Supermarket Delis May Benefit from Post-pandemic’s New Dawn

jim prevor
Jim Prevor

If the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, political disputes and the general interruption of normality have taught us anything, it is that in ways fantastically unpredictable, we are survivors.

Now with inflation overlapping worker hesitancy and supply interruptions, we are presented with new obstacles to endure and over which we must prevail.

During the heart of the pandemic, the deli and retail foodservice departments did not shine. Overall retail sales zoomed, but if people were going to stay home, they figured they might as well cook. Now the fear is not so much disease as it is financial stability. In some cases, because the pandemic aroused people’s reflections of their own mortality, many simply couldn’t handle the thought of a life’s work not imbued with meaning. So they stopped working at all, or worked in a less remunerative fashion.

Bizarrely, this new ‘ethos’ might just benefit supermarket deli and retail foodservice operations. After all, if money is tight, then supermarket operations offer less expensive options than the restaurant industry. And if people, influenced by the pandemic’s pause in their lives, want moments filled with meaning, then spending time shopping at multiple venues carries a huge price. So, for this moment in time, large, full-service supermarkets seem just right.

It is a moment that may not come again, and it offers both opportunity and challenges.

Can we, the supermarket deli and retail foodservice operations, rise to be worthy of a new dawn? It will not be easy. Labor shortages affect the service departments even more than the rest of the store. Many deli operations are icons to the past, selling sliced meats and cheeses just as they did decades ago, but the culture has changed. People eat ethnic foods, and they are wealthier than their grandparents could have imagined. I had a great-uncle who, each day of the week, ate a bologna sandwich for lunch. Which is more shocking… that he ate bologna or that he ate the same thing every day?

When Walmart rolled out its supercenter concept across the country, it maintained a service deli. The thought was that some human interaction with the customer was a good idea.  Is it anymore? Maybe the fear of getting a disease from another person still exists. And, really, isn’t the tuna salad fresher if it is packed and hermetically sealed rather than put in an open bowl in a display case with human beings to scoop it out and put it in containers?

It is not that human interaction is not valuable, but maybe it is a higher-skilled human that makes the experience difference. Perhaps a chef preparing a different dish each day — influenced by what ingredients are fresh and plentiful, perhaps overlapping with meat and produce and items from other departments — makes the difference.

There was a moment in which “meal solutions” was the hottest thing. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) did an event in 1996, which was this magazine’s debut issue, fully devoted to the subject. Meal Solutions all faded away. Perhaps, though, the idea was not wrong, and the concept is not dead, but it was all just ahead of its time. Retailers couldn’t figure out how to integrate and offer consumers the meal solutions they coveted.

But now, with so much more of the store being delivered or picked up, space will need to be reallocated. Success is unlikely to be gained by sticking with the departmental breaks established long ago by King Kullen, Piggly Wiggly or The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.

The challenge is among the most difficult for people: Can we transcend ourselves and see a future that has not yet been written?

There is a part that is pulling for the economy — pre-sliced meats, pre-packaged salads, etc. —and a part that is pushing for extravagance — chefs in white toques with flames beneath the pots and pans, and ingredients in which the desirability is secured by the difficulty in securing them.

Many bywords of the past, such as ‘uniformity’, might be superseded by new desires for interest and intrigue. Indeed, with boring, repetitive purchases being handled by delivery, might the supermarket redefine supper? 

Maybe it is not about the number of items offered but about the experience, the feeling one gets walking throughout the store. This may mean aisles of packaged products reduced so visuals and scents can stand out, enticing the consumer into a deeper, more sensory moment.

The end of the pandemic presented the idea of a return to normalcy. But we can never go back. We have changed.

The challenge now is to go forward, for in that lies prosperity and longevity, and a whole lot of fun making it happen.


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