It’s impossible to know what ready-meal choices shoppers will want from supermarkets in the future. But it is possible to prepare for them. The secret lies in strategic flexibility that extends to everything from display cases to takeaway packaging.
“When grocers buy equipment for retail meal solutions, they shouldn’t just consider whether it will meet current plans — for example, to create an Asian noodle stand,” said Kelly Sayko, a product manager in Hillphoenix’s Case Division and an expert on the art and science of food preparation. “Supermarkets should think about whether the equipment can be reconfigured and repurposed to suit consumer preferences of the future.” So, for example, if crêpes become all the rage, can today’s noodle stand transform into a crêperie?
The ubiquitous salad bar is a great proving ground for the power of flexibility, Sayko said. The popularity of traditional salads fluctuates, but a salad bar can become a fresh-cut fruit station. Or grocers can display ready-to-cook, locally sourced raw vegetables on the line and offer microwavable steamer packages alongside the clamshells. “That lets busy, health-conscious shoppers grab a pack of green beans that they can quickly transform into a nutritious home-cooked meal,” she said.
Sayko, whose background includes managing food-making operations for supermarkets and formulating consumer packaged goods products for companies such as Nestlé, said stores should start any ready-meal project by asking a few key questions:
- What do consumers want? What’s already selling well, and what are shoppers asking for? Track in-store patterns, but also look more broadly at what’s happening in the local market, for example with food trucks or ethnic restaurants. And investigate what has worked in stores elsewhere. A successful retail meal solutions strategy always starts with the consumer.
- What’s the benchmark? If a supermarket wants to create a ready-to-order sandwich bar, for example, the people driving the project need to understand what consumers will expect. The standard for quality isn’t the cellophane-wrapped sub in the deli. It’s the specialty sandwich shop across the street that gives customers plenty of fresh, appetizing options.
- Where’s the right location? Study shoppers’ traffic patterns. But go beyond flow to consider the sights, sounds and smells that will draw shoppers to your ready-made meal “theater.”
- What are the health and safety considerations? Make sure you — and your employees — understand the rules and regulations for restaurant-style food. Get up to speed on the heating, refrigeration and safe-storage requirements of every ingredient.
- Is equipment flexible? Can it serve more than one purpose? The answers to these questions can determine whether grocers are able to switch strategies if they’ve misread a trend or can shift gears as consumers’ preferences change. Sayko notes that kind of adaptability can be configured or built into foodservice and merchandising equipment to suit their needs which allows grocers to configure — and reconfigure — food service and merchandising equipment to suit their needs.
“Supermarkets have to consider consumer’s tastes today and tomorrow in every strategic decision,” Sayko said. “Flexibility is essential.”