With the move towards more prepackaged items has come an increase in the use of merchandisers tailored for them, said Marjorie Proctor, senior design and marketing specialist for Conyers, Ga.-based Dover Food Retail/Hillphoenix.

Over the past year, for example, multi-deck, self-service shop-around modular islands have been popular display cases for merchandising prepackaged items, thanks in large part to the versatility of case depths, lengths and shelf depths, and the option of incorporating refrigerated, hot or dry merchandising areas around the islands.

COVID hit instore delis hard, but it also has given retailers the opportunity to press the reset button and think of ways of adding lasting value to their departments, Proctor said.

“Reimaging convenience and enhancing the prepared foods departments provides food retailers an opportunity to rethink the shopping experience and meet consumers’ needs,” she said. “For instance, we are now seeing a trend with new food bar orders. Food bars are not going away, but rather being reevaluated with how they are merchandised and smaller footprints for new bars are being ordered.”

For some retailers, that might mean switching from an 18- or 24-foot food bar to a 12-foot one — an acknowledgement that while food bars are still an important part of the instore deli experience for many consumers, not but the centerpiece they maybe once were.

Where that extra six or 12 feet of hot bar may have once been, retailers may now substitute with a self-service refrigerated or hot multi-deck case on the end of it for prepackaged merchandising.

During COVID, instore deli departments and retailers in general had to be agile to survive. That will serve them well going forward, Proctor said, when one of the guiding principles for retailers will have to be flexibility.

“Moving forward, one of the most important things retailers should consider in regards to being successful is building with flexibility,” she said. “What does that look like? It includes the layout and flow of the department, equipment and accessories — such as choosing refrigerated and hot serving counters with convertible food guards.”

That’s not only a good idea during a pandemic, Proctor said. It allows a retailer to change the function of the counter for all dayparts for future health crises. Building in flexibility with simple modifications like a food guard provides retailers with options for today while helping them stay nimble for whatever is coming next.


Teaming up

Post-COVID, look for more retailers to establish partnerships to give their instore delis a boost, said Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods for Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association. These could be partnerships like Hy-Vee’s with Wahlburgers, where the burger chain sets up shop right in the perimeter. Or it could be joining forces with a delivery service, a chef or a technology specialist to bring value and a new look to the department.

“You don’t have to reinvent the process,” Stein said. “You find a partner that’s going to help you achieve it.”

Tech in particular, Stein said, is going to play a much bigger role for retailers. Those who were behind the game in March 2020 have gotten their wake-up call, and now it’s a race to see who gets to certain technological milestones first.

“Supermarkets for the most part were not ready for it, but they’ve moved at lightning speed since,” he said.

And it’s not just retailers partnering with Doordash and other food delivery services. Many are developing or have already developed their own proprietary software to meet their particular needs.

“Online is an evolving story,” Stein said. “Supermarkets are making a huge effort but haven’t they hit mass penetration yet. It will evolve as people become more aware of it.”