LAS VEGAS -- Retailers are using a variety of methods to enhance the customer experience in the deli, a panel of supermarket executives revealed during an informational session at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's annual seminar and expo.
The panel, moderated by Harold Lloyd, president, Harold Lloyd Presents, Virginia Beach, Va., profiled strategies ranging from time-saving initiatives that reduce peak-hour lines, to premium-level proprietary items that make the retailer a destination.
Nancy Van Hise, night shift supervisor for ShopRite of Hunterdon County, Flemington, N.J., adopted a philosophy of "Food Fast Sells" to cut down on long lines at her store. She installed self-service deli order kiosks and erected a slice-thickness chart as part of a plan to cater to customer desires to speed their shopping trips.
"Especially with the shift I work, people come in from work, they want to get their stuff and get home," Van Hise said. "They don't want to be standing in line with a bunch of people."
Lloyd added that this consumer mentality is largely transferred from their experiences at food-service venues, which have a reputation for speed-of-service.
"Every fast-food operation in this country has a clock inside. The moment your order is taken at the window the clock starts ticking, and they have a minute and 30 seconds to fulfill that order," he said. "Not one supermarket has [a system like] that."
While Van Hise doesn't have timers in her stores, she did install slice-thickness charts atop the deli counter that correspond to the settings on the slicing machines, so associates can understand precisely the cut customers want.
"We also have prepackaged meats. Everything we slice behind the counter we have prepackaged in the self-service case," Van Hise said, noting they are vendor-supplied. The retailer also pre-slices sale meats and cheeses at the service counter, or about an average of 8 to 10 items per week.
"About 80% of the people will buy the pre-slice," and because the sales items move at such high volume, there is little concern about their freshness, she said.
The use of an automated order machine is a favorite in ShopRite stores because the customer can complete their shopping trip before returning to a small cold case where completed orders are wrapped, priced and waiting. On weekends, orders are usually completed within 30 minutes; during the week, the wait is cut to 10 to 15 minutes.
"Only two or three orders on a busy day aren't picked up. We'll announce tickets left too long over the loudspeaker to remind them if we need to," Van Hise said.
At Nugget Markets, Sacramento, Calif., deli slices are a point of interaction between associate and customer. Cheryl Gleason, kitchen department manager, said that service case patrons are offered a slice of cold cut and asked if it's thin enough. In the process, they also get to sample the quality of the item, Gleason said.
"Now that guest has exactly what they want. And I've found that five of 10 people -- once they've sampled the product and tasted the quality -- will say, 'Make that a pound."'
Using similar techniques has fostered a strong bond of trust. "You have to build a relationship with them, that they trust what you're doing and what you're giving them," she said. "And what we give to them is information."
Nugget, an upscale, independent retailer, carries 350 gourmet cheeses from around the world, including 15 blue cheeses. The company's mission statement includes a specific reference to a commitment to product knowledge. And with cheese a luxury item priced up to $18.99 a pound, steering a customer wrong can have severe consequences.
"Most people don't want to take the risk, and want to make good value choices for their families," Gleason said. "Nobody wants to throw away $10. Especially not in today's economy."
Education has emerged as the best way to fuse the shopping and food experience. At the associate level, training includes cutting and wrapping, since all cheeses are whole-wheel items; sanitation; country-of-origin; and store-related matters like shrink. Meetings with the department manager -- the "Head Cheese" -- are held every Thursday, where all specialists gather to talk about sales, volume and trends. Cuttings of new varieties are held, as well as informational sessions with visiting vendors.
The regularity of the meetings not only educates employees, it empowers them and helps to reduce turnover, making such labor cost-effective, Gleason said.
"We talk to the associates, because they're in front of the guests, spotting what people want," she said.
The well-known sub sandwich program at Publix Supermarkets, Lakeland, Fla., has become a regular stop for lunch-hungry people who can choose fresh-prepared sandwiches, made to order, in a model similar to those found in popular quick-service restaurant chains. Express lines, bundled "meal deals" and a $1.00 premium-meat option have created a program that contributes what industry analysts estimate is 20% of total deli sales.
Joe Zarcone, manager of a Brentwood, Tenn., unit and a former deli department manager, said that customers have responded to the freshness and variety quotients of the program.
"It's even in the bread," he told attendees. "Bread can be as little as 20% of the cost of making that sandwich, but as much as 60% of the flavor. It brings a lot to that product."
The retailer then showcases the product in the form of a sub combo that includes half a sub sandwich, a bag of chips and a 20-ounce fountain beverage.
At Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan., Ellen Kreimendahl profiled a line of private-label compound butters that gives the retailer a higher profile as a destination for cooking education and high-margin premium foods. Shoppers have been snapping up containers of the butter with flavors like lemon dill, and rosemary and roasted garlic.
"These are the types of customers we cannot afford to neglect," she said. "To them, cooking is an event, an evening's entertainment, and chefs have been using compound butters for years. We want to take it now to the everyday chef."
Kreimendahl, Ball's director, fresh food coordination, said building the butter program required the retailer to develop a well-defined goals and enlist senior-level commitment. The idea came from keeping up with current culinary trends, through such media outlets as cooking magazines, television shows and cookbooks; as well as regularly dining out.