RETAILERS CAN'T TAKE A BREAK ON TAKE-OUT

Restaurant take-out seems to be reaching some sort of peak. Everyone from Outback steakhouse to Chili's Bar & Grill have active take-out operations possessing the potential to grow faster than table sales, say their executives. Even c-stores have met some success incorporating hot foods and perishables like produce into their store mix.According to the National Restaurant Association, the trend is

Restaurant take-out seems to be reaching some sort of peak. Everyone from Outback steakhouse to Chili's Bar & Grill have active take-out operations possessing the potential to grow faster than table sales, say their executives. Even c-stores have met some success incorporating hot foods and perishables like produce into their store mix.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the trend is particularly evident among casual-dining establishments with average check sizes between $8 and $24.99. Among those operators, mostly sit-down venues, 57% indicate that their customers are ordering more take-out food than they were two years ago.

The survey also reveals that approximately six out of 10 table-service operators believe their customers are more interested in higher quality take-out foods, compared with two years ago. A story by Lynne Miller on Page 23 of this issue demonstrates just how far it's reached: Charlie Trotter, the well-respected, hard-working celebrity chef, has opened his own place -- Trotter's To Go -- in Chicago, his base of operations. Forget deep-dish pizza or Chinese. This guy is commanding premium prices for high-end entrees served in his nearby restaurant ... and getting them!

Yet, the supermarket industry is remarkably quiet in regards to the entire "fresh meals" category. And that's a shame, because consumers are scrambling to patronize these other formats, and forking over some big bucks in the process.

Retailers have no good reason to stand by as the dinner rush crescendos into a stampede. We may all still be smarting from the grand experiment with HMR and food courts -- only a handful of which remain intact and are as active as they were five years ago -- but that's no reason to stay out of the game.

Let's face it. Retailers are not chefs. However, there are plenty of ways to master meeting the consumers' desire for convenience and value -- the very foundation upon which any take-out business is built.

This industry has been built around "the sell" -- retailers are primarily merchandisers of other people's goods. And the great operators are great merchandisers, presenting a wide variety of products in the best possible light. All it takes is some creative thinking.

One retailer, a meat specialist, recently told me they've been successful selling bacon-wrapped tenderloins from the service case priced per item, not per pound -- just like they are on a restaurant menu. So, a consumer who might reject the per-pound price because it's too high, will buy two, 6-ounce "portions." In the process of satisfying a consumer's needs, the retailer nets a better margin on the same piece of meat.

Another retailer bundles items they've been selling for years and rotates them regularly as a "dinner menu" through a combination dry-refrigerated merchandiser near the front of the store. A typical weeknight mix might include a bagged salad; additional, select produce items; a featured, prepared entree; and a featured, fresh-baked bread and dessert from the bakery.

For that matter, how many of us have eaten a bowl of cereal for dinner after arriving home late from work or a business trip? Or a soup and salad, or sandwich?

All of these items are in the store today and meals-compatible, but their potential remains blocked by stale merchandising schemes that no longer apply to today's shopper. It seems we've forgotten what we do best.