If you're seeking such meal planning assistance from the deli/ food-service department over the phone, the answer may be that they can be pretty helpful -- but there's room for improvement if the industry's objectives are easy access, comprehensive advice and some suggestive selling to build the sale of a complete meal.
So SN learned, in its first ever "secret shopper" sampling of how supermarkets dish out service on the front line.
The phone sample scenario: Call up stores as a time-stressed consumer, attempt to reach the deli department and then seek answers to a series of questions about pulling together a meal of supermarket-supplied rotisserie chickens, with sides or salads, for 20 people.
Ten stores operated by 10 companies around the country were picked in what was an essentially random fashion. SN questioned in-store staff on the cost of rotisserie chickens and potato salad, and inquired if a bakery cake could also be ordered. Additionally, staff members were asked to recommend other salads to complement the meal.
Overall performance was decidedly positive. The clerks answered the customer's inquiries with patience and courtesy in every instance, both at initial contact and once the interaction with the deli department was underway.
What's more, the information was provided fairly efficiently. When something wasn't known, in every instance, the clerk on the phone consulted with another staff member on the spot, or left the phone momentarily to find out the answer, whether it was the weight of an average chicken or an item's price per pound.
However, performance was typically weaker when it came to suggestive-selling or substantive assistance in actually planning a meal.
Not one clerk mentioned any other meat items, such as spare ribs or sausage and peppers, that could diversify the meal or make it more interesting, for example. And until specifically prompted, none suggested other salad items to round out the menu.
Only one deli staffer, at an HEB store in San Antonio, TX, overtly tried promotional tactics to close the sale of the chickens, once an initial inquiry into the price was made.
The woman said to let her know ahead of time when the chickens were to be served, because "we will try to cook it as close to your pickup time as possible, so that they will be hot, warm and juicy. If your party is for 7 p.m., we will try to have the chickens ready at 6 p.m."
A clerk at a Kroger store in Cincinnati said some special baked beans she was ordering that week would go well with the chicken and potato salad, and would gladly hold some; however, the party being planned for 20 was two weeks hence.
While rotisserie chickens have been a longtime staple of any deli hot food program, the clerks routinely were hesitant in their replies when asked how many people an average chicken served.
The recommendations on how many chickens would be needed to feed 20 people varied from five to 10 birds. That divergence existed even though, for the most part, the birds in the stores were in the range of one and a half to two pounds.
In essence, serving size was being left up primarily up to the judgment of the consumer. What's more, it seemed that the clerks were generally unprepared to deal with the question of how many servings their typical bird provided, as if they had never been asked that before.
"How many chickens you need depends upon the serving size, whether it is a quarter chicken or a half," said the clerk at a Safeway store in Oakland, Calif. Then she added tentatively, for 20 people "How about ten?" -- apparently seeking confirmation of that guess from the caller.
A clerk at an A&P unit in Atlanta answered the query about serving size by sharing an anecdote. "I took one home for my husband this week and he ate the whole thing," she said.
At a King Soopers in Denver, the deli staff conferred and recommended "five chickens," at the price of $4.69 each. One helpful clerk relayed the information that the average weight was one and a half to two pounds, after leaving the phone to actually weigh one.
At a Vons store in Los Angeles, the deli clerk also put the phone aside to quickly put a bird on a scale, after admitting to having no idea about the average weight of the chickens.
"Hello? About two pounds," she said, returning. Then, in response to the question of how many for a party of 20, she recommended "maybe about five chickens, if you cut them in four."
The deli at a Dominick's store in Chicago also recommended five chickens -- but they said their birds weighed three pounds on average.
And at a Bruno's in Sandy Springs, Ga., 8 two-pound chickens were suggested. "I guess a quarter could feed one person, but for 20, I'd say probably eight chickens, because one person might eat more than another," said the clerk, after some thought.
In all stores but one -- Grand Union -- the chickens were being sold by the unit, with prices ranging from $3.99 to $4.99 for each chicken. A clerk at a Stop & Shop store in Boston mentioned that they sold half-chickens, as well.
And despite all the industry's hoopla over the potential for selling "family dinners" to compete with the likes of a Boston Market, only one deli clerk mentioned a meal package wherein the chickens and side salads could be purchased at a savings.
"For $7.99, you can get the whole chicken, two pounds of salads and biscuits or corn bread," said the clerk at the Vons unit. Otherwise, a chicken itself is $4.99 and two pounds of potato salad would be $3.98, the clerk said.
In all cases, deli staffers said they would prefer to have orders for the chickens placed 24 hours in advance, to ensure there would be an ample supply.
Only the A&P store requested more advanced notice -- an order should be placed on Thursday for a Saturday pickup, said the clerk.
When the inquiry turned to potato salad, all the clerks responded quickly with a recitation of prices.
On the other hand, given a moment to mull the question of what else would go well with chicken, they all came up with responses but didn't seem ready to go the next step -- to offer more comprehensive meal planning suggestions.
