Today's convenient soups don't require consumers to use a can opener, or even dirty a dish. In fact, 75 seconds and a microwave is often all that stands between hungry eaters and a hot satisfying meal. But that's assuming the soup makes it into the consumer's cart.
Research from Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., done in conjunction with Hormel, revealed that shelf-stable convenience items aren't reaching their full sales potential. But it's not because shoppers aren't seeking simple meals.
In fact, 64% of consumers interviewed post-supermarket trip reported that they had looked for convenience items, but only 35% knew how to find them, Bob Samples, director of category planning and support for Hormel, Austin, Minn., told SN.
Researchers concluded that Center Store merchandising strategies that focused on organization by category, rather than convenience meal occasion, were at the problem's root. But it wasn't grocers' fault.
Many had taken cues from manufacturers like Hormel, which — with its previous recommendation of merchandising convenient versions of products (chili in a microwavable container) alongside their category parent (chili in a tin can) — was contributing to the confusion, conceded Samples.
“You need to uncouple these items since they fall into different shopping occasions,” he said.
Such is the premise of Hormel's Quick and Easy Meal Solutions aisle reorganization plan.
Dozens of retailers, representing more than 54% of all commodity volume, are on board with the project, Samples said.
Food Lion is among the early adopters.
As part of a test that currently includes two stores, it will roll out varying degrees of reorganization to 15 more stores, according to Marty Miller, category manager for Food Lion.
“The extent of each aisle reorganization varies by store, depending on store size and sections,” she said.
Implementations range from phase one, which just includes ultra-convenient meals, or those shelf-stable offerings prepared in five minutes or less that require no clean-up, to phase three — an entire aisle reorganized in a convenience continuum.
In the latter sequence, ultra-convenient meals are grouped in the aisle area nearest the checkout, followed by canned chili and stew that take less than 10 minutes to prepare. Next come boxed dinners that require a protein and take less than 20 minutes to make. These items are strategically positioned in the back of the aisle, closest to the meat section.
“Consumers want easy, convenient items in one spot to make their shopping quick and easy,” Miller said.
Signs hanging above the Center Store aisle, and other in-store marketing efforts, let shoppers know that convenient items can be found there.
Rather than identify the specific products positioned in the quick and easy aisle, the signs simply communicate that it's a destination for convenient meals.
“This is what resonates with shoppers,” Samples said. Signs are also used when partial aisle implementations are put in place.
Food Lion is also guiding shoppers in other ways.
The chain has strategically anchored the aisles with endcaps featuring quick and easy meal components to help draw perimeter shoppers. The displays include items like microwavable stew, a fruit cup and a beverage, explained Samples.
“We found that when we looked in shoppers' carts, those were things that went together,” he said. “By merchandising against the meal occasion, we were able to help shoppers find where things were in the store.”
But what about shoppers who gave up looking for an item when they couldn't find it in the old location?
That was among the concerns voiced by one chain that had apprehension about breaking up items in a category as strong as soup.
“A big national retailer wanted to test that before they took it further,” Samples said.
Hormel found that stores that uncoupled microwavable soups from canned had a 10 percentage point advantage over companies that did not, when it came to sales of the convenience soups.
“It was a smaller gain for the overall category, but the microwaveable soup portion really gained an advantage,” Samples said.
Food Lion plans to conclude its test by the end of the year. It's still too soon to share results, Miller said.
Though it's also too soon to gauge the sales impact of full aisle revamps in other stores, preliminary results look positive, noted Samples.
“The more extensive the change, the greater the return,” he said.
To put the plan's potential into perspective, consider the results from a test including five retailers who launched phase one of the plan, which includes grouping items that take five minutes or less to prepare.
When it came to sales of the ultra-convenient items, the average realized a 19% advantage when compared with others in their market peer group who hadn't reorganized these items, according to Samples.
Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., is hoping to see similar results. It established entire convenience aisles under the Hormel plan in about 20% of its 520 stores, spokeswoman Robin Miller told SN.
The chain plans to eventually have this and other easy meal solutions available in all of its stores. “As we continue with our remodel program, we plan to implement this program as well as others that allow us to align adjacencies to conform to our customers' changing shopping patterns,” she said.
Winn-Dixie began phase one of its companywide remodeling plan more than two years ago when it announced plans to upgrade 75 stores each year throughout its Southeast operating areas. Phase two, which began earlier this year, involves remodeling stores on a market-by-market basis.
Thanks to successful sales improvements, the chain will implement the Quick & Easy Meal Solutions Aisles as it goes.
“Positive results indicate that our customers are taking advantage of these innovative products and this simplified approach to shopping,” Miller said.
Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., is one of the latest retailers to test the program. It's piloting full aisle reorganizations in two of its Family Fare locations, according to Samples.
The two stores were chosen since a higher-than-average percentage of convenience-seeking consumers shop these locations, he said.
A spokeswoman for the chain didn't return SN's request for comment.
The Family Fare implementations are unique in that they involve student interns from Western Michigan University, and Dr. Frank Gambino, director of the food marketing program there. The students are involved in everything from the physical reorganization of the aisles to data analysis.
In June, a team comprising Gambino and his colleague Phil Straniero, 19 WMU students and Rick Ribbens, project director for Spartan, along with Ron Linama and Betsy Ryba, who manage aisle designs and categories for the retailer, converged on the first Family Fare location to reorganize the convenience aisle, according to Samples.
Food Lion's Miller related that the undertaking usually takes up about 8 hours.
“We actually impacted three aisles at a time by trying to create the right mix,” Samples said. “It's a significant time investment and each time you do it with the same team you get better and faster; you learn as you go along.”
The students are now beginning to drill down into sales data to get a sense for the aisles' impact on the overall basket size and the growth of individual categories.
“The early results, without a lot of history yet, are very positive,” noted Samples. “Until we've got a quarter- or a half-year's worth of data, we're not sharing much information since we don't want to overstate the case.”
Spartan is expected to make a decision about whether to expand the plan later on this year, according to Samples.
Food Lion's Miller noted that now is an especially opportune time to cater to consumers' need for convenience.
“We have found through various channels and consumer research that consumers are taking lunch to work more often during this economy and want convenient easy meals at home,” she said.
Shoppers are incorporating microwaves into their newfound routines, with usage up to its highest point in close to 20 years, noted Harry Balzer, vice president and chief industry analyst of the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.
“1990 was your peak year for usage and now all of the sudden it's risen again within the past two years, which almost makes you think it's part of the economic downturn,” he said.
Microwavable meal solutions that also offer the convenience of shelf stability are in a position to meet food shoppers most frequent decision drivers.
“There are two forces behind why we change how we eat: the cost of food, and the ease of preparation,” Balzer said. “Both are equally important to us, and we're always looking for ways to reduce both.”
The need for convenience is even more important now that men are entering the kitchen — many with little cooking experience.
Last year, the NPD Group reported that in 2007, men prepared 18% of all in-home dinners, compared with 14% in 2003.
Those numbers are expected to grow, since younger men who live in a household with others are cooking most frequently.
In fact, two-thirds (67%) of men under age 25 will prepare at least one of the next 10 dinners, according to the report.
of men under age 25 will prepare at least one of the next 10 dinners in their household.
Source: NPD Group