On Special takes a look at the categories of department stores and their specialty retailers.
When the temperatures get chilly, Pat Rogers knows he’s likely to see strong demand for the hot soup that the Midwest grocery chain is best known for where he runs the deli division.
So when Balls Food Stores unexpectedly had trouble getting cups of soup during a recent glacial period at their market in and around Kansas City, Kansas, Rogers realized he had to find another way to satisfy shoppers looking for a hearty way to off the edge. Cold weather.
We can’t just say to one of our guests, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t have soup because we don’t have a container,’ Rogers said. You really want to find a way to give them what they want without making them feel the need to ask, so you find yourself scrambling to find another container that works and get it to the stores as fast as you can.”
This flexibility and focus on customer service underpin Balls’ approach to its deli operations, which are a cornerstone of the family-owned supermarket chain’s business. Founded during the 1920s, Balls operates more than two dozen supermarket stores under its banners including Hen House Market, Price Chopper and Sun Fresh, along with Payless discount store, which has no deli service.
Rogers, who was promoted to director of delicacies at Balls Company earlier in March, said he is training employees to recognize this. They help customers get through tough times by giving them the food they want.
“I find myself having to explain to my teammates all the time, we don’t really know what’s going on with them outside of this. They might have a really frustrating life. So let’s try to make this maybe a high point of their day.”
What is the trend?
Like other grocers, Balls switched in 2020 from filling individual orders for meat and cheese at deli counters to pre-slicing produce and placing it for customers in refrigerated cartons.
Rogers said Balls continues to see strong customer interest in pre-cut products even as people increase convenience in stores as pandemic-related restrictions ease.
However, Rogers said about 90% of the retailer’s ready-made business still includes cut-to-order products. “It takes a bit more work. You have to have a slightly different staff than if you were cutting trays of meat beforehand. But I think the customer appreciates… being able to get it the way they want it,” he said.
As the name Hen House suggests, Balls has built a strong chicken business. Antibiotic-free rotisserie chicken is the company’s best-selling food, and chicken salad made from those birds’ breasts is the most common ingredient in salad packs, according to Rogers.
“If you really want to differentiate yourself, you need to come to market with something different from what everyone else has,” he said.
Balls’ selection of prepared foods also includes grilled chicken, fried chicken, meatloaf, ribs, and pulled pork, along with an array of sides, such as vegetables, pasta, and bread. Lunchtime tends to be the busiest period of the series, Rogers said, and while work at that time of day slowed somewhat at the height of the pandemic, it has picked up again in recent months.
He added that Balls also sells fresh and prepackaged sandwiches made with in-store signature products.
Different banners, different choices
The brand of deli meats and cheeses carried by ball stores vary by location. Hen House-branded stores, which are rated more upscale than Price Chopper and Sun Fresh, carry Boar’s Head meats and cheeses in their prepared food counters. Other balls stock Daily Charter Reserve products.
At six Hen House locations, Balls offers prepackaged Boar’s Head pork, turkey, chicken and beef through what the supplier calls a fresh-sliced program, under which deli workers slice and pack items in the store, Rogers said. These products are only a subset of the choices available at in-store deli service counters, he said, but their sales are equivalent to 22% of sales at convenience store takeout stores.
He said the workers prepare the cut products twice a day to ensure their freshness, and the bags have a shelf life of 36 hours.
Rogers said the other three Hen House stores do not serve delicious pre-sliced meats and cheeses because they don’t have long enough feet to accommodate the Boar’s Head-branded cooler, adding that he hopes To find a way to add equipment to the seventh store.
All Ball’s Price Chopper stores offer packages of prepackaged Charter Reserve products that are chopped and packed in-house, according to Rogers. Bowles added separate merchants to some stores to accommodate the increased interest from shoppers with pre-cut, finished goods, he said.
Strong focus on cheese
Rogers said Balls places a heavy emphasis on its cheese selection, offering custom cheese carrots in four Hen House stores with a staff member on hand to slice and pack each pick and answer shoppers’ questions.
“All these varieties are different,” said Rogers. “You have Italians, old people, kneading hands, all kinds of imported and ripe, everything you can think of.” “We are a full-service upscale retailer.”
Rogers said the grocer is bringing in trainers from its primary cheese supplier, Paris Brothers, to instruct prepared-food managers and cheese officials, who then share what they’ve learned with other deli employees.
Salad bars are getting back up
Rogers said the Bulls are also attracting renewed customer interest at salad bars, which had to close for about a year when the pandemic began. He said the retailer has used the space to hold prepackaged salads and has sparked unprecedented interest in these items, but he’s seeing shoppers steadily returning to the self-serve option now that he’s able to offer it again.
Balls, which operates salad bars in all Hen House stores and most Price Chopper locations, continues to provide hand sanitizer and gloves at the bars along with signage encouraging shoppers to use supplies before helping themselves.
“I think having the customer confidence that we run clean and sterile plants and production, and that the salad bars are clean and well stocked and looking new, that’s indicative of volumes,” Rogers said. “They will come back for it.”
The status of ready-to-eat sales in the United States
- Sales of processed cheese in the United States reached $576 million in February, down from the same period in 2021, according to data from IRI published by 210 Analytics. However, sales rose slightly during the week that included Valentine’s Day.
- Sales of ready-made and combined cheeses exceeded sales of cheese in February, but specialty cheeses made up the bulk of spending on delicious cheeses overall, according to the data.
- IRI data showed that sales of Deli meat rose 8.1% in February to $746 million, driven by customer interest in grab-and-go and pre-cut products. Ready-to-serve meat continues to account for the largest share of sales.