Are Delis Missing Out On Serving Children’s Needs?

As schools are open once again and parents continue to wrestle with healthy meal plans for their children’s lunches and dinners, supermarket delis stand poised to provide solutions and go beyond the traditional routines of selling chicken fingers and discounted bologna.

The role of the service deli is an important one to a retail food store. Not just because it is an important profit center and an important forum for a store to offer a differentiated product, but because in an increasingly self-service world, it is still a service department and thus an opportunity for a retailer to make those human-to-human connections that are so crucial to building real relationships with consumers.

The opportunity is real but often squandered. It is nice that a consumer might enjoy seeing “Sally” or “John” behind the counter and a plus if the associates know “Mrs. Jones” likes her ham sliced extra thin or that “Mr. Smith” comes every Wednesday night direct from his tennis league, but such connections are heavily dependent on associates staying with the company and getting to know these people.

What is really useful is training the staff to express a consistent corporate value and deliver a message that reflects what a retailer stands for. One suspects that speaking out on behalf of healthy and palate-broadening children’s lunches might be a great place to start.

The standard approach to back-to-school promotions is to offer discounts—and indeed families with children are often budget-pressed. The problem, of course, is two-fold: First, we have lots of evidence that parents are willing to skimp to get their children the best, and discounting raises the suspicion that the product being offered is not the best. Second, it is tough to build a sustainable competitive advantage on discounting as someone else is typically able to discount just as much or more.

This challenging approach is made worse because the product that is discounted is often a product that is associated with kids—chicken fingers, hot dogs, bologna, American cheese, etc.—and these products are neither the healthiest nor the most interesting products in the store.

It is a national tragedy that most restaurants still offer such uninspired children’s menus. Chicken fingers and French fries may have their place, but they hardly reach the limits of what appeals to children today. Go into any sushi restaurant, Thai restaurant, Mexican restaurant or any of a diverse array of ethnic eateries and you see children of all ethnicities enjoying diverse fare, many items with richer flavor profiles and more healthful ingredients than the standard children’s menu in the United States.

So why are so many of our deli promotions built around a discount on bologna or a buy-one-get-one-free offer on packages of chicken fingers?

Obviously, we have to start with offering diverse products, and many supermarkets have the advantage of deli/retail foodservice departments already rich in prepared food items, diverse salad and soup bars and a rich panoply of ethnic cuisines.

Part of the issue is the focus: Do we offer small lunch-box-size containers for parents to select hot or cold items off the food bars and put the items in the containers to later drop in a lunchbox? Imagine kids sitting down in the school cafeteria with sesame noodles or chicken stir fry packed in small containers within their lunchboxes. Are the pre-made items, such as tuna salad or macaroni and cheese, sold in the right-sized containers for school lunch? Is there a “five pack” option of pre-made items so parents can get appropriate assortments for a week of school lunches?

Yet even if the product and packaging are correct, we still have to sell, and the best way to sell is for retailers to position themselves as really interested in assisting parents to help their children enjoy good food while living a healthy lifestyle.

We all know the tools: Signage, packaging, in-store video, websites, ads, on and on. Yet surely, the single most effective tool is people. Associates would likely feel inspired if they understood their job was not merely servicing consumers who want a discount on ham, but to represent the company’s deeply held value that the deli department and the store as a whole can play a role in improving the lives of children by getting them delicious, nutritious and healthy food.

My youngest son, Matthew, age 10, is in good shape, but he is a basketball player and wants to be in great shape so, without any suggestion from his parents, he has sworn off deep-fried foods. Kids are sophisticated today—they know things at earlier ages than their parents and grandparents did, and they understand the idea of making good choices. He still will only eat things that taste good, but he is open to trying things; he has traveled some and sometimes he stumbles on something delicious.

Why shouldn’t his mother stumble on something delicious in the deli department? And, why shouldn’t we be working hard to help her find this secret ingredient?