Originally created 06/18/97

Home flavor? It's available in Aisle 7



Are you ready to let your supermarket do the cooking for you? If you are like many busy people today, you prefer not to cook the main meal of the day from scratch if you can help it ... at least most evenings. But this does not mean that you do not want to eat at home - nine out of ten consumers expect to have dinner at home.

The problem for many of us is that we aren't always able to cook, yet we want dinner to taste home-cooked as much as possible. We are looking for a meal solution.

This year, the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association of the supermarket industry, held a three-day meal-solutions conference in Phoenix. Hundreds of supermarket executives attended. What they agreed upon was the clear threat that the new home-meal-replacement retailers, restaurants and fast food operators pose to their businesses.

What they didn't agree upon was the best way to hold on to business. "We don't have to do the cooking!" some supermarket executives have told me. They believe consumers who want convenient meals can be satisfied by products sitting on their shelves and in the refrigerated- and frozen-food cases. They believe that all consumers need is a little assistance in bringing together the elements of easy-to-prepare meals.

In Cincinnati, a Kroger supermarket recently began testing a new section called "Easy Meals in Minutes." Kroger brings together fresh, frozen and packaged goods from around the store to make up five meals.

Another group of supermarket executives believe their deli departments can provide the fresh meal solutions consumers are looking for. But a supermarket executive told me: "Look at the typical supermarket deli. Fewer than a quarter of the customers shop the deli. Most of the products are high in fat and have not changed in 25 years. Consumers just don't see the deli as the place to shop for a just-like-home-cooked dinner."

Boston Market. For most of the supermarket industry, these were the two words that started them thinking about whether to cook dinner for their customers. Boston Market is a home-meal-replacement retailer, and the company's solution is a good one. Its chicken is tender and juicy; its creamed spinach is as good as my mother made it.

Do supermarkets really want to cook your dinner? Most of them don't. They would rather reshuffle their products into meal-solution areas or add a few hot items to the roasted chickens now being offered in their delis. However, there is a growing realization that they probably have no choice but to start cooking in earnest if they don't want to lose more business. Fresh food and just-like-home cooking are where the supermarket business is going.

Boston Market and similar businesses cannot offer consumers something that only supermarkets have ... the supermarket. Only at the supermarket will you be able to buy tonight's freshly prepared dinner, hot and ready to take home, as well as your orange juice and cereal for tomorrow morning's breakfast.

Here's my prediction: Within three years, half of America's shoppers will buy prepared dinners at the supermarket at least once a week. Just as shoppers today consider the variety and quality of produce as an important reason why they shop at a supermarket, before too long shoppers will say that one of the reasons they like their favorite supermarket is the great taste of the meat loaf. If you don't believe it, just wait and see.

Will the supermarket home meal replacement trend have an impact on packaged groceries? Absolutely! When a supermarket builds a kitchen, there is less space for traditional grocery shelves.

I will tell you more about this in future columns. Watch for it.

Send questions and comments to Martin Sloane in care of The Augusta Chronicle. The volume of mail precludes individual replies to every letter, but Mr. Sloane will respond to letters of general interest in the column.