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Retailers have been responding to new consumer emphasis on convenience and value in prepared foods by offering grab-and-go versions of their most popular dishes and sides. Doing so is no easy feat, as retailers who offer these convenient solutions for customers must also ensure that these meals and dishes can be merchandised appealingly, and maintain their quality and integrity in a grab-and-go cooler.

Retailers have been responding to new consumer emphasis on convenience and value in prepared foods by offering grab-and-go versions of their most popular dishes and sides. Doing so is no easy feat, as retailers who offer these convenient solutions for customers must also ensure that these meals and dishes can be merchandised appealingly, and maintain their quality and integrity in a grab-and-go cooler.

Over time, Hy-Vee stores established standards and best practices for which types of prepared-food items would work well in grab-and-go cases, what type of packaging works best for their customers, and what variety works best, according to Ruth Comer, spokeswoman for the West Des Moines, Iowa-based retailer.

“All of those things go into having a successful case,” Comer told SN.

Hy-Vee's grab-and-go cases are usually located in a store's food court, where food is prepared in-store.

Coolers positioned in front of a service case or service area are popular because they create a sense of freshness, and allow customers to grab a pre-packaged item while waiting to place an order, noted Marcia Schurer, president and founder of Culinary Connections, a Chicago-based foodservice consulting company.

“You've got a bunch of customized, prepared-to-order or cooked-to-order back stations that are also merchandised with grab-and-go in front of them, so that could be a sushi station, a pizza station [or] a sandwich station. That's popular because it creates and interest and activity in the store,” Schurer said.

Hy-Vee has found that it has been most successful with grab-and-go items when it makes them in-store specifically to be put in these cases.

“That takes some discipline by your in-store foodservice operation — the discipline to have a plan, to prepare specific items, to keep the variety and the consistency, to have the case full at key times,” Comer explained.

Empty, picked-through or disorganized cases are never appealing to customers, so prepared-food departments need to plan the cases carefully, focusing on which items should be stocked and how much product to stock. Both factors are often dependant on store size and foot traffic.

“What happened in the beginning with these prepared-food products was that people had way too much case space for products that weren't turning fast enough,” Schurer said.

“I see certain places that have cut back actually on the grab-and-go and I think they've cut back because they're not moving it as fast as they need to and they're ending up with shrink.”

Mirrors are sometimes used to make the selection in smaller cases look more plentiful. Slanted shelving achieves a similar effect, Schurer said.

Lighting is also important, noted Leon Bloom, deli merchandiser for PCC Natural Foods, Seattle.

For its take-and-bake pizzas, PCC uses narrow, vertical refrigeration units, which require minimal space and display the product well, Bloom said.

“This has been a great way to expand our refrigerated offering at low cost.”

The type of cooler used for grab-and-go products depends on the retailer and what it is trying to accomplish, industry experts agreed. Factors such as local demographics, the size of the retailer and the type of programs they have in place can heavily impact the decision.

“The equipment really depends on the location in the store,” said Howard Solganik, partner in Dayton, Ohio-based Culinary Resources.

“You can't really make any generalizations on equipment besides it's nice if it's mobile. Anywhere where there's refrigeration, they're trying to encourage grab-and-go. I mean, it's the nature of what we sell.”

But, regardless of a cooler's location within the store, the versatility of the equipment is also important.

“In my opinion, the best cases are the most versatile,” said Alan Hiebert, education information specialist for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis.

For example, “a case with two or more temperature zones makes it possible to merchandise components of an entire meal, often products from several departments, in one place.”

Temperature control is crucial as it ensures food safety and quality, and minimizes shrink.

“The very first thing I think about in a case or a cooler is the food safety and the shelf life of the product,” said Schurer. “So when I'm looking at a case or merchandising grab-and-go foods, the most important thing to me is temperature control and making sure the food is kept safe so consumers don't get ill.”

Of course, while most retailers would probably love to have versatile cases with separate temperature zones along with the labor to reset them throughout the day, the reality is that grab-and-go cases can be expensive and time-consuming to manage, and stores usually don't acquire new cases very often.

As a result, retailers might consider repurposing old cases, particularly when budgets are tight.

“One focus of IDDBA's Show & Sell Center, part of the 2009 IDDBA Seminar & Expo in Atlanta, was case repurposing,” Hiebert explained.

“A team of retail merchandisers converted a produce case to a grab-and-go deli case, two bakery cases to display cheese, and a floral case to merchandise beer and cheese pairings, among others. It may take some creativity, but a grab-and-go display can be successfully executed in many store locations.”

Schurer also noted that retailers now look beyond their prepared-food areas for grab-and-go opportunities.

“It used to be deli/foodservice meant where all the prepared foods happened,” Schurer said. “But today, when you think of meal solutions, grab-and-go, what people consider making a meal, it's in every department.”

At United Supermarkets, for example, some grab-and-go items are being sold alongside beer sets with good success, said Diane Earl, business director of deli/foodservice for the Lubbock, Texas-based chain.

“Our chilled prepared category in our Market Street stores continues to grow at a steady pace,” Earl told SN.

Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., offers grab-and-go selections in multiple sections of the store, depending on store size and layout, said spokeswoman Maria Brous.

Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, a retailer that many consider a leader in the prepared-food arena, literally built its stores around prepared foods with a grab-and-go refrigerated case at the center of the store.

“Our grab-and-go cases are located near our Kitchen Table, which is basically the heart of our store,” said Brendan Wonnacott, spokesman for the El Segundo, Calif.-based retailer.

“We do a lot of sampling at the Kitchen Table where we highlight our Fresh & Easy brand grab-and-go items. We keep that all in that central location, which works well for us because it's near the produce and meat aisles and the other refrigerated cases. So it makes sense from a customer standpoint to have all those closely located, but having it by the Kitchen Table is a major thing for us.”

Location and use of the refrigerated case to communicate are key in Fresh & Easy's grab-and-go concept, Wonnacott said. With its large line of private-label prepared foods — which have no artificial colors or flavors and no added preservatives — the retailer uses a lot of in-store signage, particularly in the refrigerated cases, to highlight its philosophy as a grocer and communicate those aspects of the food to shoppers.

As a member of the Environmental Protection Agency's GreenChill program, Fresh & Easy also utilizes advanced technology such as LED lighting in its refrigeration units to lower energy costs.

“We have night shades, which keep the coolers cool at night without having a lot of energy spill over, and over time a private group found that our stores reduced energy output by about 30% compared to a typical grocery store,” Wonnacott told SN.

The best retailers build beautiful displays that are well-merchandised, well-stocked, always fresh and always attention-grabbing, Schurer said.

Bloom of PCC agreed, noting that successful grab-and-go programs require a lot of work when done right.

“To do it well, you've got to have the foot traffic, you've got to keep it fresh, keep it safe, and you've got to keep it delicious and affordable.”