The Rack

“Fine British foods,” says the sign on a freestanding rack, prominently located at the front end of an aisle in a major regional supermarket chain.

Excited when I first saw this display, I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for everyone. Consumers would learn the pleasures of new products. British producers, U.S. importers, and distributors would all have a new business, and the retailer would make money on the products and attract those high-margin customers that are the key to supermarket profitability.

Then I saw what was being sold. Although all the products are made in Britain, is it remotely conceivable that the best Britain has to offer is represented by products such as Heinz Baked Beans? Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup? Heinz Spaghetti in tomato sauce? Could it be true that the confectionary traditions of Britain are best represented by Nestle Milkybar Chunky? In the great British tradition of cookies and biscuits, the best we could do is McVitie’s McV the Original Digestive?

I’m being a little unfair, but only a little. The contents of the rack point to tremendous changes needed in the way supermarkets handle specialty foods. And it is not just this rack. In fact, the display is important because it typifies the problems with the way supermarkets handle these types of items. Let us count the ways:

1. Putting Procurement on Auto-Pilot. I don’t know who selected these particular products, but it could not possibly have been a supermarket specialty food buyer or director who sampled items to find the best Britain had to offer.

Perhaps it was a special promotion, and the participants contributed financially to get the spot in the stores. However it happened, it speaks to the need for supermarkets to have specialty food directors just as they have produce and deli directors. They need people who understand that specialty foods have particular characteristics that change the procurement dynamics.

In most of the center store, buying is biased toward putting it out and seeing if it sells. A buyer’s personal preferences do not have a role in procurement. This is the opposite of attitude in, say, foodservice, where the chef very specifically makes choices for the consumer. Few restaurants carry every fish or offer customers a choice of any lettuce in their salad.

Well, specialty foods at retail are more like food service than the rest of the grocery department. The displays aren’t large enough to support endless variety so the consumer needs the specialty food buyer to be his or her advocate in researching, analyzing and selecting the best.

The space we devote in supermarkets to specialty food is too precious to fill it up carelessly.

2. Being Unclear About What Is Offered. The only rationale, other than just money, for some of the products on the rack, would be a kind of national nostalgia. The Cream of Tomato soup on this rack is specialty food in the same way Campbell’s Tomato soup would be a specialty food in Beijing. To British expatriates, the availability of these fondly-thought-of products brings comfort. But that is a very specific kind of product selection, a very specific kind of message and requires the display and promotion to back it up.

3. Neglecting Consumer Education and Merchandising. Completely aside from the quality of what was on this rack, one of the shocking things about this display was there was absolutely zero information about any of the products displayed. Why would one eat “Mushy Processed Peas”? or what is the distinction between Heinz Ploughman’s Pickle, Heinz Piccalilli Pickle or Branston Pickle Original? For that matter, what is the distinction between Heinz Baked Beans made in England and the ones made right here in the U.S.A.? On all of these points, this display is silent.

Perhaps a few expats might buy from this rack. A few products, like a Crosse & Blackwell foil pack of seasoning to make Shepherd’s pie or a Goldenfry Foods mix for Yorkshire Puddings, might attract some purchase from those who have heard of these foods and want to try making them – although there is no indication that these products were selected for being the best in these categories.

But even if sales are adequate to make the promotion a “success”, what a waste, what a shame. How many countless millions pass by racks like this? And what a wonderful opportunity to educate them and introduce them to new products and flavors.

In most chains, there is nobody who really cares if five years from now imported British foods have taken off – and therefore we get this kind of poor excuse for a promotion. But the success of supermarket chains increasingly hangs on specialty foods. Only the buyers of these distinctive products are likely to provide the margins to allow supermarkets to co-exist with Wal-Mart and Costco.

Supermarkets don’t make procurement, merchandising and marketing decisions – people do. If specialty foods are allowed to be the exclusive province of executives who don’t know or care about specialty foods, then supermarkets will never realize the sales and profit potential of these products.