Gearing Up For Back to School

Supermarket delis can load up on appropriate items to take advantage of the lucrative back to school segment

Group Of Children Eating Lunch In School Cafeteria

As summer holidays become fond memories, days get longer, and temperatures begin to drop, we realize that schools will be welcoming students to yet another year of enriching academic experiences. For parents and students alike, this means busier schedules, extracurricular activities, added responsibilities and increased levels of stress. For retailers, this time of year marks the beginning of back to school promotions.

Recognizing that the return to school means shoppers will be craving convenience, easy to prepare meals and nutritional foods that can be eaten on the go, both producers and retailers are making sure they’re providing plenty of options that will be sought after and appreciated by customers shopping for weekly groceries in supermarkets.

There is no doubt that better quality, freshly prepared and more nutritious foods are key considerations. For parents, preparing creatively-inspired and satisfying meals at home is especially important, giving them control over the foods their kids consume throughout the day. This being said, there isn’t much time to prepare and pack well-rounded, healthful and delicious meals on a daily basis.

Whether it’s breakfast, brown bag lunches or afternoon snacks, producers have recognized and are responding effectively to this dynamic with a remarkable bounty of conveniently-packaged foods that are fully prepared, ready to eat or ready to heat. They have also recognized that flavor and enjoyment must not be sacrificed in pursuit of convenience, and the inclusion of more natural and healthful ingredients, such as grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, are dramatically influencing purchasing decisions.

The Convenience Factor

According to Dionysios Christou, vice president marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, based in Coral Gables, FL, “Consumers continue to focus on healthful habits, especially when planning their children’s meals and snacks. Retailers who support healthy eating initiatives are perceived to be responsive and in tune with what is important to their customers, building consumer engagement and loyalty.”

When asked about including fruit as part of a nutritious packed lunch, he continues, “Fresh fruit is the ideal snack addition to any lunch. Our Del Monte baby bananas work well for small lunchboxes and brown bag lunches, as they are small, delicious and require no additional packaging. Other great options include our fresh cut apples, strawberries and other fruit with caramel or chocolate dipping sauce, as these are sure to be a sweet but healthful treat for kids during lunch.”

When it comes to nutritionally dense and versatile products, eggs offer tremendous value. Whether included as part of a sandwich assembly in the form of egg salad, fried egg topper or simply hard boiled and offered whole, sliced or in deviled egg formats, this protein-rich food is well suited to the deli counter and lunchbox solutions.

Of course, a discussion of lunchbox favorites would not be complete without mentioning the growing number of brands with ever expanding lines of vitamin and fiber rich hummus and guacamole. No longer just a flavorful and convenient favorite for everyday consumption, parties and tailgating, there are now offerings configured to suit specific mealtimes as well as on-the-go consumption.

Sabra, a White Plains, NY- based maker of fresh refrigerated dips, has introduced both hummus and guacamole in lunchbox-friendly formats as well as single-serve avocado toast designated specifically for the breakfast day part.

Similarly, Tribe Mediterranean Foods, based in Taunton, MA, has combo
snack packs that include hummus and pretzel crisps, while Los Angeles’ Yucatan Foods offers its guacamole in convenient, 2-ounce, on-the-go cups.

There are a number of companies offering a variety of unique, nutritious and flavorful sandwich and meal kits. For deli departments that already offer made-to-order sandwiches, prepared salads and other ready-to-eat foods, it’s easy to go one step further and offer more comprehensive lunch box solutions.

When organizing these meal solutions, foods should be easy to eat and packaged in easily-opened containers that effectively segregate wet and dry ingredients. 

In addition, there are any number of salads, meats and cheeses as well as different types of breads and crackers, such as tortillas, pitas, focaccia and croissants, that can be freely substituted or swapped around to create variety.

Age Appropriate Offerings

It’s also important to anticipate the age of the end consumer. While there is increasing demand for global flavors among adults, and food savvy Millennials have demonstrated a clear desire for more authentic, bolder and somewhat esoteric flavors, it is suggested that it takes 10 to 12 introductions before a younger child will accept anything new. For this audience, mayo, mustard and ketchup may be as adventurous as a parent can be.

One of the simplest ways to introduce exciting new culinary experiences is through condiments, dressings and sauces. Foodservice brands such as T. Marzetti in Westerville, OH, offer a variety of intriguing products that are perfect for deli counters and made-to-order meals. Available in bulk as well as convenient single serve pouches and cups, flavors include Hot Bacon Dressing, Raspberry Acai Vinaigrette, Wasabi Sandwich Sauce, and Pineapple Honey Mustard. For shoppers with more adventurous palates, specialty brands such as Brianna’s and Corine’s Cuisine respond with esoteric sauces, including Lively Lemon Tarragon, Saucy Ginger Mandarin, Spicy Mint Coriander & Coconut Sauce, Ginger Scallion & Fresh Lime Sauce, and Jamaican Curry Hot Pepper Sauce.

With just a touch of any of these inspired and creative condiments, deli counter sandwiches, wraps and salads become signature deli items.

For retailers that cannot produce meal kits internally, brands such as Purple Carrot, Blue Apron, Martha & Marley Spoon and Home Chef are striking up relationships with deli departments around the country, making their healthful sandwich, snack and mealtime kits available in stores without subscriptions or special orders.

