OUTSIDE THE BOX

The concept of a meal solution often conjures up the image of takeout or prepared foods, but retailers are increasingly incorporating Center Store items for quick preparation at home into the mix.Karen Meleta, a spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., supplier to the ShopRite stores, said a party theme can often work as a meal solution. One done recently used Halloween graphics, she

The concept of a meal solution often conjures up the image of takeout or prepared foods, but retailers are increasingly incorporating Center Store items for quick preparation at home into the mix.

Karen Meleta, a spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., supplier to the ShopRite stores, said a party theme can often work as a meal solution. One done recently used Halloween graphics, she said. Advertised in the circular together were a cheese pizza -- ShopRite's own brand, Chef Express -- plus a bag of Wise potato chips and a private-label soda.

Promoting meal solutions uses all the good marketing techniques of demos, sampling, advertising and floor graphics, she said.

For Trip Straub 3rd, vice president and an owner of Straub's Markets, the 100th anniversary of the four-store chain in St. Louis, Mo., has provided the impetus for many suppliers to fly in and demonstrate their products. Since Straub's has carved out a niche as a specialty retailer, these demos took the form of party-planning ideas rather than a more strict interpretation of "meal solutions."

In late October, after six weeks of demos, Straub told SN "the visits did two things. They increased visibility for the holidays coming up, as well as increasing sales on the spot."

Some manufacturers that joined the promotion were Sable & Rosenfeld, Toronto, with its Bloody Mary seasoning, tipsy olives, tipsy onions, pork-spiced cranberry and bite-size dessert cups. Stonewall Kitchen came in from York, Maine, to show how its spicy jams can be used to make festive cheese balls, and Shooting Star Farms, from Oklahoma, sent a rep to show off its new tortilla chips in red, white and blue. Golden Whisk, San Francisco, makes a very upscale cooking sauce, as well as garlicky, extra-virgin olive oil and a Caesar's Millennium salad dressing. And for dessert, there were Joseph Schmidt chocolates.

"We do lots of in-store demos," Straub said. Usually, these are conducted by the manufacturer. "Nobody can sell the product better."

For a dinner solution in dry grocery, "it's pasta, for me," said Dave Bennett, an owner of Mollie Stone's, Mill Valley, Calif. "Some type of pasta entree, whether it's a microwaveable pasta or one that you would actually boil," he said. "Most of our nonperishable meal solutions would come out of the Italian food section."

Sometimes planting the idea for a meal takes the form of cross merchandising, either in-aisle or in an advertisement.

On the front page of a recent circular, Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y., advertised its own brand of pasta with Hunt's tomato sauce and Stouffer's red box entrees or Lean Cuisine entrees, at 4 for $1 for the pasta, 5 for $1 on the sauce, and $1.79 for the frozen entree. The Shoppers Club card had to be used to get the deal, which also included a Tropicana Twister on a buy-one, get-one-free offer.

Recipes, even if they are available in the fresh departments, almost always include some canned, frozen or packaged ingredients, an approach that is favored by Clements Market, a one-store independent in Portsmouth, R.I.

In the new Whole Foods Market in St. Louis, recipe cards are sprinkled throughout grocery shelves. Some are from Chicago chef Rick Bayless, carrying a "Menu of the Month" tag line. "We have, a few times, gathered all the Menu of the Month items in a single place," said Bob Bloomer, associate grocery manger of the store, which opened Sept. 26.

"I see a good number of people walking around with the cards in hand, finding the ingredients," he told SN during a store visit.

Food sampling and demonstrations are a tried-and-true method of getting consumers to buy. "Everyone is on the run. They walk in the store and smell it cooking, and it gives them an idea," said Marie Mirabella, president of Era Marketing, Lanoka Harbor, N.J., a company that does demos for supermarkets. "Even if it's something that's been around for years, something that they forgot about. They'll say, 'I used that for years. Why did I stop?"'

Physically locating one ingredient next to another, like crackers with soup, and peanut butter with jelly, makes sense, said Cheryl Kirsch, director of advertising, Foodtown, Woodbridge, N.J.

"At this time of year, you put the Durkee french fried onion rings near the cream of mushroom soup," to inspire shoppers to make classic green bean casserole, she said. Like many other retailers, Foodtown uses its Web site to promote recipes, and coordinates items in the weekly circular with the ingredients in the dish.

This season, there are all kinds of dinners in a box, such as the new Homestyle Bakes, from Banquet, and Campbell's Supper Bakes, which uses fresh chicken breast or pork, purchased separately; along with stalwarts like Betty Crocker Chicken Helper and the Oven Favorites line.

The shelf in a Wegmans that SN visited recently near the Galleria Mall in Amherst, N.Y., had a crowd of women shoppers around it picking items like those and Kraft Stove Top Oven Classics, Lipton Sizzle & Stir One Skillet Dinner, Chef Boyardee Cheese Pizza Kit, and choosing from a range of packaged noodle mixes.

Frozen foods also remain a very bright spot when it comes to meal solutions, with a recent study saying that consumers spend 5% of their food budgets on frozen food.

This was according to Packaged Facts research presented by MarketResearch.com earlier this month. "The U.S. Market for Frozen Quick Meal Solutions" said frozen foods have received new life as marketers offer consumers increasingly attractive, frozen quick-meal solutions.

"The growth in sales of frozen quick-meal solutions is outpacing total supermarket sales growth," said Meg Hargreaves, vice president, research publishing at MarketResearch.com. "This is doubtless due to the steady stream of new products and concepts like bowl entrees, skillet meals, restaurant-style foods, and new packaging concepts developed by market leaders in recent years. These products, along with higher-quality pizzas and handheld foods, are creating an unprecedented boom in the frozen quick-meals sector."

Schiavoni's Market, a Sag Harbor, N.Y., IGA, recently introduced signature ravioli, frozen, in flavors from cheese to lobster and spinach. The package says "Schiavoni's Market Ravioli," and Schiavoni's name is also on spices nearby in a spice rack, said Mike Schiavoni, owner.

Schiavoni is also thinking of promoting recipes and, for instance, putting ziti on sale, for use in a mac-beef-tomato Signature recipe, named perhaps after his grandmother. "We will be working on that with the meat department," he said.

"I think there are people out there that want the ingredients, and people that want one step from that. Some want oven-ready, some want already cooked, others want already cooked and warm. Figuring out where the most demand is [is] the key, and to start trying it is the way to determine where the most demand is," he told SN.