Perhaps no other season provides as much potential for supermarkets as does the fourth-quarter holiday season. Friends and family gather, parties are planned and everything typically revolves around food. A lot of food.
And while the fall and winter holidays have historically been anchored by home-cooked meals handmade with care, recent years have seen a gradual shift — one that sits well with those in the retail foodservice business. No longer are supermarkets simply selling more staples and center-store items during the holiday rush; the fresh prepared foods are now also firmly entrenched in the tradition.

“For us, we keep on doing better every holiday year,” says Carrie Walters, corporate chef and culinary director for Ohio-based Dorothy Lane market. “The stuff that is either fresh or produced by us, we have a hard time keeping up with. Center-store grocery is becoming less and less key. The stuff we actually cook and produce in our kitchens — our private-label items — are doing great.”
It goes to show that today’s consumers are looking for ways to make their holiday planning easier and their meals more memorable, providing a bi g opportunity for the retail foodservice industry.
The convenience continuum
The way Jim Hertel — senior vice-president of Willard Bishop, an Inmar Analytics company — sees it, today’s shoppers, particularly when it comes to the holiday seasons, fall along a so-called continuum of convenience. They’re continually changing their preference for  different levels of fresh and fully prepared foods.
“Historically, we thought ‘Oh, you’ve got to have the turkey and a ham,” You’d have places where people would get a free turkey if they spend $100,” Hertel says. “We have kind of moved past those days. Now you have to be thinking where along that continuum is going to work for your shoppers.”
This is particularly true when it comes to the coveted younger demographic, the set of shoppers Hertel says are more adventurous but perhaps a little less capable in the kitchen than older generations. “They’re maybe going to be a little more convenience-oriented because the holidays are a time when the pressure is on,” he says. “If you screw up a meatloaf for the kids, they’re probably still going to eat it. If you screw up the holiday meal and the whole family is coming over, they’ll remember it. The stakes get higher this time of the year.”
So, younger shoppers may be more inclined to let a retailer do a majority of the holiday cooking. Other shoppers might be content with just a little help. Instead of a home meal replacement case full of fully prepared, seasoned, sauced and garnished meals that just need to be reheated, some retailers are finding success with lending more of a helping hand.
“I spend a lot of time looking at what someone like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron is doing,” says Walters, referring to the popular meal kits that can be ordered online and prepared at home. “I’m thinking about prepped meal items that a customer can come and pick up here and then easily assemble or “cook.” That way they feel like they’re doing some cooking, but the harder work is done through us on the foodservice side.”
For example, instead of a completed meal based on a sauced chicken dish, Dorothy Lane Market might offer a simple grilled chicken breast with olive oil, salt and pepper and the consumer can turn it into their own creation. In other words, offering prepped, cooked, recipe-ready ingredients. “It’s definitely kind of a different switch for us, but it has worked,” Walters says.
So, the continuum goes from customers who prefer their holiday meals prepared from scratch all the way through those who would rather just pick up a ready-to-eat meal. And consumers fall along all points on that scale.
The sharp retailer is the one who is out in front of that and kind of develops an understanding of what their offerings are going to be,” Hertel says. “What are they going to provide the consumers along that continuum? That’s definitely a change, I think. It certainly is a change from a historical standpoint.”
Signature success
Knocking down prices may be a tried-and-true method of bringing in more traffic during the fourth quarter blitz, but additional tactics are necessary for real success. The nostalgia and family-oriented activities of the holiday season make for a perfect time to push unique items.
“Retailers who are really sharp on the more fully prepared end will be focused on the things that can be labeled as a signature dish,” Hertel says.
That means offering something more than just mashed potatoes and turkey gravy. That pairing, of course, is a classic that will always have its place in a holiday planner’s shopping cart, but a retailer can take that dish and make it a unique creation that will differentiate the store and the holiday experience.
“There are a lot of different ways to do that from a recipe standpoint, but what you want to make sure you do is to have the ability to say ‘You can get mashed potatoes and gravy anywhere, but you can only get these mashed potatoes and gravy from us,’” Hertel says. “That’s a way of driving more traffic and not just doing it on a price basis, which is an important piece to success.”
And if a unique dish finds its way into the tradition of a region’s holiday practices, it can be a go-to item for years.
“If you have a certain flavor and quality, people will think, ‘I’m home for the holidays. I want that Dorothy Lane market flavor. That dip I grew up with, or that potato salad or turkey,’” Walters says. “Those are things we spend a lot more time on during the holidays because you can’t get it anywhere else and people want that taste of home.”
Consumers love being able to smell and taste the things they knew growing up, especially when it’s time for Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations. “And that’s got nothing to do with toilet paper or canola oil,” Walters says. “That all comes from the freshly prepared side of the story. And I’m sure a lot of other grocery stores feel the same way. The holiday business is changing in that area.”
The holiday season is typically a time when diets are ignored and overeating is embraced. “Some people say ‘Hey, it’s going to be ab indulgent time. We know that and we’re not concerned about it,’” Hertel says.
But there is a growing base of consumers who are growing tired of putting on those end-of-year pounds. That means while they still might want all the convenience provided by a retailer’s offerings, they don’t want what usually comes with it — be that GMOs, added fat, processed foods, etc.
“What we’re doing more and more of is what I would consider half-healthy items,” Walters says. So, the stuff a consumer would want at a holiday event, but without some of the guilt-inducing ingredients.
“We all grew up with that good stuff like marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole,” she says. “People still enjoy that, but a lot of our customers are trying new things with some of those traditional flavors that kind of takes away from of the fat and stuff.”
Instead of burying sweet potatoes under a layer of marshmallows, for example, Dorothy Lane offers caramelized sweet potato quarters. And suddenly, half of a stuffing might include quinoa and bulgur wheat in additional to the traditional bread.
Or, there is a new twist on a Waldorf salad. “For years it had Cool-Whip, mayonnaise, apples, all that stuff,” Walters says. “We now have a Waldorf quinoa salad that still has the apples and walnuts, but there’s no mayonnaise or Cool-Whip or anything white on there. We’ve disappointed a few of our customers by removing that stuff, but it’s a dynamite salad with similar flavors and a much more modern, healthy twist. Overall, most customers love it.”
And building a more health-conscious holiday menu can also tie in with the growing trend of using locally sourced ingredients. Consumers generally view local ingredients as better for them and the environment. “That can be a part of how to differentiate and create signature dishes,” Hertel says. “The whole notion has some overtones and connotations that strike a lot of chords. One is, ‘Well, it must be fresh because it’s not coming from a plant somewhere else.’”
It also comes across as more sustainable because a store isn’t paying for fuel and transportation as it relates to shipping it across the country. “Some of it is kind of playing to this notion of the store as part of the community,” Hertel says. “Because food is so central, the store can kind of almost become the hub of the community. It only makes sense to include the local supplier.”