ORLANDO, Fla. -- Coming out of this year's International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association convention here, the best news about home-meal replacement was that manufacturers are finally getting it, said retailers who had attended the show.
Interviewed after the show's experiences and lessons had settled in, supermarket executives told SN that the manufacturers who were exhibiting their wares seemed more than ever to be tuned in to HMR, and were offering the practical information as well as products that retailers had been seeking.
That sharper focus on the practical aspects of HMR, rather than the theory, was matched by the emphasis that the IDDA itself placed on fresh meals during the event.
It was typified by the ShowPlace area on the show floor, devoted entirely to HMR this year. Staffed counters, such as The Pizza Box pizza station and a sandwich station that featured interesting combinations and merchandising ideas, were spotlighted.
"Bringing everything together in one place like that was great," said Nancy Rand, deli supervisor for the nine-unit Quillin's, La Crosse, Wis. "You saw actual application for products and vendors were helpful. Last year, vendors didn't seem to have the answers, but this year in ShowPlace, and on the show floor, too, they answered questions very solidly."
"The cross tie-ins [at HMR ShowPlace] were good. Manufacturers are coming along, actually looking at retail as food service. They've taken a step up, offering us solutions, not just the product. They're showing us how to handle it, sell it, promote and merchandise it. That was obvious at the show," Kallesen said.
Vendors were more aggressive this year about asking retailers how they could help retailers with their HMR programs, said Terri Bennis, deli-bakery director at three-unit Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn.
New packaging for HMR was one thing that alerted Ray Hibdon, deli director at 12-unit Gooding's Supermarkets, Apopka, Fla., that suppliers are getting up to speed, he said.
"I saw evidence that manufacturers are getting more into the idea of HMR. More than anything else, I saw a tremendous number of new packages. I brought samples back with me," Hibdon said.
"I liked the family-size dome packages that you can put a whole chicken and side dishes in," he added.
Rand said she was impressed with heat-sealed packages for prepared foods and also by one manufacturer's cardboard insert that "makes a carrying tray out of a box." Manufacturers appear to be taking more steps to protect the integrity of freshly prepared foods for carryout, Kallesen noted.
"They, as well as we, are becoming more conscious of what it takes to deliver a product to the customer's table in good shape. They're taking into consideration the ride home in the car and how the customer is going to reconstitute the product," Kallesen said.
There was definitely more variety offered this year in the way of HMR packaging, agreed Gianfranco DiCarlo, vice president of deli-bakery-food service for 79-unit Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis. However, that is only one part of the equation, he cautioned.
"We're all getting so concerned about packaging and not paying enough attention to the content. Aside from packaging, I didn't see many new [HMR] products, at least none that were mind-boggling. Well, with the exception of one. It was the Mallard's HMR program; those sauces were great. Everyone of their products was just absolutely outstanding, in flavor, texture, style, uniqueness. If I were rating them, they'd get all the prizes," DiCarlo said.
Retailers were pleased with what the show had to offer and vendors were happy with consistently heavy traffic, said Carol Christison, the IDDA's executive director.
"We knew registration was going to be good because we thought it would be a destination area. The thing that really pleased us though was the people who did not go to Disney World but who actually stayed at the show. We had good traffic on the floor everyday. Generally, on the last day of a show, attendance on the floor falls off, but it stayed strong," Christison said.
She said feedback from retailers was positive. "They called the presentations 'real-life,' and said they were tired of hearing about theory. They felt we gave them information and resources they could take home and use. We particularly got good response about the HMR resource kit we gave retailers in HMR ShowPlace," Christison said. She said retailers saw the resource kit as a valuable blueprint for taking back to their organizations.
Attendance this year at the IDDA's convention hit a record 5,804, up from 5,495 last year. A record number of exhibiting companies, -- 399 with 750 booths -- included 96 first-time exhibitors. "There was a lot there. In fact, it took me the whole three days to get through it," said Hibdon at Gooding's.
The retailers SN interviewed also said they found the seminar program valuable. Rand and Bennis both said they particularly found the retailer panel on HMR energizing. They said it got them fired up to try new HMR ventures themselves.
Kallesen said that "We would have got our money's worth just with Scott Gross' and Harold Lloyd's talks," both of which were focused on customer service.
"Scott Gross talked about 'outrageous customer service' and also about how to interview. It sounds basic, but we in the supermarket business have so many policies that limit what we can do for the customer; we really need to rethink who we're hiring, train them and then give them some authority to use their own judgment," Kallesen added.
"I particularly liked the case merchandising to kids. We've incorporated a kids' menu in Martha's Kitchen [Harps' hot- food program]. We've got to compete somehow with Happy Meals," he said.
Meanwhile, Bennis said she took back merchandising ideas from HMR ShowPlace that she was able to use right away at Kowalski's.
"There were four or five things we implemented as soon as I got back. The prepared entree case [at HMR ShowPlace] was merchandised so well. We're using the chicken-pineapple idea, setting roasted chicken breasts on slices of fresh pineapple.