NORTHEAST DELIS FACE DEMANDING SHOPPERS

BOSTON -- Leaner products, more convenience, top quality -- all at lower prices -- are what New England consumers were looking for in meat and deli departments this past year.That tall order was described by retailers informally polled by SN earlier this month at the annual Taste Show of the New England Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, which was held at the Bayside Exposition Center here.An executive

BOSTON -- Leaner products, more convenience, top quality -- all at lower prices -- are what New England consumers were looking for in meat and deli departments this past year.

That tall order was described by retailers informally polled by SN earlier this month at the annual Taste Show of the New England Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, which was held at the Bayside Exposition Center here.

An executive with one of the nation's leading wholesale companies, who asked not to be named, said spiral-sliced hams emerged as one of the best products this season for the supermarkets he supplies, with excellent Easter sales at an average price of $2 per pound. "The boneless, skinless, shankless, party-ready hams were the hottest items this season," he said.

He also said there is continuing growth in the variety of ethnic foods that people are buying. "People are doing more experimental eating."

And in the prepared foods area, chicken is by far the best moving item, said the wholesaler, who predicted more growth in prepared poultry.

Representatives from another chain said its big deli meat sellers this year were roast beef and turkey. "People are looking for a high-quality turkey," said John Lucci, store manager for Lucci's Supermarkets, Wilmington, Mass., adding that variety is also important. "We used to have two turkeys, now we have five." Turkey choices now include honey glazed, smoked and oven roasted.

Consumers also have been trying more of the low-salt cheeses. Generally, he said, while customers are somewhat willing to pay more for these items, they are also demanding that the quality

be there.

Cheryl Bona, owner of White Market, Landonville, Vt., accompanied by Cindy Burrington, deli manager for the company, said low-fat, fat-free and low-salt deli products are becoming increasingly popular.

Bona said takeout sandwiches, and hot deli foods with a focus on single-serve items, also did a big business for her company this past year.

"People are in such a hurry that they want things done for them," she said. "The less [preparation] that has to be done the better." Shoppers want their food "ready to eat," she said.

Bona said her customers like fresh-prepared foods. "And we tend to do everything on premises. Homemade items seem to really sell."

Frank Reilly, poultry buyer for Demoulas Super Markets, Tewksbury, Mass., said chicken and turkey sales had been very strong over the past year due to consumers' continuing concerns about the amount of fat and cholesterol in their diets.

Otherwise, he said, "a lot of fast foods, cooked foods and anything that's quick and easy" also did well. "But," he added, "also anything with the right price."

For instance, when bacon has been featured at a good price it sells out, despite its high fat content, he said.

Ed Murphy, deli manager for Vista Foods, Manchester, N.H., a division of Associated Grocers of New England, said turkey items sold well.

"People are asking for more turkey bologna, turkey salami and things that are lower in fat -- generally more nutritional products."

And from a personal point of view, said Murphy, "the turkey-ham tastes just like a smoked ham."

The meat manager for America's Food Market, a one-year-old company based in Dorchester, Mass., which caters to a large Hispanic clientele, said the fresh meat department has done well overall, with particularly strong sales in red meat and poultry.

What's in the cards for the coming year? Murphy of Vista Foods said that at this year's two-day show, which featured booths from 400 exhibitors, he was looking for "anything new and different, and merchandising ideas."

And if the products featured by this year's exhibitors are any indication of things to come, the industry can expect to see more reduced-fat and cholesterol-free dairy items, lower-fat cold cuts and more prepared foods including precooked chickens and turkeys.

Reduced-fat and fat-free bakery items for in-store bakery operations were also prevalent at the show.