retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Sports may be all about playing fair, but business rarely is. The question many businesses have to ask themselves is not how to cheat, but rather how to play by the rules that produce victory. Start by looking at today’s economic turmoil in a different way. Consider it opportunity knocking, but only if you make the rules work for you.

Mealtime, it seems, is up for grabs in ways that haven’t been seen in years. The weakening economy combined with growing concern about eating healthily presents supermarkets a rare opportunity to win back meals lost over the years to restaurants. Nancy Kruse, a leading foodservice consultant, detailed the steps for victory at the recent Annual Meat Conference run by the Food Marketing Institute, the American Meat Institute and the commodity groups representing chicken, turkey and pork.

But the steps will require supermarkets to play differently to win and that means doing things differently. For instance:

• Merchandise your menu by talking about the great attributes of the food. Kruse showed an example from Publix, where the glorious details listed on the chain’s website were sadly missing in stores. Tell shoppers about your recipes, your ingredients, and get them excited about eating. Most of all focus on the freshness of your food offerings, just as restaurants do.

• Play up your chefs and the culinary experience in your company. Once again, supermarkets can learn from restaurant competitors, many of who play up new dishes, new tastes and the chefs who create them. Nothing prevents supermarkets from doing the same on websites and in stores. Many companies have corporate chefs and menus, but neglect to put them out front of shoppers.

• Be convenient by better managing lines and time. Every restaurant, Kruse said, has an expeditor whose oversees the preparation process to make sure service is a prompt as possible. Supermarkets need to address the woes of long lines by doing the same and showing shoppers that the store understands their time pressures.

• Play to your strengths. Kruse says supermarkets have a group of unassailable advantages, but neglect to talk them up enough. The frequency of shopping trips and the convenient locations of supermarkets are both great advantages. But, Kruse says, the advantages go on. Supermarkets are known for freshness, which equals taste, health and value in the minds of shoppers. And in 2008, there is little that more important than health, taste and value.

Victory isn’t a guarantee, especially as many restaurants are reacting to the same trends. But doing nothing is a sure path to losing. Opportunity is knocking…

Of course, winning and losing is a national obsession this week as the country plunges headlong into March Madness and the NCAA basketball tournament, which gets my vote for both the best sporting and national annual event we have. This year is especially good as six schools with food marketing or management programs - Cornell, Michigan State, Portland (OR) State, Southern California, St. Joseph’s and Texas A&M - are all in the tournament. It would take an incredible sequence of upsets, but four of those schools could meet on the final weekend. Of course, that’s not likely to happen, so my hope is that Kansas, Texas, Connecticut and North Carolina (my final four) get into food programs. (Oh yes, I have Kansas beating Texas in the finals.)

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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