After explaining that potato salad is $2.79 per pound, Grand Union's clerk responded to the question about other appropriate salads with an upbeat, "Sure. We have a couple of pasta salads and macaroni and coleslaw and a string bean salad in oriental sauce, a Greek pasta salad with eta cheese and spinach salad."
When specifically asked if the store could provide enough salad servings for a party of 20 on the spot, he said there would probably be a sufficient supply of salads on hand. But to be safe, he continued, "you are better off ordering in advance. Just call."
A female staffer at the Vons unit was one of the few who not only provided a roster of salads, but made unsolicited recommendations.
"The cucumber, tomato and onion salad -- that goes very well with chicken and that is $3.99. We make that in-store," she said.
At the Dominick's in Chicago, an affable deli manager, obviously proud of his selection, said, "We have all kinds, 35 different kinds of salads. So stop in and take a look at what you want.
"We have coleslaw, three bean salad, tuna. We have smoky bean, low fat bean, all kinds. There are so many of them," he said.
When asked if the salads are made in-store, he replied, "We make them in our commissary, fresh all the time for us."
Indeed, every clerk save one knew whether the potato salad was made fresh at store level or brought in already prepared.
While trying to be accommodating, a slight language barrier may have prevented the clerk at the King Soopers in Denver from adequately responding to a question regarding where the salads are made.
She did, however, provide information on what salads were available. "We have coleslaw, macaroni, three bean salad, and what else -- the potato and cheddar cheese salad," she said. Additionally, she noted that the potato salad, regularly $1.59 per pound, was on sale for $1.49 per pound, and an order for a future date could be placed "today" at the sale price.
Prices of the delis' potato salads ranged from $1.49 to $2.99 per pound, with special deals offered, including a three-pound container for $2.79 at HEB and a four-pound container for $4.99 at Safeway.
Only the deli manager at Dominick's offered a suggestion on how much potato salad to buy. "Five or six pounds for that many people is more than enough," he said.
All the supermarkets contacted also sold birthday cakes from the in-store bakery. But, as with the chickens, the serving size recommendations of cake for a party of 20 varied. Some said to go with the quarter-sheet cake, others said the half-sheet was the right choice.
And two of the delis -- at Bruno's in Sandy Springs, Ga., and the Kroger in Cincinnati -- offered one-stop shopping convenience when cake was introduced into the equation.
"If you placed an order for chickens with my deli manager, she would see to it. You wouldn't even have to talk to the bakery. She would take care of it. She would talk to the bakery," said the clerk at Bruno's.
"You can order everything through us," said the deli clerk at Kroger, who, after consulting with a colleague, recommended the half-sheet cake, decorated with roses, at $23.99 for the occasion.
In all the other stores contacted, the clerks said an order for the cake would have to be placed separately; and as with the deli items, most cake orders required a 24-hour advance notice.
"All you need is one day's notice," said a cheerful man at the Montvale, N.J. Grand Union bakery. "A quarter-sheet cake would suffice for 20 people. It is $18.99, and with fresh fruit it is $2 extra."
H-E-B in San Antonio required a two-day advance notice and a deposit for the cake, "half of what the purchase is," according the bakery associate.
Once the secret shopper connected with the stores, navigating by phone to the delis, and then subsequently the supermarket bakeries, was not very difficult.
However, at one supermarket, the A&P in Atlanta, SN was repeatedly met with a busy signal when dialing the store's main number. The call finally went through after the fifth try in an hour and a half.
And a first attempt to phone the deli at a Stop & Shop store in Boston was also unsuccessful, due to a tied-up line.
Another big positive was that not a single store employee was gruff or unfriendly, no matter how many questions the shopper posed.
After patiently explaining the cake prices saying "a quarter sheet cake starts at $11.99 and a half sheet cake starts at $18.99," he added that "they'd like as much advance notice as possible" for special cake orders, but "24 hours" is fine as well.
There was a wide range of opinion among deli staffers regarding how many rotisserie chickens you'd need to feed 20 people.
While five birds was answer repeated most often, that answer was based on birds that weighed anywhere from a pound and a half to three pounds. suggestions went all the way up to 10 chickens; and in almost every case, the answer was presented more as a guess than an authoritative opinion.
Part of the problem was figuring out a proper serving size. Opinions swung from a quarter chicken per person, to one clerk's assertion that her husband recently ate a whole chicken himself.
National broiler council: A spokeswoman for the broiler industry association said the typical suggested serving of roasted chicken breast is 4 to 6 ounces. If the birds weigh about two pounds each, four birds should take care of a party of 20, the spokeswoman reasoned.
Boston Market: An outlet on 23rd Street in Manhattan recommended eight whole chickens to feed 20, which it would sell in the form of four "family meals," each of which offers 2 birds and two sides dishes for 5 to 6 people. The store manager said Boston Market's birds weigh in at three pounds uncooked, or one-and-a-half pounds cooked.