WOOSTER, Ohio — Buehler's Fresh Foods here has been enjoying a steady increase in sales in its deli and prepared foods departments during the past several months, according to Mike Merritt, Market Deli merchandiser for the 13-unit chain.
Merritt said that the rise in traffic may be partly due to the economic challenges many shoppers are currently facing: As gasoline and food prices continue to climb, shoppers are looking for convenient — and less expensive — alternatives to restaurant takeout. To take advantage of that trend, Buehler's has installed new cooking and prepared food display equipment at all of its stores, has promoted a “Hot & Ready To Go, or It's Free” guarantee for its rotisserie-roasted and pressure-fried chicken, and has tested additional fixed chicken displays near the registers at two locations.
“We are seeing a huge increase on the prepared food end,” Merritt said, adding that consistency is one of the most vital aspects of building and maintaining traffic and sales in prepared foods departments.
“Prepared foods in the grocery industry — there's not much behind it,” he said. “If you put out a good, quality product, and you're consistent with it, and it's out there all of the time, you're going to drive sales. Especially when you have folks back behind the deli counter that are having fun back there selling it and getting behind the product.”
That's the reasoning for the company's new guarantee. Buehler's now promises shoppers that they can come in to any of the company's locations and a pressure-fried or whole roasted chicken will be hot and ready to go out the door anytime between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., or the store's deli will cook one up free of charge.
“We've ensured to our customers that if they come in for lunch or dinnertime, they're not going to be disappointed,” Merritt said.
The guarantee was introduced as part of a larger overhaul of the company's fried and roasted chicken program. Late last year, Buehler's began replacing its older roaster equipment — integrated units that roasted the chicken on top and displayed the product in a holding unit below — with new Henny Penny roasters, pressure fryers, combi-ovens and separate display units. Replacing the older equipment was a natural fit based on the layout of Buehler's kitchens, Merritt noted, since the company also has full-service restaurants in 11 of its 13 locations.
“Putting those online, and holding the [restaurant] cooks responsible for helping with the production of it, was a big win for us.” The new equipment has helped shorten cooking time while improving consistency as well, he said.
Also, the new dedicated merchandisers give the product more visibility and help hold the chickens at a more consistent temperature, Merritt said. “The unit itself sits up higher. It's more in the customer's eye, rather than having them reach down to the bottom of a case and open up the door.”
“We also have a great partnership with our local chicken company, Park Farms [Canton, Ohio],” Merritt said. “They offer a very good product, and a lot of point-of-sale materials that help draw attention to the case.”
Improvements to the program have been such a success that Buehler's is currently testing additional merchandising units near the checkout area in two of its stores.
Merritt explained that the units weren't only intended to capture impulse sales, but also to prevent losing sales from shoppers who intend to purchase a take-home meal, but change their minds or forget to return to the deli during the course of their shopping trip.
“When customers are shopping through the deli, they'll see the [fried or roasted] chickens, and they'll think, ‘I'll grab this before I leave, because I want it to still be warm when I get home,’” Merritt explained. “But by the time they finish doing all of their shopping, they've either forgotten about it, or they decide they don't feel like heading all the way back to the deli to pick it up. We've been seeing a good increase in those two stores with that extra unit.”
If the extra units can maintain those higher sales at the two test locations, Merritt said, they will likely be rolled out to other Buehler's stores as well.
Other current initiatives in Buehler's deli and prepared foods departments include their $12.99 “Dinner for Two” program, where customers can select complete meals — which include an entree, vegetables and other sides, and a dessert — from a menu that changes daily.
Merritt said that more broadly, the company's prepared food departments had focusing on making products that are healthier, all-natural and free of artificial ingredients.
“Right now, the big kick is having clean labels and healthier menu options,” he said.