Say No To Passivity

Deli departments across the country are increasingly offering only limited service delis. They still slice meat and cheese, but salads are often only available in a pre-packaged form and, certainly, there is nobody behind the counter slicing a nice Nova, much less deboning a herring. This may all be inevitable: With labor costs high, real estate scarce and deli departments in neighborhoods that wouldn’t have had one at all a while back, a move to pre-packaged salads and smoked fish as well as more emphasis on pre-sliced meats and cheeses is to be expected.

Fortunately many pre-packaged products today are available with very high quality. Because of improved packaging technology and the care taken in packaging salads, meats and cheeses, the freshness of the product is maintained. One can even buy pre-packaged whitefish chubs that would rival and probably exceed in quality and freshness anything these stores would likely sell from behind a counter.

This all being said, the move to self-service, from the traditional service deli, leaves a gaping hole in the marketing and merchandising efforts of most departments.

Service delis rely on live people to push the product. Got a special purchase on some nice smoked butterfish? Spread the word and let your staff talk it up. Perhaps a new fruit salad, made with the new sweeter golden kiwifruit, has just arrived. Encourage the service personnel to give out informal samples when they have a customer.

All too often, though, we’ve reduced the staff and switched to a pre-packaged product, yet we haven’t created new promotional methods to sell a product, especially new products. In produce, the clerks work with the product, so they are on the floor for a long time as they trim and rotate. This makes them accessible to customers and familiar with products. But the deli clerk putting out pre-packaged salads does it quickly and has no familiarity with the product.

Many deli clerks are still trained to provide service. It is reasonably common to have a clerk give the customer the first slice when slicing meat or cheese. And with the products sold from the service counter, there is at least the prospect of having clerks offer samples or suggestions. But with so many products, including many of the industry’s most innovative products being simply self-serve, there needs to be a new approach to marketing and consumer education.

One chain I shop recently introduced a superb line of marinated products. They consist of old favorites, such as various types of olives, and more innovative products, such as a feta cheese-stuffed jalapeno. But beyond a “New Product — Try Me!” sticker, this delicious, innovative and high-profit product is left to fend for itself.

Partly the manufacturer is to blame. I see no evidence that the manufacturer of these wonderful products is making an effort to help them sell. I see zero done in the way of consumer marketing or in-store promotion, and I don’t even see efforts in the trade to educate retailers about the unique properties of these products.

The classic form of trade promotion is simple: the manufacturers tell the retailers, “Here is what we have to sell, and here are the tools we will give you so you can sell it successfully.” Then the manufacturers share their knowledge of what has worked to move the product elsewhere, what kind of consumer values the product, and the manufacturers share their basket of tools created to help sell the consumer. All too often today, manufacturers just want to get the product out on the shelf and somehow hope it will fly.

Passivity in the deli department threatens the industry. Just putting a product out and hoping it sells is a recipe for failure for new and innovative products. The products we are counting on to build the business in the future will never even get a chance.

Because retailers cannot be indifferent to whether the department becomes a bore, retailers have an obligation to their consumers and their own organizations to find ways to promote the pre-packaged, self-service items in the department, especially new and innovative products.

Why is this necessary? After all, most supermarkets just put grocery products on the shelves and leave them to fend for themselves. But delis are different. First, an awful lot of the pre-packaged product is sold under private labels, so the retailer has to take on the role of promoter and protector of that product. Second, the perishable nature of the industry means manufacturers are often not true national branded suppliers. It is unreasonable to expect that these regional or highly specialized companies will be able to provide the level of advertising and marketing support that P&G does for its products.

Finally, the deli department has a special role to play in the store. The deli, as with other perishable departments, is one of the key ways to keep the shopping experience fun and exciting, and it is one of the crucial ways to differentiate a store from its competitors.

So progressive manufacturers must take the lead by recognizing that it is not enough to produce a product — that having a plan and strategy for gaining consumer trial and acceptance is important. Retailers must signal that they evaluate not just the product, but also the marketing plan and that they are committed to giving products the space and time they need to get established.

The passive department must give way to the active selling department. We need product literature, demos, sampling, recipes and much more. A walk through the self-service cases of the deli department should bring the consumer into contact with dozens of “silent salesmen”, all encouraging trial, repurchase and positioning the department as an exciting hotbed of innovation.