Recently, I asked a group of co-workers how often they visit our local grocery store to pick up lunch. Nearly everyone said “at least once a week.” These days it is not just someone traveling for a living who visits a grocery or convenience store for a meal.

The IDDBA report, “Engaging the Evolving Shopper: Serving the New American Appetite,” shows that immediate consumption represents 15 percent of all eating occasions. Supermarkets have clearly become a destination for a quick, on-the-go, single-serve meal. In fact, in 2008, in-store grab-and-go meals were growing at nearly twice the rate of other foodservice meals. Grab-and-go and fully-prepared, self-service meal options have not only become a common grocery store feature, but represent a significant portion of sales. Some supermarkets have taken the grab-and-go concept even further by installing in-store seating, along with wine and coffee bars and in-store wireless connections, thus offering opportunities for networking and casual business meetings. Need to meet someone out of the office to talk business? Why not arrange to meet at your local grocery store?

Many of today’s grocery stores offer a wide variety of restaurant-quality foods, and tend to be less expensive and faster than most restaurants for someone grabbing lunch between meetings or classes. One colleague mentioned that “sometimes I don’t even know what I want to eat when I go into the store, but I know I’ll find something I like.” Another said that he always seeks out fried chicken as a grocery store meal. It’s a comfort food that he would never prepare at home, and he gets far better quality there than from a fast food chain.

A grocery store’s flexible menus mean that if you are a vegetarian, Chinese-food addict, on a gluten-free diet, love lasagna, or are simply craving a cup of soup, your grocery store likely has something to fit your immediate need. While your offerings may change depending on your location —  dinner comfort food if you are located near where people live or a snack box of hummus, fresh vegetables, and pita if located near where people work —  you should be able to find a mix that works for your clientele. 

Yet managing this kind of department takes strong oversight. Consumers sometimes have the perception that pre-made sandwiches are of a lower quality or less fresh than a meal from a fast food restaurant. To continue making grab-and-go a competitive revenue generator during lunch hours, we must make sure that our pre-packaged, on-the-go food is clearly labeled with the date made and “best by” date, and kept at the proper temperature. Product movement needs to be carefully tracked and rotated. Our local grocery store is clearly communicating this message, because when asked why they go there to eat, all of my colleagues said, “because it’s made fresh every day.”

“Engaging the Evolving Shopper” has shown that immediate consumption reflects a desire for planned spontaneity, and that eating within an hour of purchase is no longer for special occasions or an infrequent departure from meal planning. To keep this feeling of spontaneity, the food we offer must communicate a sense of fun, and perhaps even adventure. The food must also be visually appealing, colorful, and depending on your market, should include the latest exotic flavor trends. For example, you could offer a special on a particular ethnic cuisine that would allow for new customer experiences every week. Many ideas along these lines were demonstrated at IDDBA’s Show and Sell Center June 5 - 6 in Houston.

To stay on trend and continue to grow as a destination, we must elevate our grab-and-go meal options and move beyond pre-made subs and salads. Snack boxes with premium cheese, crackers, charcuterie or hummus, and pre-cut vegetables offer a fresh take on lunch and capitalize on our changing lifestyles, which have led to an increase in more frequent snacking. Fruit cups, yogurt and granola cups, hard boiled eggs, and savory cottage cheese are other on-trend options. Your sandwich program could utilize fresh bread from your in-store bakery and promote daily sandwich specials with premium ingredients in addition to your daily options.

It might also be wise to capitalize on the new 21st century health paradigm in our prepared meals departments — healthy is trendy. Providing options that fit the new health focus of high protein, alternative grains (think quinoa, spelt, and farro), organic, and clean labels (no artificial ingredients or preservatives) will help attract customer interest and make grocery store meals exciting. Organic ingredients are now easily obtained, and a quinoa bowl with a customized protein covers you in two areas — high protein and alternative grain. 

As you move forward with your programs, always keep in mind that prepared foods represent an often untapped opportunity to capture shoppers’ imagination and dollars.