Deli/Prepared Foods [email protected] National Perishables Tyson Deli

The Deli Shopper: Based On A True Story

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by Eric LeBlanc, director of marketing-deli, Tyson Foods Inc.


It’s zero hour. What’s for dinner?

Any marketer can take us through the shopper journey, and that’s legit. Let’s walk through it for prepared foods.

Elise doesn’t know what’s for dinner. Twenty-seven percent of prepared foods shoppers don’t decide what’s for dinner until someone says, “I’m hungry”¹. So, it’s a pressing need. What does Elise need out of dinner for her and her family? The most important thing is she wants food that she can feel good about serving her family. If she puts something on the table they don’t like, or that is poor quality, she has done more than had an unsuccessful meal—she feels she has let her family down. The REAL driver of her purchase was not price, or even convenience: she wanted to make her family happy with food she feels good about, and THAT’S what she has failed at. That’s a big deal.

We try to understand what drives choices for the dinner meal, but we do it in a peculiar way—we treat each dinner occasion as though it is a unit unto itself, with no past or future. Think of it this way: we play roulette, a game where each spin has an independent outcome of the spin before it, when we really should be playing blackjack, where the odds change with every hand based on what happened before. A lot of us travel as part of our jobs. How often have you gotten back home and said, “The LAST thing I want to do tonight is to eat out.” The odds shifted because of what went before. Or if Elise’s family ate fast food the past two nights, she might feel that she has to feed them a better meal tonight because she doesn’t like it when they eat too much fast food. So, when we do a study that says that people choose dining out because of these drivers, we’re missing a very important piece of the situational drivers—we’re playing roulette, not blackjack.

On a qualitative basis we have seen families deciding what’s for dinner based on the FOOD they crave, not on the channel or outlet. So, Elise chooses to get carry-out because her family wants Thai food. Her decision was for a particular food or kind of food, not for takeout.

The story so far:

  • “What’s for dinner?” creates a point of decision for Elise and her family. But as we’ve talked about before, that is not necessarily a bad thing. How do we stop talking about it as a problem and start talking about it as an opportunity for something good and spontaneous? Out-of-store messaging needs to feature meal ideas that capture the interest of families like Elise’s. The MEAL, not the PRODUCT. And the SOLUTION is a meal that Elise feels good about serving. We need to offer her alternatives that are meal-oriented solutions that her family will enjoy. Getting this wrong is a huge failure— Elise has failed to satisfy her family. OUCH.
  • Concentrate on good quality, craveable food and not on competition with another channel. Be a good solution when the cards on the blackjack table favor you. Don’t make your bets when the cards favor the dealer. In the words of General Grant: We need to stop worrying about what THEY are going to do and START worrying about what WE are going to do.
  • Take the message about quality and craveability from outside the store and drive the shopper to the solution.

What happens when they get to the store? Understand that they are on a mission. Paco Underhill tells a story about what he learned in shopper behavior in drug stores². He found that they did not see any signs or displays on their way to the pharmacy, because someone they loved or they themselves were sick. That was the mission. LEAVING the pharmacy, however, they were open to messages, because they had completed their mission—they got the medicine for whomever needed it. Elise is on a mission, too. It might be that once she has her solution for dinner she’s open to look at signs and displays, but let’s not burden her while she fulfills her mission. Is the prepared foods department a convenient area? Are there obstacles to getting there? Does she need to wait in line for what she needs?

So, it leads you to think about the placement of our prepared foods departments. Closer to the front door probably makes more sense than tucked in a rear corner. It is becoming more common to see prepared foods front and center in the store layout. That certainly makes sense from a prepared foods standpoint. In the “mission zone,” we need to speed the shopper along OR make it worth the shopper’s while to slow down or stop. Speeding the shopper along is all about simple, logical layouts. Where we have to slow down the shopper, make information available—about meal solutions—that makes the wait a chance to add value to the experience rather than generating dissatisfaction. As the shopper leaves the department, they are open to impulse items—this is where you make your merchandising work hard for you. What’s important to the shopper within this trip? It’s easy to complete my mission—because my mission is EXTREMELY important to how I see myself as a caregiver. Make it easy for me to get to the meal solution, through merchandising and through information. Help me in the moment.

What’s the experience of bringing the meal home like? Does hot food stay hot? Does the food leak? It isn’t what it looks like in the store that matters to Elise—the moment of truth is on the plate at the dining room table.

What’s it like to serve? Is it intimidating to cut? Messy to handle? We can’t ignore what the consumption experience is like—that’s the whole point of this exercise. The right packaging or the right flatware, plates and napkins might make an enormous difference. Think about Elise’s experience—what she wants and what we deliver.

Marketing on a human scale is simply a very basic way of looking at the shopper’s motivations and experience and holding our offering up against those motivations to see how well we’re meeting those needs.

  • Pre-shop. Give me ideas for MEALS my family will enjoy
  • Shop. Make it easy and worthwhile for me to get what my family will enjoy.
  • Merchandising and information is key.
  • Post-shop. Consider the consumption occasion. Start from transport to dining room table and beyond. Deliver good quality through managing transportation and packaging.

Marketing on a human scale tells us to stop thinking product, price and brand. Ask yourself what Elise needs and put yourself inside of her experience to see how it feels for her to fulfill her need.

It sounds so easy, and is done so seldom.


1. Tyson Foods, Channel Choice Study, 2017

2. Underhill, Why We Buy, 1999

1 Comment

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  • What about staffing the Deli counter? Two people to wait on 30 Customers just doesn’t work. When I travel, I go to a Grocery Deli Counter for Dinner to take back to my hotel. Every store is understaffed at their deli counter. Not good customer service.

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