Retailers are cultivating their deli self-service programs and are reaping benefits that go way beyond labor savings for them and convenience for their customers.By allotting more space to grab-and-go, merchandising aggressively and positioning impulse displays, they're making the case a one-stop shop for lunch or dinner by bolstering the sandwich category and adding variety; dedicating one person

Retailers are cultivating their deli self-service programs and are reaping benefits that go way beyond labor savings for them and convenience for their customers.

By allotting more space to grab-and-go, merchandising aggressively and positioning impulse displays, they're making the case a one-stop shop for lunch or dinner by bolstering the sandwich category and adding variety; dedicating one person to oversee merchandising and restocking; and bringing everything together, from soup to dessert.

"I keep seeing the same faces day after day at lunchtime, and they bring new people in with them," one retailer told SN.

Gelatin rings and corn dogs have taken a back seat to things that move -- briskly -- like fresh, tasty sandwiches and salads and single slices of cake.

At Roche Bros., Wellesley Hills, Mass., a spot, mobile display of packaged deli salads in front of the deli counter has sped up the line at the service deli and simultaneously has boosted total deli sales significantly.

"As they come up to the service deli, customers grab one of those -- they're the traditional deli salads like pasta and potato -- before they order. It saves time because it decreases the number of items they purchase at service, but it increased total deli sales," said Paul McGillivray, vice president, perishables, for the 14-unit Roche Bros.

The deli salads, made in the chain's central facility, are packed in-store in 16-ounce and 24-ounce, see-through, showcase containers. The company also has tweaked its "homestyle" island displays of central kitchen-made items, including sandwiches.

"One beneficial thing we did was add coffin-style endcaps at either end of those multi-deck cases for mass merchandising of a particular category or featured item; for example, all plated dinners one week, then all calzones next," McGillivray said.

Like other retailers, Roche Bros. has added some footage to its self-service displays over the past two or three years. Typical new installations call for a 32-foot to 36-foot, three-deck, island case, McGillivray said. But he was quick to point out that "these cases shouldn't get too big because rotation is critical -- shelf life on many of the items is just a few days."

At Quillin's, LaCrosse, Wis., space for self-service has been expanded by more than 20% in the last year.

"That's primarily because we added a cheese island. We got into imports more, and we're trying to pair them with wines. We have little tags on the cheeses that suggest which wine would go well with them," said Tony Doering, senior deli manager, for the nine-unit independent.

Taking cheese to a separate case made room in existing 16-foot, island deli cases for other, related items, Doering said.

"We added prepacked desserts. Bringing them in gives us more variety and saves on labor, but it's also because of the niceness of the product. There's a cheesecake we get in single-serve and double-serve triangular packages. People love it," Doering said.

Previously, the chain had occasionally merchandised some single-serve desserts in the case, but not on a consistent basis because they were portioned and packed up in the deli, and there was not always the labor to do it. Variety in the case and the fact that it offers a meal from start to finish are crucial factors, Doering said.

"We have some cut fruit in there and little snack-type things people want to pick up with sandwiches. Cheese curd is a big thing in this part of the country. We get it in bulk and pack it up in little bags. And the top shelf of that 16-foot-long case is completely filled with single-serve beverages like milk, iced tea and bottled water. We have vendors fighting for that space. Customers like it. They don't want to go back to another part of the store to get something to drink."

Doering and others told SN that they've earned their success because they've paid attention to what customers want: convenience, yes, but also variety, quality, and definitely freshness.

"You have to build the customers' trust. They have to know that what's in that self-service case is as fresh or fresher than what they've bought at our service deli over the years," said Ed Meyer, vice president, deli-seafood-prepared foods, at 104-unit Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.

"We don't take a chance. Our sandwiches are on the shelf one day only. We have customers with time constraints and sure they want convenience but they also want a product that's at its peak of quality. I'll get that customer back day after day if he can count on what he gets here. Do something wrong just one day, and he'll go somewhere else and maybe get hooked there," Meyer said.

He said Schnuck has increased its self-service sandwich space by as much as 40% over the last couple of years and sales have risen significantly. The chain is experimenting right now with various items in the case, such as apples and single-serve pickles, to see what customers buy with sandwiches.

"We're not doing much with whole gelatin rings. We're putting things in there that'll sell in a day."

Other industry sources pointed to Schnuck as a pacesetter when it comes to good, well-maintained, self-service deli cases.

"Retailers need to decide if they want to be in the business of selling space to the highest bidder in every spot in the store or if they want to build a long-term clientele by solving their needs," said chef Dan Giacoletto, a retail food industry veteran who's based in Akron, Pa. "They could use their self-service deli to do that. Retailers like Schnuck, Dierberg's, Hen House, H-E-B, Marsh, some Publix, Bristol Farms, Thornton's and maybe two dozen more actually 'get it' and are successful. They orchestrate their cases to produce sales, not just fill space. And they place them strategically in the traffic pattern and take care of them."

Marcia Schurer, president, Culinary Connections, a Chicago-based consulting firm, said there are few chains that are giving daily attention to their deli self-service cases and to what customers want.

