STUDY SHOWS CONSUMERS ARE FINDING DELIS A CUT ABOVE

NEW ORLEANS -- Consumers are flocking to supermarket delis and most are happy with what they're finding there. That's what attendees at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's Dairy-Deli-Bake '99 expo here were told last month.Dramatic increases in the frequency of consumers' visits to supermarket delis were revealed in a new study commissioned by the Madison, Wis.-based IDDBA, and highlights

NEW ORLEANS -- Consumers are flocking to supermarket delis and most are happy with what they're finding there. That's what attendees at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's Dairy-Deli-Bake '99 expo here were told last month.

Dramatic increases in the frequency of consumers' visits to supermarket delis were revealed in a new study commissioned by the Madison, Wis.-based IDDBA, and highlights of the study were presented at the event here by Rosita Thomas, vice president of research operations, for Frederick Schneider Research, Washington.

Thomas, who conducted the research, did a similar study -- also commissioned by the IDDBA -- five years ago. In her presentation last month, she made some comparisons between the current data and the data collected in the study she did earlier as a researcher for the Gallup Organization, Princeton, N.J.

In the new research, 96% of respondents said they are satisfied with supermarket deli quality. Both variety and service got a "satisfied" vote from 95% of the respondents. Sandwiches, domestic cheeses and sliced-to-order lunch meats top their shopping lists. Meanwhile, fried, broasted or barbecued chicken, chicken breast, desserts, lean- or low-fat meats and hot meat entrees are on the decline when it comes to how often they're purchased, according to the study. Thomas explained, however, that the chicken figures could be misleading because she didn't include "rotisserie chicken" when she phrased the survey questions.

The current research was conducted via telephone interviews with 1,000 consumers who do at least half of their household's grocery shopping and who purchase products from supermarket delis.

The survey showed respondents shop the supermarket deli an average of 2.5 times a week, which is double the 1994 average. Not only that, but the percentage of respondents who shop at supermarket delis more than once a week jumped dramatically from 17% in 1994 to 28% in 1999. Also, in this year's survey, 32% of respondents said they shop the deli one to three times a month, up 10 points from 22% who said that in 1994.

The picture looks particularly bright for prepared entrees, which this year made the list of Top 10 most-consumed deli products, Thomas pointed out.

Nearly a third, 32%, of respondents said they eat prepared entrees at least once a week. That's up 10 points from 22% in 1994.

"And half of the respondents said they bought prepared meals from their supermarket deli," Thomas said. She noted the question about prepared meals was not asked in 1994 because "that wasn't a big issue then."

Those between the ages of 30 and 49 are most apt to buy prepared meals, she said, pointing out that 55% in that age group said they bought prepared meals from their supermarket deli.

But what's even more significant is that 95% of this year's respondents said they were satisfied with the prepared meals they buy at supermarket delis. Indeed, 45% said they were "very satisfied."

It's possible that such meals-oriented items are bringing consumers back to the deli more often; the data indicate that customers are making special trips -- in addition to those during their regular grocery-shopping visits -- to the supermarket deli.

While 90% of respondents said they shop the deli during their regular trips to the supermarket, 56% said they occasionally make a special trip to the supermarket to purchase a deli item. That question was not asked in the 1994 study so there was no percentage for comparison.

Twenty-two percent of consumers said that when they buy prepared meals to eat at home they buy them at the supermarket deli. That's up from 18% in 1994.

But there are ways to push that figure up further, Thomas noted. For example, 51% of respondents said they would be more likely to buy prepared meals if they were guaranteed fresh.

That's perhaps a signal that the deli, like the bakery, needs to tell consumers, via signage, how fresh its products are, Thomas said. Also, there could be an opportunity for ethnic marketing, the data shows.

"I have the data broken down by who is buying what and one of the things I think is very interesting is that on prepared salads and prepared entrees we have the African-American, Hispanic and other populations buying more than average of these products. As we watch the demographics of our country, it will be interesting to see how [these products] will be moving," Thomas said.

Like prepared entrees, prepared salads experienced an increase in consumption. The percentage of consumers eating them at least once a week rose 9 points from 31% in 1994 to 40% this year.

But the most dramatic increase in consumption was in the domestic cheese category, with a jump of 15 points in the percentage of those who eat the products at least once a week. In this year's survey, 62% of respondents said they eat natural domestic cheese once a week or more. That's up from 47% in 1995. Natural domestic cheese was purchased an average of 2.7 times a week, according to respondents' answers. That's only outdone by sandwiches, which are purchased 2.9 times a week, the data shows.

Other products that were up in consumption included ham. It was consumed at least once a week by 39% of respondents in 1999 compared with 31% in 1994. Even sliced lunch meat consumption was up 7 points from 49% of respondents buying it once a week or more in 1994; the figure this year was 56%.

Meanwhile, consumers have drastically cut back on their consumption of fried, broasted and barbecued chicken, according to this year's data. Only 21% of respondents said they buy it once a week or more. That's down from 52% in 1994.

Overall, this year's study showed the most consumed deli items are natural domestic cheese, ham, sliced lunch meat, sandwiches and turkey breast.