Cheese is another versatile product that can be included in a packed lunch as part of a sandwich, salad or after school snack. While some varieties such as Cheddar and Monterey Jack, two of the most popular cheeses in America, may appeal more to younger audiences, cheese of every conceivable style and flavor is a welcome addition to any lunchbox.

The good news about cheese is that it is a source of many essential nutrients, including high-quality protein, and can be a mainstay in healthy, balanced, diets. According to Mari Meriluoto, director of marketing and business development at Finlandia Cheese, based in Parsippany, NJ, “Our products have always been high quality, with simple ingredients, and made with the purest milk. They are already responding to the demand for clean, real and healthy products.”

While many varieties of cheese are available in the deli department, there are all sorts of imported, flavorful and somewhat exotic selections that, along with a growing number of snack kits that include meat and cheese combos, may only be found in other parts of the store. As with fresh fruit or pre-packaged fruit snacks, making these products available in the deli department may require cross merchandising and a little special planning for back to school and brown bag promotions.

Of course, there are other products typically found in the center aisles, including chips, crackers, snack kits, energy bars, sports drinks, candies, squeezable smoothies and fruit gels that are lunchbox friendly and could easily be included in these promotions, as well.

It’s important to remember that, for many consumers, they can’t get enough of premium, clean-label, better-for-you products. While these products may attract a somewhat higher price, there are plenty of parents who are willing to pay a premium to keep their kids healthy.

Temperature Considerations

Along with the factors mentioned so far, back to school coincides with the change of seasons and cravings for foods that are somewhat more substantial and typically associated with cooler weather and autumnal harvests. As such, based upon statistics recently published by Datassential, a Chicago-based market research firm, sandwiches that include sausage, cheese, schnitzel and meatloaf, assuming they are made with healthy ingredients, may be worth considering for back to school promotions as well as seasonal specials.

Nothing completes a packed lunch better, or gets kids more excited about going back to school, than a new, creatively-engineered and attractively-decorated lunch box. Assuming there is room for additional merchandise in, or adjacent to, the deli counter, a selection of well-designed lunch boxes and bags would complete the back-to-school shopping experience. Knowing that some of the latest designs are insulated, waterproof and compartmentalized, making these products available also eliminates any concerns parents may have about food safety and unrefrigerated food storage in school lockers.

From a promotional perspective, consumers view the back-to-school season as an opportunity to reset and drive healthy food choices. To effectively cater to these expectations, staff should be trained to promote lunchbox and brown bag solutions, recommending individual products, suggesting pairings with grab and go salads, dips and snacks, and helping customers find ways to maintain healthful eating habits.

By engaging in conversation and making these sorts of suggestions, they are driving sales at the deli counter. From a longer-term perspective, they are building relationships and enhancing consumers’ in-store brand experiences.

Other back to school promotions that will attract and engage shoppers at the deli counter, concurrent with informed staff recommendations, include attractive in-store displays, informative signage and relevant cross merchandising. In addition, incentives, such as BOGO (Buy One, Get One Free), free samples and published recipes that feature back to school lunchbox suggestions are equally effective.

Along with healthful, flavorful and nutritious products, retailers must also acknowledge that parents have limited time to prepare lunchbox meals, let alone shop for them. In this regard, both product offerings and in-store experiences in the deli need to deliver undeniable efficiency and convenience.

Although a greater amount of planning and long-term investment may be required, loyalty and technology-driven programs are also improving the way in which shoppers interact with their local supermarkets and at the point of sale in deli departments.

Knowing that shoppers favor neighboring supermarkets, loyalty programs can be implemented at the deli counter, allowing return customers to earn points that can be redeemed for free items. Whether these benefits are calculated in terms of made-to-order sandwiches, sliced meats and cheeses or prepared foods, retailers including Food Lion, HEB, Albertsons, Giant, Stop & Shop and Kroger have embraced loyalty programs to create a competitive advantage, retain customers and build emotional connections to their brand.

From a technology perspective, added convenience has also been realized through ‘click and collect’ programs, enabling shoppers to place deli orders online and quickly collect their purchases at a designated time. By using the store’s website or smart phone app, waiting time is reduced, a better customer experience is created (especially when pickup is located close to the front of the store) and the store obtains a strategic advantage against others. 

In addition to the convenience that click and collect represents, it seems that a sizeable percentage of customers taking advantage of these programs end up making additional purchases when they pick up their orders.

For retailers looking to capitalize even further, data collected online can be evaluated and personalized in a manner that promotes additional purchases. Whether these personalized recommendations are configured as a printout that’s attached to the pre-ordered purchase, emailed to customers at a later date or simply communicated verbally by deli staff, this practice of on-selling could significantly improve deli department and overall store performance.

With deli and supermarket managers getting ready for back to school promotions, it is clear that a wide variety of products and promotional activities can be utilized to satisfy the needs and expectations of busy shoppers, enhance in-store experiences and build brand loyalty. Of course, the selection of products offered, the way they are merchandised and the level of investment earmarked for promotional activity will be critical.

The bottom line is that, with limited time for shopping and preparation, consumers are eager to find deli departments and service staff who can help them make informed decisions. 

When deli shopping becomes efficient and stress free, and packed lunches are undeniably nutritious and enjoyable, everyone wins. DB