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Truth and Consequences in the Deli

By Kathy Hayden

Here’s a glass that’s difficult to see as half full: About half (48 percent) of people shopping for prepared chicken in supermarket deli sections have experienced some type of problem.

Fifty percent dissatisfaction is bad news in any setting, but in deli sections, where the influence of shopper experiences spreads throughout the store, these results are especially concerning.

Consumers who reported problems in the deli experienced a 25 percent decline in satisfaction with their prepared food shopping experiences, noted a 17 percent decline in their likelihood to shop in prepared foods again, and were 22 percent less likely to recommend the prepared food section to others.

For the final piece of Progressive Grocer’s three-part 2015–16 Deli Insights series, data from Tyson Foods’ “Consequences of Failure” research, conducted among more than 3,000 consumers who purchased or considered purchasing prepared chicken at grocery retail during the previous three months ending September 2015, reveal some major pain points in the industry. The new research also serves as a progress report when compared with the last set of survey results, from December 2014.

As in 2014, the types of problems experienced in 2015 have to do with the basics: One in three consumers reported long wait times, one in four reported that the purchased product was too dry, and one in five reported that the product was unavailable.

Every problem is an opportunity, and while these numbers of incidents were high and rising, they can also be seen as a wake-up call to an industry that needs to make a quicker transition from a selling space to a service space. As the deli competes with other prepared food providers, from the drive-through to home delivery, it’s time to move training beyond the basics.

Start with Staff

Better food experiences and better guest interactions begin and end with staff. A look at Tyson’s most recent research shows that of all foodservice shoppers who reported problems, 34 percent had a staff-related problem, which was up from 31 percent in the last set of surveys. Common staff problems included unfriendly or even rude staff, unhelpful staff, and unknowledgeable staff.

Not only are staffing problems on the rise, Tyson research showed that they have an increasingly greater and more lasting impact than other store problems. Of those shoppers reporting staff problems, 37 percent had recurring problems. Staff problems led to a 21 percent decline in the likelihood to recommend a grocery store for prepared foods, and 39 percent reported not revisiting a grocery deli location for a short period of time after a staff problem.

When combined with Tyson’s earlier observational studies finding no correlation between staff numbers and guest satisfaction, according to Eric Le Blanc, director of marketing at Spring-dale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc., these numbers underscore how customer satisfaction comes from the level of staff training, not just number of staff on hand. And as deli sections become more and more like in-store restaurants, many experts see this as a huge opportunity to move from retail-based training to hospitality-based training.

“It always comes back to the labor issue,” says Jeremy Johnson, education director at the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), a nonprofit trade association. He stresses that the industry needs to move far beyond the basics of simply stocking sections and making money from basic deli buys. “It is tough to translate [current staff skills] into foodservice,” notes Johnson. “This means we need to recruit and foster culinary talent. It’s time to seek people who love food, who love talking about food, who want to sell food.”

Le Blanc also points to the restaurant industry as a staffing blueprint for deli sections to follow. “In foodservice, great customer service often comes down to the little touches,” he observes. “For example, I think of the way people end a transaction by saying, ‘My pleasure’ at Chick-fil-A as one simple step that comes to mind.”

Training for Professionalism

Speaking at Progressive Grocer’s Grocerant Summit last fall, Chicago-based chef and R&D expert Charlie Baggs cited an oft-repeated example of exceptional hospitality training. He described how employees who are responsible for sweeping the grounds at Disney World are trained for two weeks not to learn how to sweep, but to learn every corner of the park.

“These people are the face of the park and first in the line of questioning when someone needs directions. Training these people exceptionally well brings a level of professionalism and pride to their jobs that reflects throughout the park,” said Baggs, who sees a similarly high level of training needed among deli employees, who are often shoppers’ first encounters in their entire supermarket experience.

“Get people out from behind the deli case and interacting,” Baggs encouraged. “The person stocking and cleaning the hot bar or the salad bar also needs to field questions, offer samples and direct shoppers. Product knowledge and store knowledge have to be exceptional here.”

Creating a Culinary Culture

Likewise, culinary knowledge and training should come through loud and clear in the deli section. Evolving to a restaurant service model also means prioritizing culinary training. The goal is better food preparation and presentation. Currently, product-related problems — food that’s dry, not fresh, not properly cooked, not appetizing-looking and not of great quality — rated extremely high: A full 70 percent of shoppers surveyed for Tyson’s research reported product problems, and 39 percent reported recurring problems.

Because people often only discover product problems once they’re home, these problems were reported at the relatively low rate of 23 percent, and 77 percent didn’t report recurring problems, which makes addressing problems all the more challenging. But considering that 27 percent of people reported not revisiting a grocery deli location for a short period of time after a product problem, solutions are vital. Again, experts see culinary staff and better overall training as the answer.

“Hire more chefs,” urges IDDBA’s Johnson, noting that we’re experiencing a time of great interest in food, and that needs to be reflected in grocery stores. “Dare to be top-heavy with chefs, because their influence has a great effect. Dare to take chances on chefs who have worked in different foodservice segments,” he contends.

“If we really want to be creative as an industry, we can have meal and menu planners on staff,” adds Johnson, describing what he calls “the wandering-chicken syndrome,” or a shopper wandering the deli looking for full meal ideas to go with a rotisserie chicken, as a huge opportunity for better service.

“This begs for a concierge or personal-shopping approach to the deli,” says Johnson, who sees this level of expertise and one-to-one interaction as part of the deli service model of the near future.

Convenience at a Crossroads

General deli problems were nearly twice as common as staff interaction problems, with 68 percent of shoppers in Tyson’s research reporting deli issues with product availability, overall sanitation and, most importantly, long wait times. Here, too, all problems could be traced back to staff training and staff efficiencies. Slow service and inconveniences are of particular concern as deli sections seek to compete in the realm of limited-service restaurants, drive-throughs and at-home delivery.

“Prepared foods need to be synonymous with convenience,” says Le Blanc, noting that convenience means different things in different food industry settings. “In the deli channel, convenience means being able to pick up lunch or dinner — quickly and easily — where you make other purchases.”

Unlike the drive-through, if the deli falls down in delivering convenience, speed and ease, more is at stake than the next burger run. Grocery sales are at stake. Overall store experiences are at stake. Repeat visits are at stake.

Just as deli problems can become whole-store problems, Le Blanc sees the solutions as store-wide and industry-wide: “We need to overcome the ‘That’s the retailers’ problem’ mindset and move beyond thinking that deli issues are about one segment of the industry pushing an agenda.”

Additional insights can be found in PG's March digital edition here.

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