The Order/Product Disconnect

A modern deli department at a top operator is a marvel to behold. Bountiful displays of prepared foods, mouth-watering rotisseries cooking in the background, sandwiches overflowing with the finest ingredients from all corners of the globe, wok stations, pizza programs and more.

Yet the ordering mechanism in the vast majority has not kept up with the broadening of the range and the increased emphasis on cooked items. Although able to fulfill culinary dreams unthinkable a generation ago, the modern deli in a mass-market outlet is horribly slow and typically does not meet consumer needs for convenience.

This dichotomy between food and service often sours consumers on the deli.

Why? Consumers attracted by fresh, sliced and prepared-to-order offerings wind up settling for prepackaged and self-service items — which aren’t what they wanted.

The whole situation creates a Hobson’s Choice that can’t be a winner for retailers:

If consumers wait in line, they waste time. All too often, they leave the deli to exit the store as soon as possible, having been thrown off schedule by a long wait. If the line or service time is off-putting, the consumer leaves the store to pick up restaurant take-out food or buys a pre-packed product, making a mental note to buy take-out next time.

The order/product disconnect also means the deli operation functions on a hit-or-miss basis — even if the product is made on site. For example, if a store uses several marinades and the consumer really likes the lemon-pepper chicken, there is no way to guarantee it will be there when the consumer shows up, and other than a full catering order, there is usually no mechanism for the consumer to order one.

One could dream of a massive staff of well-trained customer service people, but a more realistic alternative would be to look for opportunities to use technology in the service of making ordering more convenient.

One excellent example is the way Sheetz, the well known convenience-store chain — its slogan is Fresh Food: Made to Order — uses touchscreen ordering systems that allow multiple people to simultaneously order. Here is the way Sheetz explains the system:

It’s a popular belief that you can’t get good tasting food at a convenience store. At Sheetz, we like to turn such conventions on their heads. We have developed a made-to-order food program that rivals any quick serve restaurant you’ve ever visited. We use only the highest quality ingredients and prepare your food exactly the way you like while you wait.

Our menu also feeds your busy lifestyle. Whether you need breakfast to start your day, you eat family dinner in the car as you’re running the kids to after-school activities, or your lunch break is at 3 am, all menu items are available 24/7/365. Choose from:

Hot and Cold Subz; Deli Sandwiches; Saladz; Wrapz, Burgerz, and Hot Dogz; Grilled Chicken Sandwiches; Pretzel Meltz; Fajitaz and Nachoz; Fryz and Chicken Stripz (Select Locations); Breakfast Sandwiches

All of these items are completely customizable using our Touchscreen ordering system. Imagine an entire menu right at your fingertips. There’s no need to scream over the counter to get Mild Pepper Rings on your sub…Just press a button. It’s quick, easy, helps ensure the accuracy of your order and prevents others from knowing your strange eating habits.

Sheetz also provides a fax order form so consumers, including local businesses, can fax an order and pick it up.

As a convenience store focused on made-to-order fresh foods, it is understandable Sheetz would pioneer systems to speed the ordering process. Yet a Sheetz-like system would be more valuable for a supermarket deli. A Sheetz store is tiny, without a large amount to purchase. Most Sheetz purchases are probably for immediate consumption, so customers don’t want to go drifting off while their orders are prepared.

Supermarkets are completely different. If consumers could walk in the door, beeline to a deli and place an order on a machine, it would liberate them to shop, confident a perfectly executed deli order would be ready for pickup as they left.

It would help the overall store — and help the deli, too. Consumers who don’t have time or patience would order more. Perhaps for a family, the basics are roast beef, ham and turkey, baby Swiss and American cheese. By the time one orders from the service deli clerk, one can get antsy and leave it at that. With a mechanized ordering device, it is easy to add 1⁄2 pound of chicken breast, 1⁄4 pound of kosher salami, 1⁄2 pound of cheddar — when it is all on the screen.

Done properly, the touchscreen opens up merchandising possibilities. If someone buys roast beef, the system could suggest a horseradish cheddar; if someone buys ham, a nice Swiss. In effect, the machine can be the perfect suggestive salesperson we try to train our staffs to be.

In addition, the touchscreen can make it a breeze to place orders with several different deli areas. One deli operation could have a line for the wok program, a line for a sandwich, a line for sliced meats, cheeses and salads, still another line for pizza — it is enough to make a consumer give up. Now it can be one order, one time.

The Sheetz system is not the only answer, nor the answer for every type of operation. This much is certain, though: Productivity growth depends crucially on the adoption of technology. Why in the world do most service deli counters take orders exactly as they did 50 years ago?

If we don’t improve our order-taking experience, it will be difficult to capitalize on our advances in food quality and assortment.