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A new day for deli

Nostalgia for sandwiches and a desire for comfort food fuel consumer sales of pre-packaged meat and cheese

Shutterstock/Stepanek PhotographyShutterstock/Stepanek Photography

Consumers continue to seek comfort food as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. When service deli counters closed in the midst of the crisis, shoppers looked to pre-packaged deli meat and cheese for their sandwich and charcuterie board fixings. Data from Ipsos FIVE from the end of May showed consumption of packaged deli meat and cheese has increased by 10% versus the same time last year.

Sandwiches have made a bold return as more consumers are eating in a highly homebound environment, says Kathy Perrotta, vice-president of market understanding and strategy at Ipsos. “There’s a sense of nostalgia that’s very appealing to consumers,” she says. “They were likely brought up eating sandwiches. It’s a nice meal experience for them.”

While charcuterie boards and “deconstructed lunches”—an assortment of things to nibble on such as crackers, olives, cheese and hummus—are still popular, Ipsos research shows buying deli meat and cheese for that purpose is flat compared to last year. Furthermore, the data reveals more than 37% of pre-packaged deli foods are being consumed at lunchtime. Research indicates the top reasons consumers buy pre-packaged meat and cheese include a desire for something easy to prepare, that it satisfies hunger, and can be eaten quickly—all of which could point to sandwiches.

What might be surprising is which shoppers are embracing sandwiches. Ipsos data sees growth coming from young adults without kids. Likely it’s for the reasons cited above, and a current desire for foods that are less trendy and more comforting. It’s a shift worth noting for grocers aiming to offer customers what they want now, including safety and security with their food choices.

At McEwan Fine Foods locations in Toronto, customers also seek deli products that are nitrate-free, have less sodium and no preservatives, says general manager George Bachoumis. He notes that cross-merchandising helps maximize sales of pre-packaged deli fare. “We are always stocked with cheese, crackers, crisps, olives, pâtés, mixed nuts, berry platters, and antipasto.” With shoppers spending less time browsing during the pandemic, retailers will want to have complementary items located near those grab-and-go meat and cheese staples.

New consumer behaviours established during the pandemic will likely stick around, predicts Nathalie Coutayar, merchandising and marketing manager at Denninger’s Foods of the World (with five locations in southern Ontario). “Shoppers will return to the deli counter, but slowly,” she says. This has prompted the grocer to “adjust and adapt.” Denninger’s, which produces many of its own pre-packed deli items, has more than tripled the number of SKUs [including new flavoured sausages] it offers to provide customers with an even greater product selection.

Pre-sliced meat and cheese works with how customers shop now. “They want a safer way to buy those foods,” says Coutayar. “They want less touch points and longer shelf life. Customers are shopping less often, but they’re also pantry loading so we’re seeing a larger basket size.”

Piller’s Fine Foods is seeing robust sales of its pre-packaged deli meats. In fact, the company saw a massive spike in sales through March and April as grocers’ service deli counters were closed. With customers eating at home more, Piller’s is seeing strong growth in pre-cut products such as pepperoni and diced chorizo, which can, of course, be added to homemade pizzas. “We also see that with more social experiences happening at home, consumers are looking for some indulgence with more specialty, dry-cured meats and snacks,” explains Stephanie Egan, director of marketing for Piller’s. “And charcuterie boards are a great way to enjoy a bit of variety at home.”

A desire for hunger-satisfying and convenient light bites has also increased demand for favourites such as Piller’s Turkey Bites. In July, the lineup of meat snacks grew with the addition of Bavarian salami and Navarre-style chorizo, joining Tuscan-style salami sticks, which launched last year. “These are great protein snacks you can quickly grab out of the fridge to enjoy,” notes Egan.

With travel abroad still restricted, companies have focused on new globally-inspired products. “We believe that with the reduction of travel, people are looking for easy ways to bring authentic foods found at vacation destinations into their meals,” says Angela Doro, vice-president, operations, at Vancouver-based Freybe Gourmet Foods. “For example, we recently launched our Taste of Europe charcuterie trays as an offering of authentic German and central European dry-cured salami. This new line surpassed our expectations. We believe, strongly, this is related to consumers’ desire for experiencing cultures in different ways.”

Beyond sandwiches and charcuterie boards, consumers have been adding pre-packaged deli meats to pizza, flatbreads and sauces, as well as tossing them into breakfast items such as omelettes. The versatility and convenience of these products is also contributing to sales growth. Consumers have responded by stocking up and looking for resealable packages, too. Doro points out that volumes of large formats of Freybe’s Smokies sausages have jumped by 25%. “With fewer visits to the grocery store weekly, we have found all varieties of pre-packaged deli meat selling well.”

Cheese lovers can find plenty of new ideas in the deli section, as well. Manitoba’s Bothwell Cheese recently introduced Cheddar Variety Pack slices. “We have managed to keep up with the demand in the market,” says brand manager Lynne Roy. “Our new product contains sliced award-winning marble cheddar, medium cheddar and old white cheddar. We expect to see more of these slice packs on retail shelves in the following months.”

Agropur, meanwhile, has found consumers are spending their grocery dollars strategically, choosing to make selections from its large offering of Canadian cheeses such as OKA, L’Extra, Champfleury, and Saint-Paulin. The pandemic has also brought a few challenges—but not unsurmountable ones. Agropur’s new Rougette Bon-fire, a creamy, buttery cheese that can be grilled on a barbecue without making a mess, was launched as COVID-19 hit. “In a period where our sales representatives were not allowed to visit stores, we managed to reach a distribution of 50% in eight weeks,” says Diane Jubinville, director, public relations and external communications at Agropur.

While new product launches scheduled for September will be put on hold until 2021, the company remains optimistic about the future. “In the context of a health crisis, the supply of pre-packaged cheeses is definitely an advantage as it avoids handling by store employees,” she says. “The safety, practicality and attractiveness of our pre-packaged products are assets that are undeniable.”

And vegans won’t be left in the cold in the pre-packaged deli section. They’ll find strong options from the likes of Nuts For Cheese, a London, Ont.-based company offering plant-based variations of popular cheeses, including top performers like Un-Brie-Lievable (a new black garlic flavour has recently been added). Sales have been steady during the pandemic, says founder and CEO, Margaret Coons, who expects to see growth as the company rolls out its new Nuts For Butter and enters the U.S. market.

As health remains a big focus for many consumers, Coons says her company’s products appeal largely to people avoiding dairy for whatever reason, including vegans and people who are lactose intolerant. Like many food companies, Coons is looking forward to being able to do in-store demos again—when it’s safe—and to working with retail partners on promotions to drive sales in the future.

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