Supermarket executives worrying that their meals programs may be inferior to other meal replacers is one thing.But if consumers -- consumers out there buying ready-made meals regularly -- say that Boston Market and similar operators outperform supermarkets, and by far, that becomes a clear sign of missed opportunities.Consumers said just that, in a two-pronged research study commissioned by the International

Supermarket executives worrying that their meals programs may be inferior to other meal replacers is one thing.

But if consumers -- consumers out there buying ready-made meals regularly -- say that Boston Market and similar operators outperform supermarkets, and by far, that becomes a clear sign of missed opportunities.

Consumers said just that, in a two-pronged research study commissioned by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis.

What could be even more sobering for supermarket meal strategists is that most of the consumers interviewed for the study said they don't even think of supermarkets as an option when they're looking to put tonight's dinner on the table without home preparation.

"What kept coming up time after time was that Boston Market's food tastes good, it's fresh, it's familiar, there's variety, and kids like it," said Rosita Thomas, vice president of research operations at Frederick Schneiders Research, Washington, one of the firms that interviewed consumers for the IDDA.

"Consumers also liked it that Boston Market prices by the meal. By contrast, supermarkets got low marks on those criteria," Thomas said.

IDDA will publish the complete results of the study early next month. In interviews with SN, the researchers and IDDA's leadership said the data offer both a call to action and some tips for what kinds of action might be most effective to better position supermarkets.

They surely need repositioning. According to the study -- a summary of which was first presented to the industry at IDDA's convention last month -- when consumers aren't in the mood to cook the supermarket is the last place that comes to mind as a place to buy dinner. It is the Boston Market-type operator that leaps to mind first.

A full 66% of those surveyed agreed they "don't think about going to the grocery store to get already made dinners." And 51% said they would never think of the supermarket for that purpose.

On all nine criteria -- things such as good taste, freshness, and consistency -- Boston Market and the West Coast's Koo Koo Roos chain (with a menu that is comparable to Boston Market's) held a strong lead over supermarkets.

The good news for supermarket operators is that the research also showed they could help their meals programs close that gap, at least to some degree, by making some relatively simple changes in their operations and marketing.

Those aids include offering samples, guaranteeing the freshness of prepared foods, and instituting per-meal pricing instead of by-the-pound pricing, all of which consumers said would go a long way toward winning them over to the supermarket's prepared-food case. Managing variety of product so there's something familiar for everybody in the family would help, too, they said.

The study was aimed ultimately at finding out what supermarkets can do to improve their HMR product offerings and their positioning in the minds of consumers vs. those other HMR operators.

It was conducted jointly by Frederick Schneiders and Willard Bishop Consulting, a supermarket research and consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill. IDDA collaborated on the design of the project.

The survey involved three focus groups and 900 phone surveys in three regions of the United States -- northern Virginia, Chicago and Los Angeles -- and targeted consumers who frequent Boston Market and similar establishments.

"For this study, we went to the nonsupermarket side of the camp," said Carol Christison, executive director of IDDA. "We wanted to find out why consumers are doing their home-meal replacement shopping at Boston Market and what they particularly like about it. And we did get a wealth of information that can be a help in forming marketing strategies in our industry."

To qualify as focus group members or survey respondents, consumers had to frequent Boston Market or Koo Koo Roos at least a few times a month. They also had to be the primary food shopper for their household and had to have purchased prepared food in the supermarket at some time.

To keep the comparisons balanced and on-target, the study covered consumers' attitudes and perceptions toward hot, ready-to-eat food only; not chilled, prepared meals or components. And the focus was on dinner, since it was determined that's the eating occasion that gives supermarkets the most competition from quick-service restaurants and fast-food establishments.

The study indicated that, for starters, supermarkets could compete better if they adopted procedures that would give consumers an increased perception of freshness.

"Replenish their cases frequently, for example," Christison said. "Even if the product wasn't cooked in the last 10 minutes, the perception is that it's fresh, and, to the consumer, perception is reality.

"In focus groups, consumers told us that sometimes at Boston Market they have to wait for a chicken to cook, or until more potatoes are ready. They saw that as a plus because it meant the food was fresh. They said the food in supermarkets, by contrast, is sitting there waiting for them," she said.

The research found that 37% of consumers would be "much more likely to buy" and another 30% would be "somewhat more likely to buy" meals from supermarkets, if the food were guaranteed fresh.

Sampling would be a good way to convince them it's fresh, said Keith Frederick, president of Frederick Schneiders Research, in his presentation of research data at IDDA's convention.

