"You have to be there."
That's the whole of it, the point of it, the put-a-bow-on-it message from IDDBA Board Chair Dotty VanderMolen on this year's IDDBA Show, the association's first in-person iteration of its annual event since 2019.
Virtually checking out new products doesn't compare. Conversations over low-resolution, awkwardly angled laptop cameras don't compare. For an industry built on sensory experiences and shared experiences, nothing compares with literally breaking bread together, according to VanderMolen, and at a critical point for the food retail industry, finally gathering in person again holds the potential to spark the kinds of connections necessary to drive the industry's future growth.
"It's time for all to celebrate meeting in-person again—being with other retailers, manufacturers, brokers, everyone that is out there," said VanderMolen, a 2019 Champions of Change honoree and the Midwest director for Advantage Fresh, in a recent conversation with WGB. "It’s time to be back in front to continue to grow the fresh industry, because we need fresh."
Voni Woods, an ex officio IDDBA board member, the VP of prepared foods for Giant Eagle and another 2019 Champion of Change, reiterated the focus on fresh at what she believes will be "the best IDDBA event that we’ve ever had."
"After two years of silence, people are going to bring their A game," Woods told WGB. "Fresh food is going to be the point."
U.S. consumers, certainly, are looking to the fresh perimeter—and to the deli and prepared foods in particular—as a go-to meal-maker. "The deli department remained one of the few areas of the store to drive dollars and unit gains" in April, IDDBA Director of Education Heather Prach noted in a monthly category update from IDDBA, IRI and 210 Analytics. "This is a clear signal that consumers are still willing to pay a little more to save a little time, even amid high inflation."
Jonna Parker, a principal at Chicago-based market research firm IRI, echoed the sentiment in the groups' April report. "As consumer mobility has returned with kids back in school, evening activities being back on, and more and more offices opening back up, the pressure on time is back," Parker said. Most consumers polled by IRI in April (90%) said grocery prices are higher than they were a year ago, and a majority of them (53%) said they're extremely concerned about food inflation. But in need of convenient meal solutions, they're turning to the supermarket as a more affordable, more nutritious, family-feeding alternative to restaurant takeout or delivery. (With nearly 80% of meals being prepared at home in April, more than one-third of consumers still said they planned to cut back on their restaurant spending.)
To wit: Unit sales of deli prepared entrees were up 9% in April vs. the year-ago period. Deli prepared trays, although a much smaller category, saw unit sales spike an even more impressive 14% year over year, with dollar sales up almost 30%. Pizza, soups and chili, combo meals and deli desserts all saw unit sales and dollar sales climb vs. April 2021, too.
"We're all busy," VanderMolen offered. "Consumers aren’t as patient as they used to be; they’re in a hurry. ... I think grab-and-go is just going to continue to grow, grow, grow."
It all gets back to VanderMolen's point: Amid the surging growth in deli and prepared foods—and with still-unrealized opportunities in the category—an in-person meeting of the fresh-perimeter minds is especially vital. "It’s more important than ever for retailers to be there," VanderMolen said. "It's time to all be together."
Dotty VanderMolen will give the IDDBA Chair's Address on Sunday, June 5, at 8 a.m. EDT at the 2022 IDDBA Show and will present this year's Chair's Award, recognizing lifetime service and contribution to the industry. Learn more and register at IDDBA.org.