PLYMOUTH, Wis. -- In a climate of hot competition for the fresh food dollar, well-trained associates in deli and bakery will prove to be as crucial as the sandwich trend of the moment or the latest low-fat innovation, according to Michael Gordy, executive vice president of operations at Sargento Foods here.
Gordy, who is also board president of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, based in Madison, Wis., said professional store-level service providers -- and not just meat slicers or bagel bakers -- will help retailers both to anticipate consumers' demands and cater to them more effectively.
In an interview with SN, he said IDDA is paying particular attention to the recruiting and training of deli/food-service and bakery associates at its exposition, to be held June 18 to 20 in San Jose, Calif.
According to Gordy, the counter in the store is where it all comes down to merchandising and suggestive selling.
He also shared his ideas on the health-consciousness of an aging population that is indulging in what he called "longevity eating," and how the industry can respond to that.
Here are highlights from the interview:
SN: What do you see as key issues facing in-store delis and bakeries in the next year?
GORDY: At the store level, the major issues will probably be the same as the last few years, namely employee training and retention, labeling and labor shortages.
From a management viewpoint, anticipating and meeting consumer demands in the areas of new products, nutrition, price value and quality are also big issues.
Last year we completed a comprehensive Deli Training and Certificate Program for in-store delis. Based on its success, our board of directors recommended and approved a similar style program for in-store bakeries.
This new product [a comprehensive in-store bakery training program] will be seen at the seminar and expo this month for the first time. These programs have been a collaborative effort from suppliers and members from the retail community.
We will also be presenting two new IDDA research pieces. The first, conducted by the Gallup Organization, Princeton, N.J., will address bakery consumers -- who they are and what their buying habits are. The second research piece, also from Gallup, involves consumer fo-cus groups and 1,000 interviews with consumers to determine con- sumers' expectations in customer service and how retailers can better respond to those expectations.
SN: As IDDA president, how have you addressed the issues facing retailers?
GORDY: My role as president has been one of encouraging, motivating and challenging our board, committees and professional staff. This would include executing against our long-range plan and developing new programs.
We have approved over $1 million in the past two years to provide training programs and original research that address issues that have been, for the most part, identified by our retail members.
We also stay current on trends and regulations and regularly publish reports such as our IDDA trends report, newsletters and the research I mentioned earlier.
SN: What will be the key issues in the next five years?
GORDY: Remaining competitive by anticipating -- and meeting -- changing consumer demands. Staying current with the nutrition concerns, ingredient labeling, and separating fads from trends and managing the onslaught of new products will keep us busy.
And the fact that home computers are becoming commonplace will open new avenues that will change the face of supermarket retailing forever.
SN: What will affect manufacturers and retailers most?
GORDY: On the consumer side, we're going to be seeing a continuing change in lifestyle and eating habits. The focus will be on "longevity eating," with a focus on healthful products. Consumers are looking at their own mortality, especially those who are single and will not have anyone to care for them in their old age. Their concern will be on eating right, not to lengthen their lives, but to maintain their health as they age. As part of this renewed focus, they'll be demanding lower-fat and lower-calorie products that must taste at least as good, if not better, than the products they're replacing. This consumer demand will lead to expanded product lines.
A healthy diet does not require abstinence from foods, but it does require moderation and wise choices or substitutions. Manufacturers are already developing products that meet consumer expectations for taste and mouth feel. As the technology continues, we'll see surprising product development.
The next challenge will be to eliminate nonvalue-added cost and to get products to the marketplace as efficiently as possible -- the supply side of Efficient Consumer Response.
ECR is not in widespread implementation. Once these products have reached the stores, the challenge will remain to manage the product mix and merchandise these items most profitably. ECR could still be termed emerging, since we have a long way to go as an industry in implementing both the supply and demand sides of ECR.
SN: How have relationships between manufacturers and retailers changed over the last year or so?
GORDY: I'll speak to the area I am most familiar with, and that's distribution. Working
together to provide better and more frequent service and to reduce system costs has become a common goal.
This area of improved service, while maintaining or reducing cost, is like fishing on a beautiful day; the only thing better is more of it.
SN: Where are we on the continuum of cheese marketing in the supermarket deli? Is there still good potential ahead?
GORDY: I think we are limited only by our creativity and ability to anticipate consumer needs and wants. Providing value-added products, variety, products that taste good and products that provide convenience will continue to drive the category.
These disciplines apply to all areas of cheese merchandising. Opportunity exists for some retailers to develop creative self-service cheese departments. There are opportunities beyond stacking and pegging cheese. What comes to mind are attention-grabbers like cross-merchandising, creative signage, suggesting unique product usages, romancing the product.
SN: What suggestions would you give supermarket delis on how to merchandise cheese?
GORDY: My advice would be to "get out of the box" and try new approaches in areas such as alternate shelving styles, signage, product sampling, and really romance the products by enhancing their mystique.
For instance, Roquefort is aged in caves. You should tell the customer that. The wine people do a good job of building up the mystique of a wine. They don't just say, "Here's a bottle of Chardonnay." They tell you how it's aged, maybe that it has a fruity flavor.
Serving suggestions would help, too. For instance, Brie shouldn't be served right out of the refrigerator. Customers should be told that it tastes best at room temperature and what fruits taste good with it.
Train employees in product knowledge and suggestive selling.
Also, I would stress the basics, like maintaining clean and fresh displays. And using holidays and special events as merchandising themes to bring excitement to the case. Retailers should know why their customers shop the deli, and they should let their associates know that. These ideas and techniques are discussed at length in the IDDA Deli Training and Certificate Program. The retailers that are using it swear by it.
SN: What do you see as the future for prepared foods, such as hot or chilled entrees sold in the deli department in supermarkets?
GORDY: What we need to understand is that convenience is more than just heating and eating something you pick up at the deli. Convenience is time-driven. Today's consumer is "time-robbed," and that means that not only do they not have time to prepare an item, but they don't have time to plan the meal, choose the recipe, shop for the ingredients, prepare the ingredients and then cook it. When we talk today about "cooking illiterates," it's time-robbed people we're referring to. Consumers are choosing to spend quality time with their families rather than in the boring and repetitive, to some, tasks of shopping and cooking. And that's just great with manufacturers and retailers because it allows us to meet their needs.