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Packaged bread.JPG Michael Browne
Customers still want their fresh breads, bagels, muffins and donuts, but now they're buying those items prepackaged.

Grab-and-go provides a bakery solution in supermarkets

In-store bakeries have adapted and transformed the department in response to customers’ pandemic concerns

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the segment of the supermarket that may have seen the biggest change was fresh bakery, with most stores quickly transitioning the department from offering fresh items on display each day to increasing the number of packaged baked goods available.

Customers still wanted their breads, bagels, muffins and donuts, but hardly anyone was comfortable grabbing an item left in the open on a tray — no matter how fresh it may be. That’s why fresh grab-and-go items have been on the rise since the coronavirus crisis began.

According to a recent International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) report, which tracked in-store bakery for the week of May 24, packaged baked goods continued to do well above its numbers from a year ago, with the biggest increases coming from bagels and English muffins. However, in-store bakery sales were down more than 15% year over year, as many departments remained closed or operating at a reduced level.

“Bread sales are fairly consistent for the most part, but other categories are not doing well because of the limitations that some consumers may have while shopping, and also the limitations some stores might have as well,” said Eric Richard, educational coordinator for the IDDBA. “Donuts and different dessert items have taken a significant hit. But we are starting to see a bit of an uptick lately, but nowhere near where we were at pre-pandemic.”

Though not enough information is out there to project the future of the department, he still expects most of the categories to continue on an upswing in the months ahead.

“I would guess that a significant number of consumers who regularly shopped at in-store bakery are anxious to get back in there and purchase the products they haven’t been able to purchase the last few months,” Richard said. “The comfort level of many may have changed since the pandemic hit, so prepackaging is probably going to be more important than it has been. At the end of the day it will come down to convenience and comfort level.”

Shutting self-serve

Scott Fox, bakery director for Dorothy Lane Market, a gourmet chain based out of Dayton, Ohio, admits it’s been something of a roller coaster ride these last few months.

“Any self-service, such as our muffin and bagel cases, were shut down right away,” he said. “We have always been very strong in artesian bread sales and that’s not self-service, but we service it to try and keep the lines down. At the counters, we started to pre-slice and pre-bag a lot of that bread and that was very favorable to customers.”

As far as products, indulgent party-type products almost completely dried up, with brownie trays, pretzel bites and special order cakes pretty much non-existent in March and April. Things started to improve somewhat in May, though Fox says nowhere near what the store historically does in the category. 

“Easter was down 22%, but we kept hanging in there and fighting back and focusing more on the comfort foods that people want,” Fox said. “Our bread sales have been up nicely and we ended up having a very good Mother’s Day. I’m happy to say, the past month, we have been up every single week in bakery, including a 10.8% increase the week that ended [May 31].”

The store has done some heavy promotions for bakery in recent weeks and is noticing momentum returning to the department. Still, Fox doesn’t know if it will ever be the same.

“I don’t ever see our self-service bagel bars ever coming back, and we’re going to be replacing the section with refrigerated grab-and-go cases for single-serve type products in the future,” Fox says. “We’re going to stay with the pre-sliced bread for those people who aren’t comfortable coming to the counter.”

ACME MarketsFresh bakery ACME_breakfast_1.jpg

Many supermarkets have transitioned the bakery department from offering fresh items on display each day to increasing the number of packaged baked goods available.

Karri Zwirlein, director of bakery for Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets, says the department pulled all self-service items once the pandemic began, and that’s something that still hasn’t returned.

“Anything where a customer would reach in to service themselves — muffins, donuts, bagels — we pulled off the floor and went to packaged goods, but still fresh baked every day,” she said. “That helps with the customer confidence. We’re still under pause, so to speak, and plan to continue doing the packaging for the foreseeable future.”

All associates at Tops wear gloves and masks and the bakery follows strict social distancing and food safety guidelines, which helps build the trust factor with consumers.

“We’ve had some categories that have really benefited from all this, strangely enough,” Zwirlein says. “Our bagel category has increased in sales units and margin since this started, with customers switching from buying a single bagel to a whole six-pack now. However, the donut category and muffin category have really struggled. The single donut was one of our most popular sellers, so losing that has really hurt our dollars and unit sales.”

As of June 1, Tops was rolling out single donuts again at a few select stores, as well as incorporating some muffins and pastries to see how they do. All items are behind the glass, but customers can serve themselves.

“We’ll gauge customer feedback and walk very slowly through the transition back to full self-service,” Zwirlein said. “The longer customers have been home, the more we’ve seen some of the indulgent items pick up because I think people felt like they wanted to treat themselves.”

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