KANSAS CITY, MO. - Inching closer to the fall and the big holiday season that comes with it, now is the time that many grocers begin putting together their game plan for the one of the busiest times of the year for the grocery industry.

Typically, the holiday season brings with it office parties and plenty of gatherings of family and friends, in which consumers search out help at their local supermarket to assemble those “homemade” meals through catering plans and the many prepared food options the grocery store deli can offer.

This year, however, a usually predictable season has lots of uncertainty surrounding it as the coronavirus pandemic has continually displaced typical American life week by week since the start of the pandemic in March. It’s challenging to begin preparations for the holiday season when it’s unclear how large COVID-19 outbreaks will be, come Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Regardless, there’s a good chance many annual holiday gatherings will look different this year. But that shouldn’t stop grocers from approaching the opportunities of the holiday season, said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association (IDDBA).

In a category that has struggled since the onset of the pandemic, Richard thinks holidays are still a big opportunity for the category to capitalize on.

“It’s up to individual retailers to really see the importance of those holidays, especially when we’re still in the midst of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “We saw back during the Easter holiday that some retailers did a really nice job in promoting and marketing their deli prepared as an option for families who were entertaining — albeit at home with their immediate family versus bigger groups.”

Push catering online

It’s almost a guarantee that come the holiday season, there will still be some consumer hesitancy surrounding the act of going into the store and up to the deli counter to put in an order for holiday meals. This makes moving the holiday food ordering process to a seamless, online transaction even more important this year.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, experts have been predicting a second wave of COVID-19 hitting around the start of flu season, which coincides with the biggest holidays of the year. While it’s impossible to predict whether that will be case, Richard suggests that retailers prepare for it.

“Really making sure consumers can shop, purchase and pick up or have it delivered to their place is going to be important,” he said. “Hopefully after the last few months retailers have really examined their online shopping capability, because I think that is going to be key not only for marketing these items — the joint prepared and catering services that are offered instore — but also as a way for people to purchase those easily and not require the customer to come into the store in order to place their order.”

While some consumers are going to be comfortable going into the store to put in their holiday orders, there is likely going to be a decent-sized portion of consumers who are not, and retailers do not want to miss out on the opportunity to serve as many customers as they can, no matter which way they prefer to do their shopping.

Richard pointed out that now is the time for retailers to ensure they have the right technology and online capability to offer consumers their full catering and prepared meal options through a virtual channel. Having the right online components in place will also help retailers in the long run, because the pandemic has quickly accelerated the online shopping trend timeline and more consumers are going to be looking for those e-commerce options.

Tailoring the menu to fit the times

While consumer behaviors will likely differ in separate regions of the country, there’s likely going to be a sizeable percentage of individuals who —even if they’ve been given the all-clear by their local health departments — will be hesitant to gather in large groups that usually come attached with holiday gatherings. This year, retailers will want to focus on reaching small group gatherings.

“Shoppers may not be looking for enough food to feed a family of 12, it might just be three people,” Richard pointed out. “I think having a variety of options like single-serve and smaller-portion packages and offering that in the overall catering or planned options is going to be important because not everyone is going to be shopping for the same size family.”

If consumers are having smaller gatherings, they aren’t going to want to spend a large amount of money on large amounts of food, so having smaller prepared portions will be an excellent opportunity to still reach those shoppers through the catering channel.

As far as the kinds of holiday foods consumers will be looking for through deli catering, people are still going to want the traditional options, as consumers are searching to add as much normalcy as possible in these not-so-normal times.

 “People’s tastes haven’t changed,” Richard said. “While they might be celebrating in a different fashion this year for the holidays, there’s still desire for the same types of food and the same type of catering offerings.”

This story was featured in the August issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Check out the full issue here.