DELI BRAND SWITCH TESTS CUSTOMERS' LOYALTIES

DALLAS -- Two of the nation's leading retailers are duking it out in a battle for consumer preferences in deli meats.Safeway's Tom Thumb division and Kroger Co. have taken out full-page ads in local newspapers vying for brand loyalty -- Boar's Head in the case of Kroger, and Primo Taglio at Tom Thumb.Primo Taglio, rolled out as part of Safeway's Private Selections store-brand umbrella, met with some

DALLAS -- Two of the nation's leading retailers are duking it out in a battle for consumer preferences in deli meats.

Safeway's Tom Thumb division and Kroger Co. have taken out full-page ads in local newspapers vying for brand loyalty -- Boar's Head in the case of Kroger, and Primo Taglio at Tom Thumb.

Primo Taglio, rolled out as part of Safeway's Private Selections store-brand umbrella, met with some resistance when it was introduced to Tom Thumb shoppers accustomed to buying national-brand Boar's Head meats and cheeses.

But Boar's Head had withdrawn from Safeway's stores.

"Boar's Head felt they wanted to be Safeway's exclusive premium deli product," said Debra Lambert, corporate director, public affairs for Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, adding that Boar's Head pulled out of Safeway prior to Primo Taglio's debut.

Safeway's ad positions Primo Taglio as a high-end item, declaring, "Now! Exclusively at Tom Thumb." It also includes a chart comparing the quality, selection and ingredients of Primo Taglio with Boar's Head.

Kroger quickly took advantage of the switch by running its own ads touting the availability of Boar's Head at their Dallas-area stores. The ad, separated from Tom Thumb's by a mere six pages in one recent edition of the Dallas Morning News, features the Boar's Head logo and the text, "It's worth hunting for." A list of Kroger stores carrying Boar's Head products followed.

Kroger officials declined to comment on the battle, but a spokesman for the retailer told the newspaper that Boar's Head is ranked No. 1 at all Kroger stores that carry the product.

For their part, Boar's Head said they withdrew from Safeway's stores because the company felt the retailer was "increasingly focusing its efforts on marketing their own in-house store brand," at Boar's Head's expense, according to a company spokeperson, who asked not to be identified. She added that the decision affected 210 Safeway stores, including Tom Thumb, Vons Pavilions, Randall's and Genuardi's.

"Boar's Head has extensive customer service and training, which include salesmanship, product knowledge and product safety issues," they continued, adding the company has very strict training for its distributors and deli counters.

"Safeway has probably the highest standards in the industry," Lambert responded. "Two very strong operational aspects of our company are outstanding customer service, with training regarding appropriate food handling."

Safeway indeed got the opportunity to put its customer service resources into action after the pullout, as shoppers began to ask questions.

"Stores posted signs and we trained all our employees to address why Boar's Head was no longer available at Texas Safeways and what [Primo Taglio] was," said Lambert.

Indeed, while the ads are the most visible aspect of competition, the matter is truly focused on the customer.

"These ads are a very savvy marketing move," said Joan Vieweger, a partner in Los Angeles-based Perspectives/The Consulting Group. "The role that brand loyalty plays for those consumers who have a particular brand affinity speaks volumes to the retailer with respect to identifying revenue and profit opportunities."

The departure of Boar's Head from Safeway speaks to the larger of issue of the "store brand and national brand dance," said Mona Doyle, president The Consumer Network, Philadelphia, who emphasized that it takes skill for a retailer to support its store brand without being overbearing.

"It's a question of what the consumer is ready to accept," she said. "There's a difference between a retailer who says to consumers, 'We're proud of our store brand, try it,' and one who pushes his own brand at the expense of a national brand."

Safeway's Lambert noted that the chain introduces its private-label brands with "a lot of in-store demos, sampling and generous coupon giveaways to illustrate the quality of the product," which is often done in tandem with one-page ads in local newspapers, as was the case with Primo Taglio.

"We do feel the customer needs to be coddled, but we also feel we're better than a national brand," Lambert said, noting that Safeway is not only a chain but also a manufacturer, operating 41 plants in the U.S. and Canada.

Boar's Head has its own success formula.

"To embark on and maintain a successful relationship, the store and vendor agree on how they want to conduct business -- regarding all the elements of having the product in the store -- so there's never a cause for concern," said the company spokesperson.

All parties agreed that, ultimately, consumers will decide which deli meat is the one they prefer. Brand loyalists may be more partial to switching stores to buy Boar's head, while those who are not may find a new favorite in Safeway's Primo Taglio. In the end, it's a matter of good taste, observers said.

"To the extent that a brand delivers on its promise, people will seek out that brand's products," Vieweger said.