CHICAGO – Although supermarket prepared foods have snagged stomach share from restaurants in recent years, a third of shoppers skip that section of the store, according to Chicago-based research firm Datassential.

Furthermore, half of those who browse the deli and prepared foods department leave with an empty basket.

Click the infographic for a look at frequent prepared food buyers.

“We know that the deli and prepared foods area is not as heavily trafficked as some of the more key aisles — produce, dairy, meat and seafood,” said Brian Darr, managing director at Datassential. “So, our thought is there needs to be a way for stores to better communicate not only the offerings but even any kind of special deals.”

In a study involving more than 2,000 grocery shoppers and 76 operators, Datassential examined how supermarkets may increase traffic and purchases in prepared foods, salad bar, deli and bakery departments. The survey found that 40% of grocery operators felt the greatest threat to prepared food sales came from nearby restaurants.

To better compete, supermarkets should copy restaurant strategies, Mr. Darr said.

“We found that unlike some of the very regular marketing and promotion tools that restaurants use — value menus, special pricing, loyalty programs — those types of programs are nonexistent or very lowly penetrated on the supermarket side,” he said. “Stores can do a better job of promoting what’s available, whether that’s additional signage throughout the store or reaching out to the frequent buyers by either the printed materials they send out or anything they do electronically through email or social media.”

Marketing the department itself, as well the menu, may lure more shoppers.

“If they promote things like the most tougher-to-prepare-at-home foods — the roasts, the barbecue, things that take more time or have a lot more cleanup — they can potentially generate more traffic to the area and convert some of those visitors to buyers.”

Still, consumer perception of the quality and freshness of supermarket food has improved, with more than 40% of shoppers buying more prepared foods than they were a year ago and about half buying the same amount. Supermarket food was rated good or excellent by more than half of shoppers.

“It doesn’t seem that supermarkets’ prepared food areas are suffering, or that people are trading to other types of away-from-home venues, but there are still opportunities for growth,” Mr. Darr said.

While supermarket food rated higher in quality than food served at quick-service restaurants, shoppers considered it inferior to casual-dining and fast-casual and fare.

“We asked buyers and non-buyers what it is they’d like to see more of in the department that would encourage or motivate them to buy,” Mr. Darr said. “Buyers are saying they’d like to have those items they like and trust there, but they would also like to see more variety.”

Customers indicated a preference for healthier and lighter items, lower-calorie versions of popular mainstays, such as fried chicken and pizza, and ethnic flavors. Offering limited-time options may help supermarkets test items and attract new customers, Mr. Darr said.

A broader selection also may translate to tack-on sales. Nearly half of shoppers in the study said they purchased additional prepared items than what they had planned during their most recent visit to the store.

“That provides the operator some great opportunity to add on and get additional sales,” Mr. Darr said.
Cross-merchandising with other departments to package a prepared entree with beer or wine, fresh-baked bread or flowers may drive a higher ticket.

“People aren’t going there with a single focus,” Mr. Darr said. “There’s a large percentage of people in there, looking around for inspiration and ideas, so that provides the operator an opportunity to really build that sale.”

Another opportunity for growth? Expanding to different day parts.

“On the restaurant side, the growth has really been in breakfast and snacking, and those are not areas where supermarkets are playing well,” Mr. Darr said. “The deli/prepared foods area are still heavy lunch and dinner, so they’re not offering the two areas that are really growing on the restaurant side.”