Certainly, its space has been eroded by new formats such as the serveovers with ready to go ethnic meals in Asda and Morrisons, rotisseries serving roasted poultry in Sainsbury, plus the extensive fresh food to go' counters in Safeway's larger new stores. These have attracted a new audience to counter service and reinforced the fresh food' image that virtually every retailer is pursuing. However, despite these developments, and the continual move to pre-pack, the traditional deli, with its cooked meats, cheeses and salad and snacks, continues to survive, if not exactly thrive. "The most powerful argument for the deli's survival," says Dairy Crest marketing director David Turner, "is that it is the only place in store that still provides an individual, personalised service for an offer that is, and is perceived as, entirely fresh and, when properly run, provides a means of educating consumers. And it also provides that all-important element of theatre." But do consumers see it this way and are they still prepared to queue for individual service at the counter? All the evidence points to a strong preference for the speed and convenience of pre-pack. TNS Superpanel's latest figures show prepack sales romping ahead of loose: prepacked cooked meats rising 12% value/4% volume compared to loose at 5% value but down 7% volume, while prepacked cheese gained 5% value/2% volume with loose falling 4% value/11% volume (52 w/e March 31 2002). Arla brand manager for Rosenborg cheese Aaron Prout confirms this: "Consumers prefer the grab and go' of pre-pack. Many retailers now offer deli cheese in pre-wrapped express' formats as consumers don't have time for the cheese to be cut and wrapped." As cheese is still a substantial deli item ­ some 15% of sales are from the counter ­ Dairy Crest has researched consumers' attitudes to the deli with the aim of seeing where improvements could be made. Its conclusions confirm that queuing is unpopular, that consumers feel intimidated by unknown products and are reluctant to inquire, too many labels are hard to read, staff are often unhelpful and purchase is perceived as time consuming. Dairy Crest and other leading deli suppliers believe retailers need a better understanding of consumer attitudes to the deli and to make improvements to reinvigorate the category. Its recommendations include more staff training. Turner says: "The lack of well trained sales staff who can inform, guide and educate consumers is a big issue and loses sales, whereas there's plenty of evidence to show that trained staff boost sales. "We also advocate more sampling. We've had a lot of success with our Cathedral City sampling. And we recommend strategically siting key cheese brands on the deli. Familiar brands make the deli seem less daunting. It should have a range that's similar to, but not the same, as prepack, and definitely shouldn't be full of esoteric products that are little known." Arla's Prout has firm evidence of the benefits of sampling. "A sampling we did in Asda saw sales of Rosenborg deli cheese rise 57% over four weeks." Where retailers have made improvements, the deli is paying dividends, says Dairy Crest's Turner. "Morrisons has invested in training, promotions, sampling, good labelling and presentation, with low counters to aid communication and provide customers with as much information as possible. As a result, they've seen strong growth in like-for-like sales." North Downs Dairy also has initiatives to encourage consumers to return to the deli, recently appointing a team of merchandisers to educate deli staff on Pilgrims Choice, its leading cheddar brand, and the handmade cheese-making process. Pilgrims Choice commercial manager Alistair Jackson says: "The team provides vital support to retailers and we are receiving requests for more visits and PoS material." Last year Pilgrims Choice had the highest level of cheddar brand support, which North Downs is continuing in 2002. The £1.06bn deli market has increased in value over the last year, though volumes continue to decline, largely because consumers are trading up to higher quality products and paying more per visit (TNS Superpanel). Fiorucci, which claims brand leadership in the Italian speciality cooked meats sector, has evidence of this. "We have a large range, our core being Italian sausages and cooked meats, plus German, Spanish, Danish and French continental meats, and have seen double digit growth for our business over the past your years," says managing director Joe Zottola. "Consumers are prepared to pay much more now for quality. Four years ago we couldn't sell Italian roast ham here. Now it is one of our best sellers." Zottola says the marketplace is ready for a much broader range of continental meats, particularly specialities. "We did a Viva Italia promotion last year with Safeway featuring lots of regional sausages which did well. And recently we brought in Tee Wurst, a German spreading sausage, which is selling well in Waitrose. On the Italian side we are improving our offer with a huge programme of quality assurance through independent European certification body SGS. We're also developing low fat and low salt versions of salami to satisfy healthy eating needs." Like everyone in the deli market, Fiorucci has experienced a shift to prepack. "Our sales are an equal 50/50 split between deli and prepack," says Zottola, "but in continental meats I don't believe counter sales have deteriorated." The increase in demand for continental cooked meats has also been experienced by Ridpath Pek, which reports a 20% uplift year-on-year for the past three years for its Polish cooked meats. Trading manager Gordon Tucker says continental cooked meats are one of the fastest growing sectors in the deli. "Our star performer is Sopocka, a cured, de-fatted smoked pork loin, followed by Kabanos, a pork and caraway sausage, and Wieska, a pork ring," says Tucker. Continental meats are not alone in seeing an upsurge. Rea Valley Speciality Foods sales and marketing manager Martin Burdekin says traditional British varieties, such as its First Grade Ox and Lunch Tongue, are experiencing rising sales of about 4-5% year-on-year because consumers are returning to traditional tastes. Burdekin says: "It's being led by restaurants developing more modern ways of eating traditional meats, like black pudding as a starter, for instance. We see an opportunity to reposition ox tongue as a starter or main meal item and have done recipe cards with Sainsbury. Ox tongue has a loyal following and is a destination item in the deli and there's growing interest from retailers to extend it into prepack format." Burdekin doesn't believe a move into prepack will compromise deli sales. "The buying motives of deli and pre-pack consumers are different, which means prepack sales are incremental." Sister company Puredrive Fine Foods produces ready to eat cocktail sausages which Burdekin says are experiencing 20% sales growth. "They are a growing market in the deli and in prepack. We've brought out a hot and spicy variant because tastes are going that way, plus different packaging formats for different usage occasions," says Burdekin. The company is seeing renewed interest in its own label pâté chubs following repackaging in larger 125-150g sizes to provide consumers with better value. Hazlewood Foods has also seen a boom in loose sausage sales. "A surprising 22% of chilled sausages are sold this way, with sales growing 12% year-on-year," reports prepared foods category marketing manager Robin Norton. "Quiche, another traditional deli item, is still a small market at £5m, but is growing 3% year-on-year. Though Quiche Lorraine remains the most popular variety, we are bringing in Mediterranean flavour profiles, such as olive and sun dried tomato, to capture younger consumers." The taste for Mediterranean flavours has given a spurt to sales of chargrilled vegetables, olives, sun dried tomatoes and other prepared vegetables from suppliers like RH Amar and L'Aquila. Merchant Gourmet reports impressive 92% growth for its roasted SunBlush tomatoes, and 25% sales rise for its roasted SunBlush peppers introduced last year. It has now launched La Fresca olives, which are unpasteurised, pitted, have a low salt content and come in five flavour variants. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}