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Providing speedy and convenient service has always been a tall order in labor-intensive deli departments.Retailers are looking at various options, including technology and self-service merchandising, in attempts to make delis more competitive with restaurants and other supermarkets.Stop & Shop is rolling out a new deli ordering system that's designed to let associates better manage orders coming from

Providing speedy and convenient service has always been a tall order in labor-intensive deli departments.

Retailers are looking at various options, including technology and self-service merchandising, in attempts to make delis more competitive with restaurants and other supermarkets.

Stop & Shop is rolling out a new deli ordering system that's designed to let associates better manage orders coming from kiosks and customers who order at the counter. After an initial test, the 550-store chain is now deploying the DeliVision integrated queue management and electronic ordering system in 50 stores in advance of a broader rollout.

Eager to improve and better manage service deli operations, Stop & Shop executives see DeliVision as the tool to help get the job done.

"Our objective is to enhance the customer's deli experience and perception of deli service," said Jacqui Buckley, director of retail operations support, Stop & Shop. "They're getting first-come, first-served treatment with the system, and they always know where they are in line. Plus, we're taking our deli service personnel out of the middle of the competition between counter and kiosk customers."

Marketed by Cuesol, also based in Quincy, the system gives customers the option of ordering remotely from kiosks in the store or at the deli counter. Both types of orders are merged, so deli workers don't have to manage two queues and make a choice of handling one type over another - a dilemma inherent in the operation of many kiosk systems that can be frustrating to customers and employees, said Cuesol executive Mike Grimes.

After placing an order, counter or kiosk customers receive electronically dispensed tickets. On plasma displays in the deli and other areas of the store,

customers can readily see where their orders are in the queue, allowing them to shop as their orders are being prepared and to return when they are ready.

The system also allows shoppers using kiosks to speed the ordering process by interfacing with loyalty cards. After inserting the card, a customer's deli ordering history is displayed. The customer can choose to either duplicate that order or amend, change or add to it. Another system feature is its ability to compile a database of all the functions it handles, allowing management to review reports on key details related to deli operations.

Meanwhile, Sunset Foods, an upscale chain of four stores based in Highland Park, Ill., recently installed an ordering kiosk in its store in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook.

Marketing director Thaddeus Tazioli said the company decided to test the kiosk to see if it could be used to enhance customer service. The chain does a strong deli business, and though shoppers weren't necessarily in revolt, there was a growing sense that some customers might jump at a chance for speedier service.

"Bottom line, the department is busy and it's not unusual for there to be a line of customers," he said. "We wanted to provide a method for customers to get through with their shopping as quickly as they can. It's one more way to reach out to those who know what they want and don't want to wait."

Installed near the store's entrance, the kiosk, supplied by Adusa, Lombard, Ill., allows shoppers to order just about anything available in the deli. Once entered, the order is transmitted to a printer in the deli, where it's picked up and filled. An order ticket is issued to the customer, who can continue shopping before returning to pick up the order.

So far, the kiosk is getting a good reception. Customer usage is growing and the chain has received positive comments.

"We haven't made a decision on rolling it out to other stores," Tazioli said. "The only criterion that we're using to evaluate it so far is that it doesn't break down and it's used at least a little bit."

Much like convenience stores have been able to use pay-at-the-pump gas to shorten lines and improve service for customers making inside purchases, the Sunset store has used the kiosk to attract customers who don't want to stand in line at the counter. That leaves more time for clerks to interact with customers who place orders in person, Tazioli said.

Elsewhere, retailers are looking at other time-saving systems. A handful of stores operated by Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., are testing pagers similar to the ones restaurants use to alert diners their tables are ready.

Shoppers in the 10 stores, in Atlanta and Miami, are given pagers after placing their deli orders, said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations. Free to continue shopping, customers learn their orders are ready when the units alert them with a combination of vibrations, tones and flashes.

"Our idea was to try to eliminate idle waiting time at the deli," Brous said. "There was a bottleneck developing in some of our store delis, and as we focus more on improving service we looked at ways to make the deli experience better. Customer surveys have indicated that is a problem area."

To help ensure customers don't forget to return to the deli for their orders, the pagers are programmed to alert customers if they leave the system's transmission range. If pagers are abandoned in the store, they're programmed to transmit a beacon signal. Orders that aren't picked up are stored in a refrigerated case for four hours, Brous said.

Just two months into the test, Publix will be evaluating how well the pagers work. Based on department and customer feedback, the chain will decide whether to expand the paging system to other stores, Brous said.

Taking a different approach, supermarket delis are expanding their self-service offerings to reach customers who are in a hurry.

Jungle Jim's International Market, Fairfield, Ohio, has increased the amount of space dedicated to self-serve products, recognizing not all customers want or need service counter attention, said Phil Adams, director of development for the specialty grocery store.

At the "Jungle," shoppers find a 12-foot multi-deck section merchandising an assortment of pre-sliced meats and cheeses.

"That's also making more sense for us because as an international-oriented market we're dealing with more customers who struggle with the English language and may not like to go to the service case," Adams said.

Though recent research by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., shows the service deli remains a big customer draw, the group's education information specialist said self-service areas are gaining importance.

"With the rise of alternative formats like supercenters and club stores, self-service perishables are much more common than they used to be," said Alan Hiebert, education specialist, IDDBA.

"Consumers may not be disappointed with the service they receive at supermarkets, but they may gravitate toward self-service departments where lower labor costs can bring prices down," he said.

In fact, in its recent "Consumers in the Deli: Who's In Store" report, the IDDBA found that 33% of respondents cited "convenience" and 20% cited "speed" as the primary reasons they shopped the self-service supermarket deli. The figures for the service deli were 22% and 3%, respectively.

Not all retailers are embracing technology, though. The deli director at Highland Park Market, Manchester, Conn., said it's important for independent retailers to stay personally connected with shoppers.

As a small chain competing with bigger operators, Highland Park's six stores strive to spend the time necessary to interact with customers.

"Convenience is important," said Jeff Cappello, the chain's deli director. "Fast service, the ability to get in and out of the store as fast as possible. That's what the customer wants.

"Personal relationships are important with deli customers," he added. "With our regular customers, we strive to know them by name and know their likes and dislikes so we can meet their needs quickly and also be in a position to make recommendations."

That's why Cappello has avoided self-service touchscreen ordering kiosks. He thinks they only serve to depersonalize shopping.

"I don't think that's something we'd ever do," he said. "We want to maintain as much one-on-one contact as we can with customers, so we can continue to do things like showing the customer the first slice of an order to make sure it's what they want."

The value of top-notch personal service should not be underestimated, he said.

"We have to continue to offer service in our deli and in other departments so we can compete with the bigger guns who may be able to procure cold cuts more cheaply, but where service may be lacking," Cappello said. "It's a niche I think we can continue to exploit.