The deli’s rising popularity — and the role in which prepared foods play in that — is no big secret. The deli department is a vital player in the transformation of the supermarket’s design from center store-heavy to perimeter-focused, and the continued evolution of retail foodservice is a big reason for that.

Along with that transformation came the gradual shift of shoppers primarily looking to the deli for lunchmeats, sandwiches, chicken strips and other midday foods to shoppers on the hunt for evening meal ideas.

If retailers want to continue the deli’s transformation and run of success, capturing more dinnertime consumers will be key.

Quality, convenience

There are two main things shoppers are looking to accomplish when they turn to a supermarket deli for dinner help — they want good foods and they want the experience to be simple, says Carrie Walters, corporate chef for Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Markets.

“We know that going into the grocery store may not be as convenient as a drive-up window,” Walters says. “But what we can offer makes up for that. We can offer all of our good food that is now packaged on purpose to be immediately eaten for dinner.”

So not only does the consumer get most of the convenience that a fast-casual restaurant might offer, but they’re getting the quality and wholesomeness generally associated with today’s supermarket prepared foods department.

The Washington, DC-based Food Marketing Institute says shoppers want the best of both worlds — both made-to-order offerings and customizable options.

This comes in mighty handy when trying to attract more indecisive dinner shoppers. FMI says 65% of American shoppers don’t know that they’re having for dinner as late as 4 p.m. But those indecisive shoppers aren’t looking toward the supermarket deli very often. FMI says just 15% of shoppers frequently consider retail foodservice when they’re up in the air about dinner plans.

Customizable options can be helpful, with shoppers able to approach the deli counter and pick the different components of a dinner plate. Even better are multiple price points, perhaps based on the protein.

Baked or roasted proteins, with vegetable-forward sides and ingredient labels that are short and contain pronounceable words are also key, Walters says.

Dorothy Lane provides shoppers with three main options when it comes to dinnertime shopping.

Three options

  • Prep help: DLM’s What’s Food Dinner program is a version of a simple meal kit. Shoppers can find a demo person in the middle of the lobby with a case of all the ingredients needed for the 30-minutes-or-less meal. “It’s a simple, family-friendly dinner with some components you have to cook,” Walters says.
  • Fully prepared: Shoppers can walk up to the deli and grab a bag with completely prepared foods, all packaged separately. The bag contains a main course, starch or carb, and a vegetable. For example: Spaghetti and meatballs with a salad and a roll or turkey meatloaf with au gratin potatoes and green beans.
  • Heat-and-eat: Just reheat and it’s done, Walters says. “It’s quick.”

Fighting for space

As supermarket perimeters gain more traction, the overall size of the store is shrinking. Since peaking at 48,750 square feet in 2006, the average median total store size has been on the decline, nearing the 40,000 square-foot mark in 2016.

And while a majority of that size trimming comes from the center store, the perimeter is also feeling the squeeze, which can sometimes be detrimental when trying to merchandise prepared foods, especially for the dinner rush.

“I would say a lot of our challenges in that realm have to do with room,” Walters says. “This category is huge. The business is growing, whether it’s fully prepared meals, individual sides to go or anything else.”

Retailers must decide how many quick, quality items they can have available to consumers. While customer service is still vital, many shoppers today enter the store attempting to grab a package and get out while interacting with as few people as possible — especially during that frantic dinnertime rush.

“That leaves deli departments fighting for how much retail space we can have for pre-packaged items,” Walters says. “It’s a constant battle. We need more cases; we need more grab-and-go space. We’re struggling with finding enough refrigerated units to be able to merchandise all of our grab-and-go offerings.”