KANSAS CITY — COVID hit retail salad bars hard, with many if not most closing, and retailers scrambling to find pre-packaged and other alternatives. As 2021 enters its second half, however, the prospects for these perimeter staples are looking bright again.

After the first few weeks of the pandemic, when most salad bars sat idle, retailers got very creative in reusing the space, said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics.

Some stuck with salad but offered it in pre-packaged formats instead. Others put full meal solutions in their salad bars or repurposed them for packaged sides, meats, desserts or other items. A few took out salad bars altogether.

Depending on the guidance from local health authorities, some retailers opened the bars as early as last summer, whereas others are only reopening them now, Roerink said.

“Market feedback is that initially sales were slow, but in part because of the changed traffic patterns,” she said. “Salad bars do well in areas with high footfall. With many fewer people going out for lunch or working away from home, it’s that lunch time and dinner time traffic that hurt salad bar sales.”

At the end of spring and beginning of summer, she added, the industry started to see many signs of market normalization. Instore trips continue to climb, people are spending more time in stores, they’re more open to browsing for new products and meal ideas and they’re much more willing to re-engage with self-serve in general, including salad bars.

“What we’re seeing across self-serve areas, whether candy and snacks or salad, is that people who liked bulk or self-serve before, are ready to engage now,” Roerink said. “That’s resulting in very rapid growth in sales as the pre-packaged sales are now being augmented with the salad bar sales and the numbers are actually starting to exceed 2019 totals for many retailers.”

During COVID, pre-packaged stepped up in a big way, not just for salad bar options, but cold and hot food bars in general, Roerink said.

“Over the past few years, there had been a big focus on the reduction of packaging on the fresh food side,  but the pandemic put a spotlight on the functional side of packaging and pre-packaged items were no longer a negative,” she said.

There are a few secrets to success that come out of the numbers, according to 210 Analytics’ research. One is variety. One of the things people like about salad bars is variety and being able to pick a little of everything, Roerink said.

“We’re seeing pre-packaged do well for all retailers, but ones that are offering variety in portion sizes, types or daily rotations are performing above average.”
 Food safety is the foundation of everything else that happens in food retailing, Roerink said. But traditionally, safety and sanitation were things that happened in the background, without consumers realizing it.

That has changed, with retailers being much more open and up front about their food safety and sanitation practices.

“Some even call it ‘safety and sanitation theater,’” Roerink said. “It includes frequent replacement of serving spoons, in some cases employee-served salad bars, individual packets with dressing instead of bottles, gloves, masks, etc.”

While COVID-19 itself was never a food safety issue (it’s not a foodborne illness), some consumers made those connections in their own mind. And when salad bars closed during the pandemic, that perception got reinforced.

“It’s important that retailers help rebuild the trust consumers have always had in salad bars,” Roerink said.

Depending on the local health authority guidance, some retailers reopened their bars months ago, others just started.

And consumer reaction to the reopenings has been mixed.

“Some people couldn’t wait to re-engage, whereas others are still looking on from the sidelines,” Roerink said. “I suspect it’s going to be much like other activities, such as movies and sporting events, where every day it gets a little bigger.”
 Salad bar success is highly related to grocery store trip patterns, and while there are still hurdles to overcome, the industry has come a long way in recovering trips and sales, Roerink said.

“What we’re seeing is that the change in mindset relative to going instore and re-engaging with things like the salad bar is driven by those who are fully vaccinated. That points to a continued normalization as vaccination rates go up.”

And as more and more companies start to bring people back to  the office, that will help drive lunch and dinner sales in urban areas, which tends to be good news for all things deli, including salad bars.

Whatever approach retailers take in their approach to reopening salad bars, getting the word out to their customers will be crucial, Roerink said.

“As always, transparency is the currency of trust, making excellence in communications key,” she said. “It may feel weird to suddenly talk about measures that you’ve been doing for years and are foundational to running a salad bar, but consumers want to see what retailers are doing in safety and sanitation.”

That’s where the “theater” of showing constant cleaning and replenishment, gloves, masks and signage to rebuild trust and traffic can be so vital. 

The future of salad bars at retail: insights from the Produce Marketing Association

The Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association gathered a team of industry experts to look at the state of retail salad bars with COVID receding.

Their insights fell under several headings, including:

Innovation: The pandemic accelerated and often forced innovation: new concepts, new service options, capturing self-serve sales in new ways, new ideas around catering, and the idea that some stores thrive with self-serve and some don't do well, and that's OK - one size doesn't fit all.

  • The lunch and dinner crowd: This has changed permanently for some people. Retailers need to innovate to capture that sale without complete reliance on the self-serve bar.
  • Continue modifying offerings for the new realities - e.g. smaller groups for meals/holidays, new working/shopping patterns. Things will not be back to "normal" soon, if ever.
  • Look at new service options, including salad robots, to allow shoppers to choose what they want without having ingredients open to everyone.
  • Experiment, offer variety, especially for customers with pandemic meal fatigue. Do limited-time offers, keep variety going without having to have huge inventory. Reinvent meal solutions with protein, grain and vegetables.

Adaptation: As the situations change - over time and regionally - retailers must prepare for what's coming next. That may require a wait-and-see approach for clarity before taking next steps.

  • Prepack is not going away.
  • Build trust in-store. Create an environment in-store that shows you know shoppers' habits and ideas about sanitation/safety have changed.
  • Eliminate under-performers. The "closed-for-now" time allows time to assess whether self-serve should be reinstated when the time comes. Reopen where appropriate/allowed, and reinvent unproductive space.
  • Revamp assortment options. Consumers still cook more at home, watch cooking shows and want new meal ideas. They want to try new things.

Collaboration: with internal teams, suppliers and other partners

  • Keep store teams energized around fresh, service and new ideas.
  • Work with suppliers on assortment, package sizes, new products, combining prepack with self-serve options. Vendors have ideas and solutions.
  • Bring together a team from multiple facets of the company to bring synergy to meal solutions for customers.

Words of wisdom: learnings from the past year

  • Stay focused on the customer, and it will lead you to your path.
  • Try what resonates. During the pandemic we were allowed to innovate and fail. If you don't have some failures along the way, you didn't try enough new things.
  • Retail is a tower of strength to communities and neighborhoods - yes, during and due to the pandemic, but also through the other 2020 situations of elections, civil disturbance/unrest and more.
  • We will always reflect on this past year - if we can get through that, we can get through anything.

Contributing panelists for the PMA roundtable that produced these insights included representatives from 210 Analytics, Albertsons Companies, Carlson AirFlo, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Dover Food Retail (Hillphoenix), Gelson’s Markets, Giant Eagle, Hormel Foods, Hussmann Corp., Isabelle’s Kitchen/Salad Bar Tenders, The Kroger Co., Nestle, Sunset Food Mart, and Taylor Farms.

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