Tending To The Basics

It has been said that there is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and this much is certain: When we speak of the supermarket deli department, the idea that these departments should contain effective foodservice/home meal replacement offerings is an idea that has triumphed.

Countless rivers of ink have been spilled vaunting the hottest foodservice concepts, and it is impossible to speak to progressive deli directors without getting caught up in the enthusiasm over the latest sushi bar, rotisserie, pizza program, branded food court or other program to capture consumers’ stomachs.

It would do us all well to remember how easy it is to get overextended and, in so doing, to neglect the core products and services that have sustained supermarket delis.

It is unlikely that we will have wonderful and improving service in our new foodservice offerings if service in our traditional deli is poor or collapsing. It is much more likely that the lowest level of service we accept in our operation will become the standard.

Just recently in a store, which is located in a highly upscale community and is part of a large regional chain, I saw a consumer wait on line for about 20 minutes during a busy weekend afternoon. When she finally reached the counter she ordered corned beef, which was on ad in the newspaper and the sale was indicated by a sign in the case. Unfortunately, the deli was out of corned beef and had been for several hours. The clerk told the customer this and the customer let the clerk have it: “You have some nerve keeping me waiting 20 minutes to buy corned beef, which you don’t have. Why don’t you post a sign telling people?”

Why not, indeed? In fact, she let the clerk off easy. What the sign should say is: “We apologize for any inconvenience, but we are sold out of the corned beef that was advertised in this week’s paper. If you would like a rain check, it is available in the customer service office. As a substitute, we are also offering pastrami at the sale price.”

Even better, substitute roast beef and, if it is a little more expensive, it serves the manager right for not making sure he had enough corned beef. Next time, he might be more careful. Some shrewd store will even figure out a way to offer the rain check right at the deli counter.

I mention this not because it is exceptional, but because it is so ordinary. In fact, it is very typical of the kind of small frustrations we impose on our customers every day. I also mention it because, the following week, I was touring a new prototype store of the same chain. Seeing the exceptionally complicated foodservice offerings the chain was introducing, I couldn’t help but question whether a chain that can’t get a sign up in the deli case when it is out of an item is really the organization whose raw seafood I want to eat from the in-store sushi bar.

A while back, the stock of Albertson’s, the Idaho-based supermarket chain, suffered a hit when the chain’s earnings didn’t meet expectations. The culprit: the chain’s move into grab-and-go and home meal replacement. As I’ve chronicled in previous columns, the miracle rise of Boston Markets is as much testimony to the power of Wall Street in fin de siècle America as it is proof of the vitality and the profit-making potential of the concept. This is not to say that Albertson’s and other chains aren’t right to be experimenting. In all likelihood, it is those who dare to do new things who will discover, and profit from, the things that actually work.

Still, there is so much we know that works. Like satisfying customers so they come back for more. Like not imposing 20-minute waits for no reason. Like taking a slice of the meat or the cheese and showing it to the customers to confirm it is just the way they like it sliced.

Why can’t I submit my service deli order and go shopping, then pick up the order when I’m ready to check out? Every Chinese take-out restaurant in America has perfected this system. Why can’t we do it in a supermarket?

It is said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and, similarly, in business, one can never rest on one’s laurels. Keeping this in mind has obvious implications for supermarket deli/retail foodservice operations.

First, we better make sure that we expand managerial staff as we enrich our operations. Just telling the deli manager to also run the new rotisserie or the new grab-and-go section is a recipe for diffusion of effort almost guaranteed to result in weaker delis. Second, top management must say it clearly: We won’t allow product and service to deteriorate in a traditional deli while launching exciting new foodservice offerings. We insist on excellence in all phases of our operations. Third, don’t assume that because delis have been around awhile, they are so mature that no further evolution is possible. Supermarkets must be searching for new ways to do old things better as well as new things to do.

If we don’t heed these three simple cautions, then my bet is clear: In DELI BUSINESS of the future, we will all be reading articles with titles like “Reclaiming Deli Basics: How Supermarkets Can Compete With The New Stores Specializing In Sliced Meats And Cheeses.”

It may sound impossible, yet is it really any less impossible than the belief a few years ago that, from coast to coast, there would be thousands of restaurants selling that same chicken supermarket delis had been selling for years?