SEALED ORDERS

Vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses apparently are here to stay.Eight out of 11 retailers polled by SN said they've added more space in the past year for vacuum-packed, presliced products, and all said they see a bright future for the category.Among the major reasons retailers gave for the optimistic outlook include consumers' continued hunger for convenience and the fact that, due to the prolonged

Vacuum-packaged meats and cheeses apparently are here to stay.

Eight out of 11 retailers polled by SN said they've added more space in the past year for vacuum-packed, presliced products, and all said they see a bright future for the category.

Among the major reasons retailers gave for the optimistic outlook include consumers' continued hunger for convenience and the fact that, due to the prolonged shelf life, more varieties of meats and cheeses can be offered

without fear of shrink.

"We've eliminated some of the odd items such as souse and headcheese from our service case, but it makes sense to carry some of those slow movers vacuum-packed," said Diane Velasquez, deli director, for B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb., which owns four conventional format Russ's IGA Stores and four warehouse format Super Saver Stores.

All the retailers interviewed said the vacuum-packed meats and cheeses represent additional sales. Customers who shop after the service deli has closed and customers who just don't want to wait in line at the deli buy the vacuum-packed products, they said.

"This is the category I see growing significantly," said Jerry Gunter, director of delis for 41-unit Food Barn Stores, Kansas City, Mo.

Velasquez said B&R Stores has increased space for vacuum-packed, presliced meat and cheese by 75% since last summer, and has doubled the variety offered.

"I require that our deli managers carry at least six meats and six cheeses in vacuum-packages," she said. "Some stores are carrying 14 different varieties. We have cut back on displays of chunk cheeses and prepacked salads in order to make room to do it." And Gunter at Food Barn Stores said his company has increased space for vacuum-packed sliced product by 10% by carving space from chunk cheese displays. "The shelf life is great. It allows us to handle more varieties," he added.

"The time has come for this category to be promoted. We'll be looking for ways to better display them and call attention to them with signage."

Velasquez has posted signs above self-service cases that read, "Presliced for your convenience" and "Presliced, prepacked meats and cheeses."

Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, has added 20% to 25% more space for vacuum-packed, presliced deli meats in the last year, said Jack Murdock, director of deli operations for the 77-unit chain.

For Murdock and other retailers, location is key.

"We've displaced some chunk cheeses with them, but we've also put spot boxes right in front of the service deli in some stores," Murdock added.

He pointed out that it's crucial to place the vacuum-packs near the service deli in order to make sure customers associate them with the deli meats and cheeses they see being freshly sliced there.

Mel Fonte, assistant vice president of deli operations for Randallstown, Md.-based Basics/Metro Food Markets takes the connection between the vacuum-packs and the products in the deli a step further. He even goes so far as to offer only the meats and cheeses vacuum-packed that the company slices fresh in the service deli. "And we don't charge any more for the product vacuum-packaged. They're almost entirely extra sales," he said, adding that the additional volume made absorbing the cost of vacuum-packing worthwhile.

And Nancy Rand, deli supervisor at seven-unit Quillin's, La Crosse, Wis., said the nearer you can get a display of presliced vacuum-packed meats and cheeses to the service deli the better.

She added that she has seen a refrigerated knee-knocker case that's "ideal for displaying presliced deli meats and cheeses because it's right there in front of the customer. As he looks at what's in the service case, he also see prepacked product ready to go."

Quillin's currently doesn't carry vacuum-packed meats and cheeses, but Rand said she has recommended carrying them to catch some extra sales in the deli, even though lack of space is a limiting factor.

Rand also said she feels it's important for customers to see the products being vacuum-packed in-store. But not all retailers agreed with that.

While Basics/Metro Food Markets' vacuum packing is done in-store, "for consistency," B&R Stores is phasing out doing it themselves, said Velasquez. "It'll free our staff to deal more with the customer. We've increased our number of suppliers so we can get the variety we want," she added.

A line of vacuum-packed products sourced from outside is currently being evaluated by Thrifty Food Stores, Burlington, Wash., said Diana Ovenell, the 14-unit independent's deli merchandiser.

"We're offering from three to eight varieties, depending on the store," she said. "They're more expensive, but there's no doubt self-service will continue to grow. People are in a hurry."