Full-service sushi bridges gap from humdrum to explosive sales
Sushi now poses one of grocery deli merchandisers’ top dilemmas but also ranks among their biggest successes. When grocer and vendor apply the right plan and principles, top full-service sushi kiosks are selling $30,000 weekly in markets that are large but not exclusively upscale or urban.
More than 10 national sushi vendors currently vie for major grocery chain accounts. That may not seem unusual at first when thousands of products fight for shelf space. However, sushi, when sold as a prepared food in the full-service model, is one of the only products that fight for actual vendor-operated real estate within a grocery store.
Why are chains staking their most prime spots on this category? Because sushi just gives more. Not only does sushi now merit the space in sales per square feet–as much as 75% higher than annual store averages, in my peers’ and my experience–but visible sushi offerings build customer traffic and deli atmosphere. Even surpassing weekly sales of the now ever-present grocery coffee bar in some stores, sushi kiosks have become vital to the transition of grocery delis to eating destinations.
In 2010, according to independent consulting firm The Perishables Group, deli-prepared sushi made up 5.3% of national deli sales. The weekly average for all deli sales in 2010 was $11,306. Consider that leading sushi companies respective top 10 stores are reportedly averaging $12,000 in sales weekly. While often achieved at larger than average stores, that is still a massive number. And yet it’s well within reach for a handful of stores in any chain that is passively merchandising sushi today.
Despite its ability to generate buzz and atmosphere, this culinary form so closely identified with customer engagement was originally hobbled, unbelievably, in its merchandising. Shoppers in the seafood department or deli found sushi in inline cases with no visible chef or visible preparation (much less sampling). Worse, the sushi the lucky shopper discovered had usually been shipped frozen and thawed. Stores were content with $800 weekly sales for a niche product. If this image sounds familiar it’s because it still exists in chains with the resources to upgrade but unfamiliar with the principles that have helped kiosks thrive in surprising locations.
The Sales Gap
Even top chains that were the most open-minded about sushi 10 years ago have hurried to do physical upgrades from inline in order to meet sales demand. (They may have stopped briefly to wince at sales that “could’ve been”; but that’s water under the bridge. Now they just make money, to borrow the phrase).
Even as those stores have embraced the full-service sushi bar as a deli centerpiece that can generate more than 1% of total non-fuel sales, many companies are unknowingly sacrificing sales through contentment with a passively-run sushi case and $1,000 to $2,000 weekly. Chains like Kroger, Whole Foods, Frys, Wegmans and others have demonstrated that the right sushi partners can double that in only slightly more space. An understanding of full service is key to not only bridging that giant sales gap but the realistic potential to do even more.
Full Service Sushi Bars
Sushi is different from other perishables. It’s show business. That element, which drove sushi’s original U.S. popularity, has been lost in its grocery incarnation. It’s even more critical now to restore it in order to meet the expectations of restaurant-savvy customers.
The most successful grocery sushi bars combine the quality and variety of upscale sushi restaurants with convenient, ready-to-eat packages prepared by engaging, business-minded chefs.
I’ve found the only thing that matches the fun of watching a sushi chef prepare the meals may be enjoying the “wow” response a party tray of edible art elicits from one’s guests, or, perhaps, the simple satisfaction of digging into a quick solo meal that rivals the quality of your favorite ethnic restaurant.
According to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s annual trends report “What’s in Store 2012”, more than 80 percent of supermarket deli customers look for newer, trendier items regardless of whether they regularly purchase those items. So ensuring every customer knows sushi is available should be a priority.
The first step to ensure full service placing a kiosk with an eye toward traffic flow and visibility. Shoppers should be met by clear signage and a large, accessible, case with eye-catching menu variety. Sight lines and sneeze guards should allow everybody to see chefs creating their product. This and one final principle create the show business element that brings in new customers (and fosters the fanatical loyalty of some, as a few big grocery names know).
In partnering with a sushi purveyor, the most critical principle grocers should ensure is at play is customer engagement and sampling as inseparable from sushi.
The cost of mis-categorization: seafood or deli?
Retail’s greatest growth stories came from out-of-the-box thinking. Yes, we could argue that the creation of deli wonderlands in Wegmans, Whole Foods or H-E-B were at their heart still basic in their customer focus. But they were bold moves nonetheless. On the other hand, moving sushi to the deli involves almost no risk because its sales impact is already proven and its customer service culture a natural fit.
Grocery leaders’ approach to sushi and its location in the store must be thoughtful and deliberate. Just as eye-opening as full-service sushi’s proven sales impact (again, potentially in the tens of thousands weekly) are the lackluster results of inadvertently hiding your most exciting product.
Even when chains utilize a top sushi vendor who produces a fun, varied menu, they have unwittingly contented themselves with tepid sales if they’ve categorized sushi incorrectly. When sushi is merchandised in seafood it has usually been delivered from an off-site production facility. We should remember how visibly prepared, ready-to-eat sushi appeals to our customers and where in the store they expect to find prepared meals. On today’s social media sites like yelp.com (Yes, your store’s prepared products are on there with the restaurants) customers remind each other and us every day where and for what they’re looking. They want fresh, fun and the unconventional experience that popularized sushi.
Your sales goal should be for every customer to see and know the store has sushi rather than stumble across it on a culinary mission to find the right cut of fish. It’s hard to imagine delivery sushi remaining viable for sought-after vendors who are being rewarded by other chains for giving customers full service. Delivery doesn’t optimize your sales. It’s not win-win. It’s not fresh.
Where’s the ceiling on sushi sales?
To put it plainly, despite dramatic sales growth we haven’t seen the full potential of sushi. Not every store can move a ton of this category, a fact that requires detailed planning by merchandisers and vendors. But leading sushi companies have seen the right attention to detail
reward grocery chains again and again with doubled or even tripled weekly sales over their previously passive cases. There is no reason a volume store in any population size with the right mix of upscale customers and untapped demos can’t sell two to four percent of the store’s overall weekly sales.
But in order to tap their full sales potential grocers must embrace and support–the way a few regional powerhouses have–sushi as a key customer pleaser in destination delis. You can support this category through vibrant signage and marketing and bringing it into the print and online advertising fold. In tandem with these efforts both vendor and grocer must not only engage the customer but also explore menu development and track sales by sku with a local focus.
Sushi and deli sales will continue to thrive for those who embrace full service by letting sushi’s show business element shine. Sushi culture was built to provide “more”.