KANSAS CITY - Like most deli-prepared foods, soups were a growing category in the supermarket deli before the pandemic hit. As retailers shuttered their self-serve hot and cold bars because of COVID-19 safety concerns, however, soup sales saw a sharp decline.

In 2020, the soups and chili category was down 14.1% for the year, according to IRI’s Total US data. But that doesn’t mean the category is doomed, said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the Madison-Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association. In fact, he sees a quick road to recovery as consumers begin returning to a life closer to pre-pandemic times.

“Once we get back to normalcy, people are going to go back to their previous behaviors,” Richard said. “I don’t see why the category wouldn’t get back to the growth it was seeing before.”

Adapting soup serving amid COVID

While the industry waits for a sense of normal to return, though, Richard had several suggestions for ways retailers can reconfigure their soup programs in the meantime.

Across the deli-prepared category, grab-and-go has boomed as shoppers look for quick and easy meal solutions to ease some of the cooking fatigue that has set in over the last few months. Retailers have an opportunity to meet consumer needs with soup options.

Richard suggested promoting soups as a side to a meal, running soup of the day programs and ensuring that soups have visibility on ecommerce ordering applications where many shoppers have turned during the pandemic.

To reach all customers, it’s important for shoppers to have a variety of options to choose from —not only in flavors but in portion sizes as well. Retailers can meet this need by offering both individual and family serving sizes.

When choosing the grab-and-go soup selection retailers should consider which soups will most appeal to their customer base. It’s important to have several options for customers to choose from, but too many choices can overwhelm the customer and lead to food waste.

Grocers should aim to have three to five grab-and-go flavors on hand. That can include two to three traditional soups (e.g. chicken noodle, broccoli cheddar, potato) and a rotation of unique flavors for shoppers looking to try something new.

“The desire to try new cuisines—especially Hispanic and Asian—is desirable from coast to coast,” Richard said. “Retailers should consider what flavors are hot right now, as consumers of all ages are interested in experimenting.”

Blount’s 10 ways to build soup sales

Even amid the pandemic, there are still plenty of ways to entice shoppers with deli soup programs and build the category back up.

Fall River, Mass.-based Blount Fine Foods has over 70 fresh soup offerings for foodservice application. Blount has plenty of resources and advice for retail and foodservice customer to check out on its foodservice marketing website, https://blountfinefoods.com/fsmarketing, including 10 ways to build soup sales:

  1. Offer Variety – Blount suggests offering three or four soups a day. That way customers know they have options but aren’t overwhelmed with too many choices.
  2. Mouthwatering Names – Great names and tantalizing descriptions is the way to go. Communication is helpful in helping shoppers make informed ordering decisions.
  3. Dress It Up – A little garnish can justify more profit—whether it be bacon, shredded cheese or tortilla strips, there are plenty of ways to bring presentation to another level.
  4. Sample to Promote – Offer small samples (behind the counter) that can convert into a soup sale. Samples are also a way to get great feedback.
  5. Size to Sell – Offer a variety of sizes to maximize customer choice. As grab-and-go expands, be sure to have the right containers with spill-proof lids.
  6. Create Combo Value – Pair soups with salads and sandwiches.
  7. Combine Soups – Put two soups together to create a new sensation. Layering flavors with soups can be the foundation of great original special.
  8. Make Soup a Meal – Package soup with bread for dipping or even a bread bowl at a higher price point. The bread helps elevate the soup to a meal.
  9. Make Soup a Snack – As a popular comfort food, soup is well-positioned to serve shoppers at any time of day.
  10. Cook with It – Use soup as an ingredient in sauces or other dishes. Look for ways to cross-utilize soup products to maximize profit potential.

Top soup flavors

Top 10 soup flavors in the US

1.       Broccoli Cheddar

2.      Potato

3.      Chicken Noodle

4.      Tomato

5.      Chicken Tortilla

6.      Lobster Bisque

7.      Clam Chowder

8.      Squash

9.      Italian Inspired

10.    Chicken

Top soup flavor by region

Northeast, Southeast: Broccoli Cheddar, Potato, Lobster Bisque

California: Chicken Noodle, Broccoli Cheddar, Tomato

West, Great Lakes, Mid-South, Great Plains: Broccoli Cheddar, Potato, Chicken Noodle

Great Lakes: Broccoli Cheddar, Potato, Chicken Noodle

South Central: Broccoli Cheddar, Potato, Chicken Tortilla

IRI, Total US