Merchandising And Marketing Anemia

One of the small pleasures of my position is the opportunity to visit retailers across the country and around the world. One could do worse than to argue that the modern supermarket — where transportation, storage, refrigeration and packaging technology have intersected with food production capability and a web of global trade relationships — is some kind of pinnacle of western civilization.

The deli/retail foodservice departments of modern food retailers are a big part of this offering and an important component of the atmosphere of a store. Upon the first visit, many stores are simply extraordinary. Even modest or low-volume outlets that lean more toward pre-packaged foods than extensive foodservice offerings still offer a variety that is quite extraordinary.

Though there are exceptions, most companies treat these deli departments the way tinhorn dictators treat democracy: They believe they have to win an election once and can then not worry about it anymore.

So these beautiful stores we build suffer from an almost complete lack of merchandising and marketing. We build these temples to food, set up elaborate relationships to supply them and, for the most part, leave them like that until the next remodel.

Recently I visited chain stores around the country and, although some were exceptional and almost all reasonably nice, they were for the most part under-merchandised, under-marketed and, frankly, a bit boring.

If you went in to look, for example, at how the stores tied into the locavore trend, you’d mostly look in vain. For the most part, no organic deli foods are offered. Perhaps those stores with foodservice had tied into the cult of cooking personalities by highlighting their cooks? Not really. Surely there was evidence of the hottest recipes on the Food Network or in cooking magazines? No, barely a hint. Perhaps some explanation of why a kosher product might be desirable? Or an offer of Fair Trade product for those interested in using their shopping to achieve ethical results? No, none of this at all.

We saw the occasional discounts – a particular sub on sale or a “meal deal” — but they seemed disconnected from any social trends that might make those products seem desirable for any reason other than price.

In Deli Business’ sister publication, the online Perishable Pundit, we’ve been running a series of articles built upon the battle between Boar’s Head and Dietz & Watson over issues of retail exclusivity. Our visits around the country, though, make us suspect the business of retailers basically outsourcing procurement to a particular company tends to lead to less-than-optimal variability on the product offering and the merchandising that goes along with it.

Even traditional holiday merchandising seems to have fallen out of favor. Just prior to the Jewish holidays, many of the stores visited were in neighborhoods with significant Jewish populations, yet there was scarcely any indication these stores were ready to help consumers deal with the meals surrounding these holidays or any indication they wanted catering orders.

It’s not that the retailers aren’t hip to all the trends. The same stores that had nothing to say about their cheesemakers, the same stores that did not profile the family that had been making roast beef for generations, had large signs with multi-generational photographs of growers over in the produce department.

In some cases, these signs illustrated “local” growers but, just as often, they were just family farmers, growing things in major production areas such as Wenatchee and Yakima, WA, for apples or Salinas, CA, for greens. The posters were tying the product to a locale, not promoting nearby production.

The produce departments also generally had significant organic choices, and even though they did not have constant service staff, the fact that produce clerks actually work on the floor with the product, whereas deli clerks typically stay behind the counter servicing a line of customers, created a more intimate opportunity for conversation and trial.

Aside from an occasional dome filled with cheese cubes or rolled turkey slices — often with no signage indicating what the product is or why it was selected — many of the delis have an odd sampling program. The main sampling was a convention of offering consumers a slice of whatever they just ordered.

This may give consumers the opportunity to ask for thicker or thinner slicing, but since they just ordered the product that’s sampled, it can’t boost sales or expand the consumer palate. If someone orders roast beef, the win is to offer a slice of horseradish cheddar.

As we move deep into the holiday season and onto 2010, we need to make sure our departments are not a bore. It’s not enough to build a beautiful store; we need to delight consumers with something new every visit. We need to tie into trends on the minds of consumers; we need to pay attention to what’s going on in magazines and TV. We need to engage with the world and our customers.