Creative Exceptionalism

A quandary of the deli industry is that if you survey Americans about what a deli is, you very likely will get an answer steeped in popular culture: Pastrami, corned beef, hard salami, tongue, rye bread, and kosher pickles – in fact, the old-time kosher deli.

Yet it is fair to say that the supermarket deli, certainly those outside of heavily Jewish areas, have done little to capitalize on the countless movies, press reports, and comedians that have sung praises of places like The Carnegie Deli.

In many supermarket delis around the country, about the only thing that speaks to that heritage is a plaintive-looking Hebrew National salami or bologna sitting lost in the deli case.

It is a shame because what it represents is the kind of passive merchandising typically of deli operations in supermarkets across the country.

Take a look at décor – the typical supermarket deli décor is an abstract of chunks of meats and cheese. There is no character – nothing harkening back to the classic kosher delis or the fragrant Italian delis that for so long defined the deli industry.

Now I’m not one to be overly taken in by nostalgia, and it is true that supermarket delis today have wonderful products that the proprietors of yore never dreamed of. But even the best supermarket delis often seem, well, sterile. And this sterility bespeaks passivity in merchandising that represents lost potential.

The deli is in many ways a kind of portal through which specialty foods often pass as they undergo a transition from pure specialty items to mainstream product lines. Put another way, the supermarket deli is the repository for much that is extraordinary and wonderful in the supermarket.

Yet the typical supermarket deli’s marketing program is heavily focused on price. On a recent store visit to a respected chain, I saw on this particular day four different signs promoting different hams, three signs promoting different turkey breasts and a bunch of other promotions. But each sign contained only a small identifier such as “Virginia Ham” or “Smoked Turkey Breast”. A few of the signs promoted a brand of cheese or meat. But aside from that information the only thing promoted was the price.

So any consumer who didn’t know one product merited a higher price than another left the supermarket deli as ignorant as when she arrived. And if some untried meat or cheese could tickle a particular shopper’s taste buds, well, nobody seemed very concerned about making that happen.

A lot of the attention in supermarket delis has been on broadening the product offerings, so we have gone far beyond just sliced meats and cheeses and some smoked fish. Yet, in our race to broaden our categories, we have neglected to develop sales through marketing the depth of our product lines.

Many industry members just gathered at the EPPA show, and the kosher product was prominent. In early November, many industry members will find their way to Kosherfest, and there will be a cornucopia of kosher products appropriate for the deli.

But among the buyers, I sense an element of preaching to the converted. The ones visiting Kosherfest are those already doing a substantial business in selling kosher foods. This is practical and of course, makes sense.

Yet even if a basic key to business success is selling what your customers want, surely great merchandisers need to practice “creative exceptionalism”, that is to say, that truly great merchandisers need to not only follow the customer but also lead the customer.

Foodservice knows this: go to California Pizza Kitchen and read the special guarantee they offer to encourage trial of their varied menu. If you order something new and you don’t like the dish, CPK will replace it – gratis – with an old favorite.

Perhaps walking the halls of Kosherfest, we’ll find a few buyers who don’t sell that much kosher food but who are intent on finding interesting products and presenting them to their customers.

Perhaps these buyers will bring back new product offerings and will promote them for the flavor and quality characteristics that make them unique.

Go into a Barnes & Noble bookstore, and you will find little hangtags throughout the store, labeling individual books as a staff member’s choice. The staff member writes down why he loved the book and cared enough about it to write the hangtag.

Not every bookstore clerk bothers to write the tags, but enough love books and are willing to share that love to make a real difference in sales. There are many deli staffers who don’t appreciate food, but surely there are deli staffers who do. Instead of just a sign saying that the meat or cheese is half-price this week, how about moving to a merchandising system that lets deli operators share their love for great food with customers? How about an effort to share with customers why this food is special?

In many ways, the effect of keeping kosher is that one stops and thinks each time one eats about why this food is special. It is a way of separating animals and man. Surely the deli department, in a secular way, can help to elevate and expand food tastes and help people to not buy on autopilot but buy information and a spirit of adventure.