"There is certainly more space being devoted to packages, but if what's in those containers doesn't perform well, those customers won't be back. It has to be fresh and it has to taste good," Schurer said.

She explained that many big chains are bringing deli items in from the outside that have no distinctive qualities and aren't necessarily what their customers want to buy.

"We know people want to buy single portions of things, but it's hard to get supermarkets to do single-serve containers of anything. If they had, say, a quarter pound of some items, you'd see more people picking them up. But there's the cost in packaging and more stocking of the shelves."

Retailers who do it right stand out, she said.

"You can tell Whole Foods cares about its food, and when I walked into a Roche Bros. store, I wanted to buy what was in their self-service case. It looked good. It looked fresh. They pay attention. They dedicate someone to watch over that case."

Morton Williams Associated, Bronx, N.Y., pays attention to what customers want and then makes sure they see it. Newly installed, custom-designed, tiered island cases were crafted to catch the customer's eye, said Richard Travaglione, vice president, deli and meat operations, for the nine-unit retailer that has eight stores in Manhattan.

"All you see is beautiful food," Travaglione said, and explained that he's a stickler for packaging that shows what's in it.

"I get single-serving cake slices from a supplier who uses our specs, and we tell them how to pack the cake and label it. It's in a triangular box and we have them put the label on the side, curling under the bottom so that when you look at the top you see wonderful cake, not a bunch of paper labels."

Each Morton Williams store has two of the tiered, grab-and-go cases. The entire top shelf of one is devoted to single-portion desserts, and the top shelf of the other one is devoted to other single-serve items such as small containers of chicken wings and small, pillow packs of tissue paper-thin slices of Italian cold cuts.

The prepacked, branded, Italian items are an example of one way self-service can be better than service, Travaglione said. At one time, Morton Williams had offered Italian cold cuts in the service deli, but associates didn't seem to be able to slice them thin enough. Nobody wants a hunk of prosciutto; it has to be almost see-through thin. Now the prepacked items, in 10 varieties sliced properly by the manufacturer, are selling extremely well, he said.

Other retailers told SN they've changed packaging for their sandwiches to show off the product better, and also to give them more of a "just-made" look. Film wrap, or a heavier gauge, see-through bag, is rapidly replacing rigid, plastic containers for sandwiches except for soft-filling ones like tuna fish, retailers said.

Simple, see-through packaging and obvious, constant restocking of grab-and-go cases both are doing the job of letting customers know the products are fresh, retailers said -- so much so that the curtain has gone down, in many cases, on the "theater" that was used in the past to send the "fresh" message.

"I see fewer and fewer retailers making sandwiches out in the open. They're making them in the kitchen, wrapping them and bringing them out to the self-service case, often. It's becoming a big segment of the deli business. The sandwiches look like they've just been made an hour ago, not like some factory-made thing," said Ed Weller, president, The Weller Co., a Tucson, Ariz., consulting firm that works with supermarkets and manufacturers.

"Sandwich programs and roasted, whole chickens just grow and grow. It seems there's a learning curve going on. What we in the deli thought was home-meal replacement didn't work in most cases," Weller continued. "We put a lot of labor into trying to sell roast beef meals with potatoes and coleslaw, that kind of thing. Well, now that a lot of us have stopped that, it that has freed up labor to do good sandwich- and salad-making. We're making a lot of our own and keeping the menu short."

Grabbing A Lesson

NEW YORK -- When it comes to the grab-and-go lunch business, supermarket delis could take a lesson from Pret A Manger, a Britain-based company that feeds discerning and in-a-hurry New Yorkers by the thousands every day and rings up sales that keep growing.

Self-service from a long row of gleaming cases is the backbone of Pret A Manger's format, and quality, freshness and consistency are the hallmarks that have brought the company success in Manhattan over the last two years. The company, acquired last year by McDonald's Corp., opened its first U.S. unit two summers ago in New York's financial district [see "Fresh, Fast, Friendly," SN, 11/27/00]. Since then, it has opened 11 additional units in Manhattan and is set to add four more in the next few months, officials said.

Particularly notable is the absence of "theater" in the form of made-to-order sandwich stations or out-in-the-open prep areas. What creates action here is the constant restocking of shelves with packaged sandwiches made in the kitchen. Most sandwiches are packed in wedge-shaped, windowed containers displayed so that the sandwich's contents are visible.

In front of each variety, a product card names the sandwich and lists its ingredients in large type. In addition to rows of the wedge-shaped packs, there are also some baguette sandwiches wrapped in plastic film. Salads, and more recently, containers of sushi have a place on the shelf, too. Single-serve desserts such as individual key lime pies and slices of carrot cake and single-serve beverages are next in line on the way to the cash register. Service isn't necessary to send the "fresh message," managers told SN.

"I can get in and out quickly, but most important is that I can count on Pret's sandwiches to be fresh. They're making them in the back all the time. There are some interesting combinations, like avocado on whole grain with arugula and parmesan cheese. There's enough variety. I come here several times a week," one customer said.