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In an era when grocers are competing against the expedience of the drive-thru window and the convenience of the pizza delivery man, meal solutions are proving to be the best weapons in a supermarket's arsenal. However, the concept of meal solutions isn't anything new, it's just getting more complex as shoppers become increasingly mobile and continue to demand more from retailers.The most successful

In an era when grocers are competing against the expedience of the drive-thru window and the convenience of the pizza delivery man, meal solutions are proving to be the best weapons in a supermarket's arsenal. However, the concept of meal solutions isn't anything new, it's just getting more complex as shoppers become increasingly mobile and continue to demand more from retailers.

The most successful chains are taking advantage of any and all opportunities to bundle items through in-store displays, on the Internet and in advertising circulars, while offering in-store meal solution demonstrations and recipe ideas throughout their stores, in newsletters and on-line. And, while no single tactic has achieved total success, the combination of different meal solution ideas is definitely producing results.

"The successes and failures in this industry come down to whether or not the retailers are giving the consumers what they need and want and meal solutions are one way they can do that," said Michael Sonsolo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C. "One of the things retailers are starting to catch onto is that many of the meal solutions should be casual like-items needed to make a Tuesday night dinner, like meat loaf and macaroni and cheese. Consumers are more into gourmet foods than ever, but not during the middle of the week -- that's when they want quick, convenient meal solutions."

Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., is one chain that has realized the consumer demand for simple meal ideas. The chain is continuously updating its meal solutions efforts by adding in-store demonstrations and on-line assistance for time-starved consumers. Along with the existing COOKS (Call On Our Kitchen Specialists) hotline, which provides food preparation tips, recipes and nutrition information for shoppers, the chain has also added a designated cook who offers in-store demonstrations four days a week.

Price Chopper has also taken advantage of the conveniences of the Internet by offering on-line recipes and further promoting the COOKS hotline via the Web.

And, the company has managed to assist shoppers more often by sending recipes within newsletters and bundling items together in weekly ad circulars along with recipes and simple meal ideas.

"We've really started promoting our COOKS hotline through the Internet and have a lot more information on our site for shoppers looking for quick, easy recipes and meal ideas," said Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer and marketing services for Price Chopper. "In stores, our demonstrator has really made an impact on shoppers with her own basic recipes and food preparation information. People know to look for her and they actually come to see what recipes she'll demonstrate. It's a unique way to offer meal ideas to our customers while they are in the stores."

Like Price Chopper, Spartan Food Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., is also utilizing recipes to provide meal solutions for its customers.

However, the chain has the added feature of a recipe rack that greets consumers as they enter each location. At the entrance to each store, Spartan highlights about 15 different recipes that include a list of ingredients found within the aisles. Each month, the recipes are exchanged for new meal solutions, with many of the recipes coordinating with current seasons and holidays.

The Midwest chain has also taken its meal solutions program to another level in the past year by offering pricing specials for entire meals, including center plate items with all the trimmings. According to Dave Somerset, divisional director of marketing for Spartan Foods, the chain has a wide variety of meal solution strategies that are used on a regular basis.

"We put a lot of food preparation information in our weekly ads and every week we have a dedicated home meal replacement section where we group products together and even include a recipe next to those items. Then, we direct our stores to merchandise those products together in the stores," said Somerset. "We've also tried to elevate our meal bundling activity recently by offering meal deals where shoppers can buy a steak and get dinner rolls, potatoes and gravy free."

Spartan offers a number of different bundled meal specials throughout the year with other center plate items like ham, turkey and roast. And, to accommodate more casual meals, the chain has even offered bundled specials in which stores will throw in taco shells, salsas, cheese and other toppings free with the purchase of a package of ground beef. Like Price Chopper and many other retailers, Spartan Foods has also revamped its Web site to include recipes and nutritional information. The retailer's newly-launched site even includes a direct link to an in-house dietitian who can offer advice on cooking temperatures, food preparation and food handling tips.

Through trial and error, many supermarket retailers have discovered that creating complete meal solutions can be quite difficult as most meals consist of both dry goods and perishables or refrigerated items. And, as most stores are set up to specifically separate these different types of food products, some experts say there are only a handful of combinations grocers can choose from when displaying items for meal solutions.

"We've seen some retailers take dry goods out of their aisles and bundle them with perishables and other items throughout the store to create meal solutions. Putting salad dressing next to a salad can definitely work," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, the retail food service consultancy based in Dayton, Ohio. "But, we've also seen others try to take perishables and put them next to dry goods in an attempt to create meal solutions and consumers won't touch the items. Even refrigerated cases within dry goods aisles make consumers nervous because they don't know how long the perishables have been sitting there. They feel more comfortable picking from one department or another."

Many grocers and even manufacturers are still focusing their attention on finding the best combination of solutions to reach their targeted consumers through every available medium.

A handful of savvy grocers even partnered with manufacturers to come up with the most effective, efficient meal solution ideas.

"Winn Dixie brought in ten different manufacturers to work with them as they studied consumers, the market and the best way to attack meal solutions," said John Watkins, executive vice president for retail broker Acosta Sales & Marketing, Jacksonville, Fla. "They tried offering entire meals for $9.99, putting freezer and fridge cases in dry goods aisles and a bunch of other ideas, but the ideas that would work were too cost prohibitive and others didn't bring the results they were looking for -- all of these ideas work a little bit, but none of them completely do the job.

"But, grocers aren't giving up because they did find that putting different meal solution ideas together produces pretty good results and if they keep working, the results will just keep getting better and better."