Thirty-one percent of consumers in the study said they would be "much more likely to buy" HMR from supermarkets if samples were offered, and 36% said they would be "somewhat more likely to buy" if samples were offered.

The research team uncovered revealing data via the telephone surveys that contrast consumers' attitudes about Boston Market and Koo Koo Roos with their attitudes about supermarket prepared food.

For example, 67% of respondents "strongly agreed" that "food is always fresh" at Boston Market and Koo Koo Roos, but only 17% strongly agreed that is true of supermarket hot food.

Opening an even wider gap, 75% "strongly agreed" that food tastes good at Boston Market and Koo Koo Roos, but only 19% said that about hot food at supermarkets.

Sixty-nine percent strongly agreed that they "know what will be offered" at the two restaurant chains, but only 25% said that about supermarket hot food.

Consumers wanted to know what would be there when they got there, they wanted to know how much it would cost and they also wanted food that kids will eat, the researchers said.

In fact, on the subject of Boston Market and Koo Koo Roos food, 66% of respondents "strongly agreed" that "kids like it." By comparison, 17% responded that way about supermarkets' prepared food.

"The consumers we interviewed seemed to feel that Boston Market cares about the family because they have items kids like. That was important even to people who don't have children. It seems to be a positive selling point," Thomas said.

Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, in his presentation of some of the data at the IDDA expo, said consumers' perception of variety appears to differ from some retailers' definition of variety.

"Variety doesn't mean 200 items. It's not the number; instead, it's their relevance to your target audience. Boston Market has less than 25 items," Bishop said. He pointed out, however, that there's something there that every member of the family will eat. And he pointed out that comfort foods, items people are familiar with, dominate the menu.

Sixty-six percent of consumers strongly agreed that Boston Market has nutritional food; while 22% said supermarkets do. On the subject of price, 51% strongly agreed that food at Boston Market is affordable, while 19% responded that way about supermarket prepared food.

Noting that consumers said they frequent Boston Market because the food is "not fast food," Thomas said she would urge supermarkets to underscore the nutritious qualities of their offerings. That's because consumers surveyed indicated that Boston Market fare was far from the ultimate in "healthy." They referred to it many times as "greasy" and "not healthy," she said.

Thomas also commented on the necessity for supermarkets to change their methods of pricing in order to attract HMR customers.

"Another thing that was important to consumers was the pricing. They said when they go to Boston Market, they know they can get a meal for themselves for $4.99, but that they have no idea how much it will cost them to buy a meal for themselves or their family at a supermarket," Thomas said. That's because in most supermarkets prepared food is priced by the pound, she said.

"They said they don't know how much of something to order. When an item is $5.99 a pound, they can't judge how much it's going to cost to feed the family," Thomas said.

"Pricing by the pound and not by the item creates confusion for the consumer," David Bishop, analyst at Willard Bishop Consulting, said. "I think that's one of the reasons supermarkets aren't seen as a viable option for home-meal replacement. For someone on a budget, it's important to know how much their meal is going to cost."

In fact, how the food is priced turned out to be an important factor when researchers asked consumers what supermarkets could do to induce them to buy their meals from them.

Thinking of You

Many consumers do not think of supermarkets when they don't feel like cooking dinner, despite the lengths many stores go to create meals business.

Research conducted for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association showed more than half would never think of a supermarket for home-meal replacement. The chart shows what they do think of when not in the mood for cooking.

How often do you think of the following alternatives to cooking your own dinner?

Never Once a Week Two to Seven Times a Week

8% 58% 30% Boston Market/Koo Koo Roos

14% 56% 28% Takeout pizza/Chinese

17% 55% 27% Eat-in family style

23% 57% 18% Eat-in fine dining

51% 35% 12% Supermarket hot food

For a host of attributes, supermarket prepared foods were significantly outclassed by home-meal replacement operators Boston Market and Koo Koo Roos, at least in the eyes of consumers in this study.

Many more consumers, for example, said they would "strongly agree" that the "food tastes good" at those HMR outlets than said they'd strongly agree to that statement applied to supermarket prepared foods. The smallest gap in comparing those who "strongly agree" was for the attribute "affordable."

The chart below shows the percentages of consumers who said they would "strongly agree" with the following attributes as applied to Boston Market/Koo Koo Roos and to supermarkets.

Boston Market/Koo Koo RoosSupermarket Prepared Foods

Food tastes good 75% 19%

You know what will be offered 69%25%

Food is always fresh 67% 17%

Food you don't make yourself 67% 18%

Kids like it 66% 17%

Nutritional food 66% 22%

It is affordable 51% 19%

Source: Frederick Schneiders Research