February/March, 2017

From the Editor

Sign Of The Times: No More Samples Of Deli Meat

In South Florida, where Deli Business is headquartered, there was panic in the streets… well, maybe not quite panic and, actually the streets were clear, the frenzy was all online. The Tampa Bay Times published a piece, the Orlando Fox affiliate ran a report, the Orlando Sentinel picked it up, and the article was run in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel. The Tampa piece was headlined “Publix No Longer Offers You That Free Slice of Meat at The Deli Counter”:

The dance is not complicated.

You go to your neighborhood Publix. You say, “One pound of Boar’s Head tavern ham, sliced thin.” The person in the hairnet unwraps the mighty pink hemisphere, hefts it bouncily onto the stainless-steel slicer and cleaves 1 millimeter, the swath falling neatly onto a plastic deli sheet.

“Is this about right?” she asks. You take it into your palm, scrutinize. Maybe it’s thin enough to read through, maybe it’s just right. But if you’re hungry, you say, “A little thinner.”

You have just scored your second free piece of tavern ham.

Except, you may have noticed something changed recently at your neighborhood grocery. Some of Publix’s stores are quietly putting a stop to the practice of the free slice, creating an awkward silence while you wait for your free meat. If you want it, now you have to ask.

What gives?

“We are piloting a change in a few dozen delis in Central and southwest Florida to create a more natural exchange between our deli clerks and our customers,” says Brian West, media relations manager at Publix, which has more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast.

Translation: “Natural exchange” means no free deli samples.

The Orlando Sentinel headline: “Publix Cutting Back On Free Deli Meat Slices”:

Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens said there has been some confusion about the new Publix policy.

Stevens said Publix stopped automatically offering meat slices because it is offering a “cheese of the week” sample instead. Deli employees will no longer offer a piece of meat automatically with orders, but customers will be given a slice if they request it.

Another Publix spokesman, Brian West, insisted it was not a cost-cutting move. However, Publix’ stock price has dropped about 11 percent a share since November 2015 as the chain scoops up sites for expansion into Virginia and other markets.

Quickly, however, as consumer outrage poured in online, the Sun-Sentinel ran a follow-up piece titled, “Publix Not Offering Free Deli Samples in South Florida? That’s Baloney”:

In breaking deli news, Baloneygate erupted this week.

The Tampa Bay Times caused an uproar after reporting Tuesday that select Central and Southwest Publix Super Markets are no longer automatically offering customers free samples of sliced meats at deli counters.

Relax, South Florida. Publix is still offering free deli samples in stores.

“Our stores in South Florida should not see any changes in our deli processes, as our stores in this trade area are not impacted by the pilot,” says Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous.

South Florida is a retiree-rich market and change of this sort is traumatic, so Publix is probably smart to do its test elsewhere. Its motivation is unclear; the news reports focused on cost-cutting, but it is also quite possible that the “dance” referred to between consumer and deli clerk is too time-consuming and thus labor-intensive. Not only does this interaction cost money, but it slows down service.

The decline in Publix stock price is interesting, in part, because Publix is not a public company, so this is an internal price for employee stock purchases.

It is also possible that the “cheese of the week” promotion might be a way to get people to sample, and then, hopefully, purchase a new product, as opposed to giving people slices of product they already enjoy.

The whole kerfuffle raises the question of the role of the service deli. Many retailers, including Publix, have been emphasizing online ordering and for good reason. After all, consumers waiting in line are restricted in their buying, so allowing shoppers to just swoop by and pick up the ready-sliced orders seems a win for both consumer convenience and the interests of the store in extending actual shopping time. 

If consumers don’t interact with personnel, that reduces the value of having employees on the floor.

Wal-Mart has maintained a service deli specifically because it is one of the few moments where consumers interact with Wal-Mart staff. But, today, few deli clerks have the experience or the time to really engage with consumers, suggest new options, and offer more samples.

Publix is a leader in the industry and is experimenting with ways to transform the relationship between the deli clerk and the consumer. Let us hope they succeed, for in this age of much improved pre-packaged product and rising minimum wages, if the relationship is not transformed to create greater value for consumers, retailers and producers, the transition might start to look more like a disappearance.DB