Sounding Board: Betting on the sandwich

Len LewisThe sandwich, along with a creative promotional program, can generate significant incremental revenue from multiple departments within a store.

As James Beard, author, chef and culinary icon once observed: “Too few people understand a really good sandwich.”

Apparently that can be said for many supermarket operators who are missing out on the greatest invention since sliced bread—albeit sliced bread with something in the middle.
It is interesting that with all the sophisticated data mining, trip capture technology, big data, little data and customer analyses, that retailers are doing little to capitalize on a universal favorite and something that transcends common demographics like age, income, gender and ethnicity—the sandwich.

It may be one of the world’s oldest specialty dishes dating back to the first century BC when it was said that Hillel the Elder covered lamb and bitter herbs in unleavened bread creating the world’s first wrap.

Of course, most historians trace it to the 18th century when John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich, was too busy for a meal and told his servants to bring him some bread and meat.

The explanation I like best was that the Earl was an inveterate gambler who did not like taking time out of his cribbage game and felt the bread would keep the cards from getting greasy.

My own personal tale of woe dates back to the sardine and tomato sandwiches my mother put in my lunchbox, which then spent several hours in a warm coat closet. Needless to say, I was not particularly popular.

However, it gave me a lifelong appreciation for something that should be more than slapping some meat between two pieces of bread. I cannot tell you how many times my wife—a great cook in her own right—still says “don’t make a big deal out if it—it’s just a sandwich.”

Yet it is far more. The humble sandwich, along with a creative promotional program, can generate significant incremental revenue from produce, bakery, meat, dairy, deli and the center store.

There is a demographic twist as well. Recent research by McDonald’s has shown that hamburgers are not even in the top ten among Millennials, the increasingly lucrative and influential 19-to-34-year-old group that is somewhere between 59 and 80 million strong.
McDonald’s response is the McWrap. According to an internal memo obtained by Advertising Age magazine, the new item is being referred to as the “Subway buster” a reference to the chain of the same name and McDonalds’ solution to what they see as a long-term trend.

McDonald’s caution is understandable given that Subway added 6,000 restaurants between 2008 and 2010, making it the fastest-growing franchise in the country. But there are others including Panera Bread, Arby’s, Quiznos, Firehouse Subs and thousands of independent deli and sandwich shops that are also taking a piece of the action.

On the upscale side, there is ‘Wichcraft, upscale sandwich shops run by Top Chef host Tom Colicchio. Stop by one of these restaurants if you want to see how the sandwich can be raised to the level of gourmet food.

Janet Eden-Harris is chief marketing officer of MarketForce, a Louisville, Colo.-based customer intelligence consultancy. “We’re seeing a shift in the sandwich industry, where the customer experience is just as important as convenience. Brands like Panera and Jason’s Deli are differentiating in areas like atmosphere and health-conscious food, and that’s drawing in customers and making them return.”

Of course attracting and keeping customers comes with a price. Many retailers avoid the sandwich business because it is so labor intensive. But this is about elevating a traditional lunchtime convenience to family meal status.

As noted, this is a category that can draw product from virtually every department in the store. But when was the last time you saw any effort being put into sandwich promotions incorporating all these elements—perhaps using an end cap promotion, signage in different departments, a recipe program and even sampling?

It may seem like a small thing and not even worthy of discussion. But we are seeing seismic shifts in customer loyalty, an intense need for operators to differentiate themselves in a crowded field and new demands by customers for customization of the shopping trip.
Besides, it keeps the cards from getting greasy!

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