Not many retailers would deny there is a real public demand for time-saving conveniences, and a concurrent desire for easy, fresh alternatives to the home-cooked meal.
But still, only a few retailers are going so far as to bring hot meals to consumers' doors. Home delivery is a challenging, even risky venture for supermarkets, said retailers interviewed by SN, even if it would clearly make supermarket home-meal replacement a more convenient choice.
So far, the HMR home-delivery field has mostly been cultivated by a small number of independents scattered in different areas, who typically already have a reputation for fine fresh food and impeccable service.
Even within these ranks, no straight and true road leads to success, retailers said. Some have chosen to undertake the entire responsibility of delivery; others will only outsource to independent courier services; and still others are doing both, matching the specific order with the most expedient and cost effective means of meeting it.
SN talked to three such operators, all in the state of Ohio, who embody these three approaches: West Point Market, Jungle Jim and Dorothy Lane Market.
West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, performs all the delivery functions in-house, using its two trucks and a dedicated uniformed delivery staff to fill the bill.
"We receive a variety of orders," said Vanessa Jacot, food-service director, "Bakery orders, catering, our dinners, box lunches and party trays." Orders must be preplanned with 24- to 48-hours notice required to ensure delivery, she said.
"We have also added to our product offerings. Now we have our Take Me Home meals that serve between two and 40. These specialized homemade meals include entrees, side dishes, appetizers, salads and soups to mix and match."
Jungle Jim, Fairfield, Ohio offers door-to-door delivery seven days a week, and it relies on an independent courier service to do the leg work.
Orders range from $600 to $700 party tray orders, to individual box lunches. Special orders are accepted and changes and substitutions are accommodated. "Our brochure is only a guide," said Bev McKinney, catering director.
While some operators consider reliance on a third party a risk, Jungle Jim decided that trying to keep the operation in-house posed real worries.
"We used to do the deliveries ourselves. But with a tight food-production schedule, often the delivery schedule had to dovetail," McKinney explained. "Then, we were at risk of disappointing our customers, so we sought outside courier services."
But the independent knew that reliability would make or break the operation. "The No. 1 goal is for the product to get to the customer on time," said McKinney. "It is often imperative that items arrive at a certain time. At-home parties or family gatherings are not flexible."
Not only are individual consumers seeking a decent, quick meal for home delivery. Businesses are turning increasingly to delivery service to cater meetings and parties, the Ohio retailers said.
"The ideal delivery service would be one that dealt strictly with food," said McKinney of Jungle Jim. "That would be ideal."
In addition to entertaining, corporate functions and family gatherings, retailers noted that sending gifts -- ranging from fruit baskets to complete meals -- is another order segment that is calling upon their home-delivery services.
Jacot of West Point Market estimated that half of the orders typically scheduled for delivery are signature items, being sent as gifts.
Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, has offered deliveries of meals-oriented fresh items, such as signature box lunches and party trays for over a decade. The box lunches are delivered either by the operator's own vans or, when time is tight and there is at least a one-hour advance notice, by outside courier.
"The courier delivers anything," said Donna Howell, deli manager, Dorothy Lane. To keep control of the business, only corporate accounts, credit card or prepaid orders are eligible for delivery. The delivery fee is calculated by zip code; and Dorothy Lane does add a small mark-up.
There are formidable obstacles to delivery programs, however. One such hurdle is finding and using the right packaging to transport foods, especially if the goal is to keep them warm and fresh.
Retailers report that packaging can run 6% to 7% of total cost, adding to the dilemma whether home-delivery can boost sales, only to erode margins at the other end.
"We look for packaging that prevent leaks, keeps hot food hot and cold foods cold," said one midsized Eastern retailer who has been experimenting with delivery. "Lack of performance in packaging can drive customers away. Insulated, tightly sealed packages can win friends."
The opposite possibility is what scares retailers. "If the presentation is bad, the food is bad in the consumer's mind," said McKinney of Jungle Jim.
It has proven so hard for even the experienced retailers to get food to its destination fresh and hot and right that some supermarket food-service providers opt for the "cold-only" approach to their delivered foods.
The retailers interviewed by SN emphasized that failing to meet customer expectations for prompt delivery of hot, appetizing meals is a sure recipe for failure.
On the other hand, packaging is a marketing tool. Chilled and ready-to-cook items coming from West Point Market are each prepackaged using the classic presentation of the operators orange ribbon and gold seal logo.
For those without staff and vehicles, the use of courier services and independent delivery services are another hurdle that retailers must leap over if they want to offer consumers the convenience of delivery.
"Independent couriers can be a nightmare. Occasionally they come late or get lost," said Jungle Jim's McKinney. "When we give our customers our word an order will be there at a particular time, we want to honor that commitment. We went through 8 to 10 services before we found our current courier."
For Dorothy Lane, the use of third-party deliverers is definitely considered a compromise. "No matter how good they are, our outside courier service just does not have the individual touch that our own Dorothy Lane Market drivers have," said Howell.
But forward-thinkers will continue to explore delivery and other alternatives for raising the bar on convenience in their operations.
"We strive to accommodate our own customers," said Howell. "We are even exploring adding a drive-through window to further service our customers for Bistro To Go complete dinners."
What's ahead? The next step for some may be breaking new ground on what types of food consumers can expect to have delivered.
"Consumers want more than pizza and Chinese," said the midsized Eastern retailer. "They are looking for steaks, prime rib and fajitas."