SELLING DELI

Deli products shouldn't just sit in the case. Someone should sell deli. But does the very idea of "selling deli" strike you as an oxymoron?It might well do that. After all, in most supermarkets there is no selling going on at the deli counter, nor at any other service department for that matter.Instead, the emphasis is on crowd control, usually managed by obliging customers to stand in lines, or issuing

Deli products shouldn't just sit in the case. Someone should sell deli. But does the very idea of "selling deli" strike you as an oxymoron?

It might well do that. After all, in most supermarkets there is no selling going on at the deli counter, nor at any other service department for that matter.

Instead, the emphasis is on crowd control, usually managed by obliging customers to stand in lines, or issuing them numbers that are called out or flashed on a board. As often as not, customers are treated as unwelcome intruders who must be reluctantly accommodated, and moved on as quickly as possible.

Somehow, the idea that there should be much contact, or at least positive contact, between the person behind the counter and the shopper making the purchase has been lost.

That's why I was so surprised to chance upon Bryan. He's a counterman at a Fresh Fields location in suburban Chicago I happened to encounter when I was on an impromptu tour of several Chicago-area supermarkets a few days ago.

Here's what happened: As I walked past the deli area of the store with a couple of colleagues, this counterman called out and asked us if we were familiar with all the products in the case. It should be acknowledged that the store wasn't too busy, but there were a number of shoppers in view so it's not as if there was nothing else to do.

After luring us over, he quickly explained a few of the dozens of unusual product offerings in the case. He held forth on why the tuna salad was different from most, how the guacamole could possibly be low fat, what was wrapped in those grape leaves and so on. Then he produced small paper cups and plastic forks for us, and filled the cups with samples of anything about which we expressed the slightest interest. Items that should be served hot were quickly passed through the microwave.

It was quite a tasty show, and a performance that gave life to the deli case and its contents in a way I have never before seen.

As it happened, we left the deli counter without making a purchase, since deli products don't travel well by air. So did this counterman waste his time? Not at all. He created a lot of interest in this chain's unusual deli offerings, and that interest travels well.

But more to the point, he demonstrated the value of selling deli products. I imagine that any shopper who was introduced to products in such an informative and interesting way would almost certainly become a regular patron of that deli department, and the whole store.

Imagine the degree to which any supermarket could increase its sales volume if service personnel would follow the course of doing more active selling and less passive order taking.

Naturally, this type of active selling isn't always possible, but it's sometimes possible, especially if departmental tasks were divvied up so personnel skilled at public contact work were assigned to do that, while those skilled in other ways were assigned to replenishment and other backstage activities. It's difficult to envision any other single action management could encourage that would make such a difference in a service-department's contribution.