Store Study

If you ever read a consumer research report that announces findings completely shocking and unexpected, findings completely counter-intuitive and in contradiction to what a lifetime of experience in the field tells you is true, then look at that research report with a questioning eye. Don’t simply accept the findings but, instead, ask yourself why people might answer questions the way they did.

So if consumers tell a survey interviewer that they are constantly seeking out low-fat and ultra-healthy products, but you keep finding that your “lean” and “fat-free” offerings are a bust and that fried chicken is outselling all healthy alternatives, look at the survey not as wrong, but as an interesting study in why consumers want to tell surveyors certain things. In other words, such a study may reveal more about the guilty conscience of consumers than buying patterns in the deli.

No such skepticism is required, however, in assessing this month’s cover story, which is an incisive study of consumer attitudes toward side dishes done by Sharon Olson. It is a great and useable piece of research, not because it surprises us with shocking attitudes that consumers were never before suspected of possessing, but, rather, the study is immediately actionable precisely because it reconfirms analytically what so much anecdotal evidence has long suggested.

Namely, the piece points out that a selection of good quality and interesting side dishes, properly merchandised and effectively sampled, will lead to more consumer purchases of side dishes and to greater consumer preference for a particular deli operation and store. Did anyone ever think it would be otherwise?

In fact, it is beyond the scope of this research project, but I have the sneaking suspicion that similar results would be found with regard to offers of entrées and desserts.

Yet this leaves us with a quandary. We all can name the great performers — Wegman’s, Ukrop’s, Central Market, and the usual lineup. But if it is so obvious that great food offerings can both sell and be a silent salesperson for the whole store, why is it so easy to make a list of those who do a great job? Why don’t we all do a great job?

It starts with the store design. This is the point at which top management makes the decision to use the deli/retail foodservice operation as a calling card for the whole store. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but, typically, the successful operations have consumers entering the store and finding themselves in the midst of a fresh cornucopia with produce, bakery, deli, foodservice operations and sometimes seafood and floral enveloping the consumer. Together it is a store imprinting on the minds of consumers a message: We are fresh. We are variety. We are delicious.

If the deli is in the back somewhere, then the management probably isn’t planning on using it to brand the store and, if so, the department has lost half the battle.

Beyond store design, though, the key holdup to successfully making your department distinctive and your store a favored shopping venue is this: Inexperienced buyers combined with a lack of merchandising patience.

Today we are fortunate to have a multitude of manufacturers able and willing to provide almost any type of food. So much so that procurement is a problem. How to select? What to buy? For most retailers, most of the time, the answer is simple: whatever will sell.

But this tried-and-true answer doesn’t really address the issues involved in selling more interesting foods. Since we are talking about dishes that many consumers have never even tasted, short-term sales data just can’t help much. Instead, retail deli executives have to establish a system by which the chain’s buyers function like chefs in fine restaurants — where the chef makes constant decisions that the restaurant will offer one product and not another.

Beyond the dilemmas of establishing a procurement system, the bigger problem by far is not recognizing that the decision to carry non-staple items comes with the necessity of a marketing program, a merchandising plan and, perhaps most important of all, a commitment to maintaining adequate displays for an extended period.

A deli buyer cannot simply identify a variety of olive, for example, put out four packages of the product and then abandon it when sales are disappointing 30 days out. It might take two years of exposure to that new olive before volume really picks up. And even then, it might depend on regular samplings, lots of informational signage and literature, occasional pairings with cheeses or wines or breads.

Impossible you say. Who will pay for this? How can I dedicate the space? What will the failure rate be? Increasingly though, it is clear that these are the wrong questions.

These are the kinds of questions that Winn-Dixie has been asking for the better part of the last 15 years. Instead of its top executives dedicating themselves to making consumers ecstatic when they walk in the door, instead of working to always be on the cutting edge allowing consumers to participate in the culinary revolution that has swept America, instead of positioning its stores as the fun and interesting place with the fresh and delicious food, Winn-Dixie was worried about maintaining margin, or buying cheaper, to compete against Wal-Mart. Look where it got them.

Consumer research has a virtue independent of the results because its very existence reminds us that we have an endgame, a goal distinct from our daily pressures to make a budget. It reminds us that our first job is to delight consumers. If we don’t do that, we won’t get a chance to solve our other problems. Just ask the folks at Winn-Dixie.