketing approach. First, he lists his prepared food items on chalkboard menus tied to each concept. He backs that up with a printed piece, complete with the store's fax and phone numbers. In seating areas he posts table tents highlighting the daily specials.
Banger Smith, a principal at Seattle-based consultantcy firm Menus For Profit, said that while menu boards as a vehicle should be used in theory like handheld menus, in practice, they present different challenges.
"They should be the same, but with a menu board you have lower flexibility. Physically, the strips are hard to use. This physical challenge can be overcome; it only takes money and a specialized design.
"The design of any menu must fit the concept," Smith added. "It must move people toward what you want them to buy, such as an item with more gross profit, an item that is popular."
Another up-and-coming menu vehicle is the video menu board. Operators can select the number of video screens to use in a department or throughout each store. For example, the deli counter could feature three screens -- two showing the menu and a third flashing descriptive messages about specific products or an upcoming deli department event.
"It can move product," Smith said. "This type of system can be linked up to the home office for last minute price changes or new product additions. Plus, it keeps customers entertained while they wait to make their order."
Retailers told SN that training and retaining capable counter personnel continues to be a stumbling block in effectively marketing the prepared foods menu.
"Counter people do get busy and cannot devote all the time to each customer that can optimize sales," Rapp said.
To bolster deli service, he recommended that sales ability be built into menus, or even the case itself, to tell customers about products.
"Restaurants put their staff through training, so that they know what a product is, what is in it, where it came from and what it tastes like. These little facts impress customers with the notion that the staff has in-depth food knowledge, which will be rewarded with their trust and sales," he said.
Another successful way to support the menu's marketing message is to let the food speak for itself. And here, retail analysts said, is where supermarkets possess a distinct advantage over restaurants.
At Seessels, Memphis, Tenn., a line of commissary-produced refrigerated items, dubbed Fresh and Quick, depends fully on attractive self-service presentation, according to David Vaughn, director of deli/bakery operations.
Photos of the products, which include serving suggestions, whet the customer's visual appetite, he said. Cases run from 8 feet to 12 feet depending upon store location.
Vaughn said the Fresh and Quick line is often featured in weekly ads with a cents-off coupon, and in the weekly mailer. But it is the in-store Fresh and Quick graphics that galvanize the program, he said.
O'Malia Food Markets showcase prepared food with informative tags, Pettygrove said. The self-service items at Pay Less have full descriptors on the packages. Kean coordinates the program with adjacent chalkboards to spotlight seasonal favorites and specials.