Know Thyself

Many of the problems supermarkets have experienced are, at heart, a result of poor marketing. Partly this is because advertising has traditionally been both simple and price driven – best food day ads and the like and although advertising is not the ‘ be all and end all’ of marketing, often the process one goes through to create great ads helps define a company’s position. In the absence of that creative process, things tend to grow stale.

Supermarkets also do a poor job of marketing because they often depend on manufacturers to provide them with so many of the marketing campaigns that supermarkets do execute. This is less than ideal because a manufacturer’s interest in launching a promotion is in most cases, to get a short-term pop in sales and, at best, the manufacturers’ goal is to enhance the value of its own brand. Very rarely is manufacturer-driven marketing ideally calibrated to enhance the sales or the image of a supermarket chain.

Departmental marketing suffers from the same lack of strong overall positioning and intelligent and contemporary marketing strategies that the chain as a whole suffers from. Almost by definition, the chain has to set the positioning, the overall strategy for a marketing program and many chains fail to do so.

Still, this leaves the deli free to execute tactical marketing programs and most do a rather basic job. Though many chains do consumer research, it often seems driven by competitive issues – what stores do you shop in? – as opposed to consumer research to connect with the consumer, find out what is important in the lives of shoppers and then find ways to connect to that.

A good example of an opportunity currently passing delis by is the current craze sweeping the nation for low-carbohydrate eating. The Atkins diet is the classic, but there are many others – The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet and so forth.

Though our colleagues in the produce department are pushing 5 A Day, with the sanction of the National Cancer Institute, and the FDA wants everyone to observe the Food Pyramid and its heavy grain orientation, the dietary trend is to protein.

Well, think meat and cheese and seafood and vegetable salads – hold the fruit and hold the grains – and there is no reason in the world why consumers shouldn’t think deli.

Yet, on a recent trip through nine East Coast states, I couldn’t find one supermarket deli doing anything to capitalize on this trend. Nobody sold any of these hot diet books in the deli department; I couldn’t find any prepared foods highlighted as carbo-free; and I didn’t see anyone promoting any easy-to-eat alternatives to a sandwich – even basic things such as a turkey platter with coleslaw for lunch.

This is odd. There are small stores all over the country revamping their operations to become “Atkins Centers,” and certainly the nature of the low carb diet these programs demand is perfect for delis to capitalize on. Yet, the disjunction between how our supermarket delis often present themselves and the current identifications of the population explains much of the frustration behind the now troubled HMR movement and indeed the often passé image of supermarkets and their deli departments.

It is absolutely true that supermarkets had their focus on HMR roused by the competitive threat posed by Boston Market. But the truth is that the challenge was not, and is not, so much that of a particular restaurant chain, the challenge was, and is, to find a way to make delis congruent with the way people actually live.

In other words, when every Boston Market is gone from the face of the earth, the consumer desires that led people to dream up that concept will still be in place. And the fact that the concept failed no more means that those consumer desires will be forever frustrated than the fact that the failures of early automobile manufacturers mean we were destined to walk.

The challenge for deli management is how to position the deli to be in touch with people today. This is the real message of all those entreaties that the supermarket HMR programs must acquire a “foodservice mentality.” Thinking about these issues, we’ve tended to focus on a foodservice mentality toward food and food quality. Maybe more important is a foodservice chain mentality toward marketing. There are supermarket delis with well over a thousand units across the country, and each one of them spends less time and money positioning itself than the smallest fast food or dinner house chain.

We spend so much time on procurement and merchandising and managing the whole process. Yet every deli needs a marketing position to both know what kind of short-term opportunities can be seized upon and to know how long-term the deli can be positioned for success.