"On Special" looks at top store categories and the retailers that specialize in them.
When temperatures get chilly, Pat Rogers knows he's likely to see strong demand for the hot soup the Midwestern grocery chain where he runs the deli department is known for.
So when Balls Food Stores unexpectedly ran into trouble getting soup cups during a recent icy stretch in its market in and around Kansas City, Kansas, Rogers knew he had to find another way to satisfy shoppers looking for a hearty way to take the edge off the cold weather.
"We can't just tell one of our guests, 'I'm sorry, you can't have soup because we don't have a container,'" Rogers said. "You really don't want to get into that conversation. You really just want to find a way to give them what they want without having them feel the need to ask, so you find yourself scrambling to come up with another container that will work and getting it to stores as fast as you can."
That flexibility and focus on customer service underpins Balls' approach to its deli operations, which serve as a cornerstone of the family owned supermarket chain business. Established during the 1920s, Balls runs more than two dozen supermarkets under banners including Hen House Market, Price Chopper and Sun Fresh, along with a Payless discount store, which does not have a service deli.
Rogers, who was promoted to his position as Balls' delicatessen director earlier in March, said he trains employees to recognize that they're helping customers get through challenging times by giving them the food they want.
"I'm finding myself having to explain to the teammates all the time, we really don't know what they've got going on outside of this. They might have a really frustrating life. So let's try to make this maybe the high point of their day," he said.
Like other grocers, Balls pivoted in 2020 from filling individual orders for meats and cheeses at its deli counters to pre-slicing products and putting them out for customers in refrigerated cases.
Balls is continuing to see strong customer interest in pre-sliced products even as people have grown more comfortable in stores as pandemic-related restrictions have eased, Rogers said.
Still, about 90% the retailer's deli business still involves sliced-to-order products, Rogers said. "It takes a little bit more labor. You have to have that counter staffed a little different than if you're pre slicing trays of meat. But I think that the customer appreciates ... being able to get it the way they want it," he said.
As the Hen House name might suggest, Balls has built a strong business selling chicken. Antibiotic-free rotisserie chicken is the company's top-selling deli item, and chicken salad made from the breasts of those birds is the most popular item in its salad cases, according to Rogers.
"If you really want to differentiate yourself, you need to come to the market with something different than anybody else's got," he said.
Balls' selection of prepared foods also includes pan-roasted chicken, fried chicken, meatloaf, ribs and pulled pork, along with a range of sides, such as vegetables, macaroni and breads. Lunchtime tends to be the chain's busiest period, and while business at that time of day slowed somewhat at the height of the pandemic, it has bounced back in recent months, Rogers said.
Balls also sells fresh- and pre-made sandwiches made with signature products made in its stores, he added.
Different banners, different selections
The brand of deli meats and cheeses Balls' stores carry varies by location. Stores under the Hen House brand, which is positioned as more upscale than Price Chopper and Sun Fresh, carry Boar's Head meats and cheeses at their deli counters. Other Balls stores stock Charter Reserve deli products.
At six Hen House locations, Balls offers pre-made packages of Boar's Head ham, turkey, chicken and beef through what the supplier calls a fresh-sliced program, under which deli workers slice and bag the items in the store, said Rogers. Those products represent only a subset of the selection available at the stores' deli service counters, but their sales are equivalent to 22% of sales at the service delis in the stores that carry them, he said.
Workers prepare the pre-sliced products twice a day to ensure freshness, and the bags have a shelf life of 36 hours, he said.
Rogers said the other three Hen House stores do not offer pre-sliced deli meats and cheeses because they don't have enough linear feet available to accommodate the branded cooler Boar's Head requires, adding that he hopes to find a way to add the equipment to a seventh store.
All of Ball's Price Chopper stores offer packages of Charter Reserve deli products sliced and bagged in-house, according to Rogers. Balls added separate merchandisers to some stores to accommodate the growing interest by shoppers in pre-sliced deli items, he said.
A strong focus on cheese
Balls places strong emphasis on its cheese selection, and offers dedicated cheese islands in four Hen House stores with a staff member on hand to cut and wrap each selection and answer questions from shoppers, Rogers said.
"It's all different varieties. You've got the Italians and the aged and the hand-rubs and the different imported and soft-ripened and everything you can think of," Rogers said. "We're a full-service, upscale retailer."
The grocer brings in trainers from its primary cheese supplier, locally based Paris Brothers, to instruct its deli managers and cheese stewards, who then share what they learn with other deli staff, Rogers said.
Salad bars are regaining strength
Rogers said Balls is also attracting renewed interest from customers in its salad bars, which it had to shut down for about a year when the pandemic began. The retailer used the space to hold pre-packaged salads and generated unprecedented interest in those items, he said, but is seeing shoppers steadily return to the self-service option now that it is able to offer it again.
Balls, which operates salad bars in all of its Hen House stores and most Price Chopper locations, is continuing to provide hand sanitizer and gloves at the bars along with signage encouraging shoppers to use the supplies before helping themselves.
"I think having the customer confidence that we're operating clean, sanitized stations and production, and the salad bars are clean and well-stocked and fresh looking, speaks volumes," Rogers said. "They'll come back for it."
The state of deli sales in the U.S.
- Deli cheese sales in the United States came in at $576 million in February, down from the same period in 2021, according to data from IRI published by 210 Analytics. Sales were up slightly during the week that included Valentine's Day, however.
- Grab-and-go cheese sales overtook service cheese sales in February, but specialty cheese accounted for the bulk of spending on deli cheese overall, according to the data.
- Deli meat sales were up 8.1% in February, to $746 million, driven by customer interest in grab-and-go and pre-sliced products, the IRI data shows. Service deli meats still accounted for the largest share of sales.