NEW ORLEANS -- Supermarket meals marketers are wasting their time studying other supermarkets and talking about "home-meal replacement."
That's what Ira Blumenthal, president of Co-Opportunities, an Atlanta-based consulting and marketing firm, told retailers at the Food Marketing Institute's advertising and marketing executives conference here earlier this month.
"Restaurants are your competition for meals," Blumenthal said. "There aren't that many supermarkets doing a good job of it. And 'home-meal replacement' doesn't mean a thing to consumers. But they do know about 'dinner.' " That is the meal in today's households that presents a dilemma, he noted.
Blumenthal stressed the need for supermarkets to focus their full attention on dinner, because it's where the big opportunities lie.
"Supermarkets have a long way to go to replace breakfast," he said. "People can grab a bagel or cereal quickly at home. It's not a big deal. And lunch may be in the company cafeteria, a vending machine, or a brown bag. It's dinner that presents the problem." And the quick-service and midrange restaurants have been successful in solving it, he pointed out.
Using color photography, bundling items for combo meals, offering "meal deals" like a free beverage for buying two sandwiches, and marketing to children have worked well in commercial food service, and they could also sell meals in the supermarket, he said.
"Go take a look at what they're doing at Pizza Hut or Bennigan's. Whether it's the menu, the menu board or a table tent, you'll see that every one of them has color photographs of their food all around. That's a big gap in the supermarket world. I don't see any color photography used like that, and yet people buy with their eyes. What you see at McDonald's is numbers and a big picture of a juicy, succulent burger and fries," Blumenthal said.
He also pointed out how bundled meals not only offer the customer convenience but create an easy extra sale.
"It started with the white-tablecloth restaurants with prix fixe meals," he said. "They'd give you an appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert, for a particular price, and then the fast-food people came up with a new term: 'combo meals.' But it means the same thing."
"With combo meals, the incidence of soft drinks and potato sales went through the roof," Blumenthal related. "My challenge to supermarkets is: You're the quintessential bundling environment. Every aisle in a supermarket has something that relates to something in another aisle, but supermarkets typically don't cross merchandise products."
He suggested creating a "deal" that appears to fall somewhere between a prix fixe dinner and a McDonald's combo meal. First, he recommended positioning all prepared-meal components in logical order in one place in the supermarket.
"You don't want to tell people they can buy an entree in your prepared-foods section, but if they want a salad they'll have to go elsewhere, and if they want dessert, they'll have to go to the frozen-food aisle," Blumenthal said. "You don't go to Steak & Ale and buy a steak, and then they tell you if you want dessert you'll have to go to Mrs. Fields Cookies."
Blumenthal urged retailers to think of the sales that are lost just because the dessert or salad isn't in the customer's line of vision.
He said that if a customer buying an entree doesn't see a salad or a dessert, he's apt to think there's probably salad stuff at home and he'll tell himself he can do without dessert today. In addition to merchandising all meal components in one place, a price incentive could sell the complete meal, Blumenthal suggested.
"For example, what if you let the customer pick one appetizer, one soup, one salad, one entree, and one dessert, for, say, $12.95?" he said. "Then if you show them it would cost more if they bought the components separately, you're showing them the value.
"And what about using bounce-back coupons? If you go to a restaurant, sometimes they'll give a coupon that gives you a dollar or two off your next meal to get you back again. You could do the same," he said.
Blumenthal also underscored two reasons to market to children: Busy parents are influenced by their children, and children are supermarkets' future customers.
"I think of kids as the veto vote," he noted. "They determine where the family's going for dinner. In a double-income world, we don't spend a lot of time with our kids. So when we do see them after work, we're catering to them as never before. We're apt to go where they want to eat." And that will probably be a restaurant that's offering premiums or dump-truck meals or Oreo shakes or something that's obviously targeting children, he added.
He suggested supermarkets get serious about attracting children's attention.
"Cut the legs off a merchandising case" to bring it down to the child's eye level, he suggested. "Or paint a case rainbow colors or get some cartoon characters and slam them up all around, or spend half a penny and get boxes printed up for the kids' meals."
Blumenthal concluded by emphasizing that the average consumer spends less than 15 minutes shopping for dinner and therefore is a prime candidate for impulse buys.
"First, the food has to look great, but also you should make it as easy as possible for the customer to put a meal together."