November, 2001

From the Editor

The Takeout Dad

One of the striking disappointments of marketing is that whatever the efficacy of our efforts, they pale before changes in consumption are wrought by changes in circumstances.

I’ve felt this first-hand as I’ve been visiting the delis at all my local supermarkets lately. Not on store tours: I’ve been buying. Though this pattern has not been typical for me, the change wasn’t motivated by any sale or by any promotion. I don’t think the offering has changed and service hasn’t improved.

No, I’ve become a big deli buyer because my wife recently had a baby and, since neither she nor I really cook much at home, I’ve been bringing food in every night.

To put it another way, my deli department purchases have increased because my demographic needs changed to better meet what the deli offers rather than because the deli changed to match my needs. After all, how many times can you do take-out Chinese or pick up Italian food? The search for variety leads one right to the supermarket deli.

That is the deli’s big advantage – a variety of food types allows one to buy something for everyone. And it is great for repeat business because one can walk in every night and know one won’t have to buy the same type of food as one purchased yesterday. So if yesterday was fried chicken, tonight may be ribs.

Being part of a supermarket turns out to be a big plus as well. Almost inevitably we are short on Pampers or baby shampoo or need something else, and I can kill two birds with one stone by picking up some miscellaneous necessities along with dinner.

Of course, not all supermarkets are created equal. I’ll run into the big local chain and pick up some chicken but for a treat, it’s The Fresh Market or Whole Foods. They are pricier but offer a wider selection of more unusual items.

They seem more like a restaurant because they often seem to have a special. I don’t mean that they lower the price; I mean that they offer a Chef’s creation. Maybe it is a Cornish Hen or a Shish-ka-Bob or Shrimp Scampi – I often buy it just to get relief from the monotony of bringing home the same things.

We are not doing much cooking yet, but as my wife heals and the baby lets us sleep through the night, I see the deli will have trouble holding on to our new-found business. Meat and seafood departments, particularly in the more upscale stores, are carrying a much greater variety of pre-marinated or pre-stuffed items. Fish, in particular, seems to offer an opportunity for delis. We really don’t want to cook fish in our house. But we do want to have it part of our diets. Yet aside from the smoked variety, the supermarket deli is rather scarce in selling hot cooked salmon, snapper and other popular fish varieties.

One obvious point: Most of the promotion done at point of purchase is price-oriented. In fact there is scarcely any attempt at point of purchase to sell the quality, flavor, or healthfulness of any deli product. The prepared foods, particularly those sold hot, have no promotion at all.

Instead I’m confronted at my local supermarket deli with a barrage of signs, many of them, literally, paper plates inscribes with a black marker, indicating special prices on different meats and cheeses.

Unless one has a great deal of culinary training, it really is hard to put together more than the most basic of meals. What kind of salad or dessert goes best with this entrée? Is there a beer or a wine that is appropriate? There is no information and rarely anyone to ask.

There are rarely instructions on reheating or storing leftovers. Many times the containers the food is in leak before I get home. Often they are not microwavable or usable in the oven.

Even the most predictable requests are spread all over the store. I have to go to produce to get a fresh-cut salad and down the beverage aisle for a Coke. Are we consciously trying to inconvenience the customers, or are we not thinking about how to provide the proper service?

My sense is there is a kind of schizophrenia existing in many supermarket delis. Though they all sell prepared foods, the department staff hasn’t really figured out how to position the department. So wonderful prepared items, with unique recipes and many unique attributes, are sold pretty much the way commodity American cheese is sold.

Which means the order is being taken, but it is not really being sold at all. What a lost opportunity.    DB