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A LITTLE JUMBLE HELPS IN HMR: CONSULTANT

DALLAS -- Retailers who busily clear and tidy their aisles and counters have got it all wrong, at least if they're looking to build some excitement with meals programs, according to a food-service consultant based here.Supermarkets may be more orderly than the crowded jumble of products, carts and customers found in gourmet retailers like New York City's Zabar's, but those stores ring up a colossal

DALLAS -- Retailers who busily clear and tidy their aisles and counters have got it all wrong, at least if they're looking to build some excitement with meals programs, according to a food-service consultant based here.

Supermarkets may be more orderly than the crowded jumble of products, carts and customers found in gourmet retailers like New York City's Zabar's, but those stores ring up a colossal meals business, said Paul Schlossberg, president of food service at D/FW Consulting, who was director of marketing for Frito-Lay and food and beverage director for T.G.I.Friday's.

Meal merchandising can mean blocking the aisles so customers are compelled to examine new or ancillary meals products, he said. Rather than keeping countertops clear, operators should focus on filling them with single-serve candy and snack items that augment a meal, potentially boosting the amount a customer spends on meals.

"Consumers don't face meal-solution problems -- it's a time-solution problem," he said. "Every time you solve my time problem, I'll say 'thank you' with my money."

Schlossberg said some of his recommendations may seem counter-intuitive, but retailers who follow them can help meal consumers make decisions in the manner of fast-food restaurants with combo meals.

Operators should do the same for consumers in a hurry by prepacking a limited number of complete meals focused on well-executed center-plate items, rather than forcing customers to choose from a long list of possibilities as they do in the deli, he said.

For supermarkets to achieve success in home-meal replacement programs, operators will have to do more than create a new department, he said.

"Supermarkets need to make their environment so interesting and appealing that it absolutely gets your attention, and as a consumer, you want to be in that environment," Schlossberg noted. Compared to cutting-edge retailers in other industries, supermarket merchandising strategies lag, especially in terms of new meals programs. The consumer buying process may have changed, he continued, but supermarkets haven't.

Schlossberg said that stores-within-stores, or smaller shops adjoining existing supermarkets, may be the best way to speed service further, as long as easy consumer access is merged with the stocking of necessities and impulse items that might complete a meal -- milk, bananas, super-premium ice cream pints and magazines.

"Make it a place to get in quickly, get what you need and get out," he pointed out. "Make the selection very limited, and merchandise it in such a way to appeal to a hungry consumer in a hurry. If you make the place small, even if I have to work a little to get through there, I can put up with that.

"If you sell me an $8 meal and I pick up a $3 magazine, that's an easy way to boost the bottom line."

Other suggestions for supermarkets focus on sampling, service and informative associates.

"They need to do a better job of educating their people," he said. "Eatzi's makes it easy to buy, but they also have employees who can tell you what to do with the food. What you need is a really knowledgeable human across the counter who's going to make things work. That goes in opposition to what supermarkets usually do, which is not to have people involved."

He suggests that retailers should consider staffing stores with better-trained associates for limited evening hours to promote and sample products and guide shoppers through meals sections, like a concierge. "You could do a truckload of business off those people, and you're barely paying for a full day's work," he said.

"Labor will have to be trained to take the industry forward," Schlossberg added, and supermarkets should look to product manufacturers for help the way restaurants do.

"Food manufacturers do this very well, going into restaurants and training servers, doing demos about new items, telling servers how to describe the item, what words to use." Some manufacturers go to great lengths to design and sometimes brand their own entrees in restaurants, and will likely do the same under the right circumstances for supermarkets, he said.

To sell more product, Schlossberg recommends teaming up with a major manufacturer to put samplers into stores instead of adding promotional dollars to the bottom line. And supermarkets will have to focus on incremental sales volume, rather than total dollars collected.

Whatever is done, he said, what the consumer wants and is willing to spend must be paramount in the meals business, rather than labor costs or standard operating practices.

Schlossberg added, "Consumers are upscaling constantly what they spend in category after category, and we keep finding ways to price-promote them down."