Retailers Make Room for Meal Solutions

High-traffic departments like meat and produce are prime real estate for meal solutions. Progressive retailers are capitalizing on this notion by cross-merchandising everything from proteins and vegetables to shelf-stable sides, spices and even serving platters. Most utilize endcaps throughout their stores when space becomes available. A select few, however, are going all out, offering in-store cooking

High-traffic departments like meat and produce are prime real estate for meal solutions. Progressive retailers are capitalizing on this notion by cross-merchandising everything from proteins and vegetables to shelf-stable sides, spices and even serving platters.

Most utilize endcaps throughout their stores when space becomes available. A select few, however, are going all out, offering in-store cooking demonstrations and sampling of featured meals, plus recipe cards that list every ingredient and direct shoppers to the location in the aisles where the products can be found once the promotion is over.

Some, like Spring Lake, Mich.-based Orchard Markets, have dedicated displays for such specials.

“We have a 6-foot case at the entrance to produce that is used exclusively for meal solutions,” said Nick Buys, grocery manager for the two-store independent. “We change the product mix weekly and hang signs to attract shoppers' attention as they walk in the front door.”

Just before Easter, the store's case was filled with hams, 5-pound bags of Idaho potatoes, bulk yams, Pillsbury crescent rolls and pineapples. A few weeks earlier, the theme was soup and salad. The space was stocked with several types of bagged greens, dressings, bacon bits, cherry tomatoes, croutons and other toppings, plus three varieties of Campbell's soup.

All of the fixings for tacos and a pot roast dinner have been featured there as well. So have a melange of finger foods and plastic serving platters around New Year's and the Super Bowl.

According to Buys, it doesn't matter if a store is big or small. There's always room for cross-merchandising.

“Having just one meal solution per week has helped bring in extra sales, and we still have plenty of room in produce for everything else,” he told SN. “You don't have to have a separate display in front of a cooler or racks on top for the majority of Center Store items. Unless it's something that can become soggy — like bread — it can be placed right inside the case too.”

Most of the foods selected for Orchard Market's meal solutions case also run in the supermarket's weekly ad. But the retailer usually includes one or two non-sale products as well to inspire impulse purchases, he added.

Bill Bishop, president of consulting firm Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill., believes that more supermarkets would follow suit if not for departmental divisions.

“One of the reasons retailers don't do more of this is that they're focused on selling individual items and maintaining territorial department boundaries rather than selling solutions to customers,” he said. “When chains do have meal solutions, they are often inadequately communicated to the shopper through ads or in-store signage.”

Bishop cited Itasca, Ill.-based Jewel-Osco as one supermarket chain that has gotten it right. During a recent store visit, he noticed a display in the meat department that contained four types of roasts. Signage clearly explained that upon purchase of a single roast, shoppers would receive one free bag of carrots, a bag of potatoes and a bag of onions — each stocked nearby.

He noted that Jewel-Osco routinely offers meal solutions in produce as well. “They usually pair a protein with a carbohydrate to make a meal for four people priced under $15,” he said.

Bishop suggests that supermarkets try a simple supper like stir-fry. Featured items could include pork — or beef, chicken or shrimp — along with several vegetables, soy sauce and rice.

Stir-fry has been highlighted at Highland Park Market from time to time. According to John Devanney, vice president of perishables for the Glastonbury, Conn., chain, julienne carrots and diced peppers are a nice touch. These value-added veggies make meal preparation even more convenient for the consumer.

Something that has proven to be a challenge, however, is the absence of a permanent display, he admitted.

“When we first started doing this, people kept coming back a week later expecting everything to still be stocked together in a display,” Devanney told SN. “In the future we want to hand out recipe cards that list all ingredients and the aisle where each product can normally be found in our stores.”

Because each Highland Park Market layout is unique, multiple sets of recipe cards will need to be printed and distributed to each location. This will make the task more difficult, but customizing is necessary for the retailer if meal solutions are to become a mainstay, he added.

To have maximum impact, retailers must think long-term, said Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting Group, Wilton, Conn.

“Having a meal solution in place for a short period doesn't train shoppers to expect it each time they enter the store,” he said. “It might take a few visits for most people to even notice that it's there.”

Shoppers who do take note will be disappointed when they come back for more only to see that the display is gone, he added.

Taft also recommends that supermarkets consider cross-merchandising fresh foods in other areas of the store. Dahl's Foods, Des Moines, Iowa, does this.

“We let our store managers decide how they want to pair products,” said Mark Brase, vice president for the chain. “Sometimes they combine foods in produce for a complete meal and other times they put one or two fresh items in the Center Store.”

Dahl's Ingersoll, Iowa, location frequently aligns lemons and limes with liquor, for example. Tomatoes, garlic and live basil are cross-merchandised with olive oil, and bananas have all but taken up residence in the store's cereal aisle.

For supermarkets that lack the space for dedicated meal-solution displays or basic cross-merchandising programs, installing a single digital kiosk is a good alternative, said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. He recommends Portland, Ore.-based Aisle7.

“Aisle7 has kiosks with software that can be programmed to offer meal ideas as well as food facts and other related information,” said Wisner. “Shoppers can use the touchscreens to access recipes right there in the store and print out a list of ingredients.”

Retailers who choose a customized kiosk can plug their own private-label brands into recipes. They can also include aisle numbers next to ingredients to help direct shoppers to each item.

“If you don't have room for a permanent display, get rolling displays that can be moved from place to place. Schnucks has several and they do all sorts of cross-merchandising using them,” said Wisner. “If you don't have room for those, get a digital kiosk or use Twitter and text messages to reach shoppers with meal ideas. Just do something, anything.”

The more solutions consumers are offered, the more they'll spend in your stores, added Wisner.