The Deli Counter Isn’t Dead: Plant-Based Food is Here to Save It

Simon Day, Head of Marketing, Winterbotham Darby.
Simon Day, Head of Marketing, Winterbotham Darby

The decline of the deli has been a steady one. Falling sales, plus a food waste problem that has been difficult to tackle have made these corners of supermarkets unprofitable for some time, says Simon Day, Head of Marketing, Winterbotham Darby.

When the UK’s largest retailer – Sainsbury’s – announced that it would close all counters, the news wasn’t a surprise for many in the food business. Rather, it was the culmination of a steady process experienced across all retailers, consolidated by changing habits during the Covid-19 outbreak.

At the same time, it’s no secret that plant-based has been booming – with annual UK growth of fresh meat alternatives at around 45% [Kantar Worldpanel Online], alongside huge increases in markets across the world. Could existing physical counters be repurposed to support – and take advantage of – the revolution in vegan-friendly options? Or could the space created by in-store closures be used in an entirely new way with plant-based in mind?

Ham & cheese melt Squeaky Bean
©Squeaky Bean

As Head of Marketing at Winterbotham Darby, supplier to the counters of numerous retailers and the fastest growing supplier of plant-based food in UK retail, I believe this space in store can make a huge contribution to changing eating habits.  A number of barriers that stand in the way of even faster adoption of a plant-based diet – scepticism of taste, uncertainty around nutrition and a lack of recipe confidence – can be addressed with a new approach to deli counters.

Many shoppers who are yet to be converted to plant-based foods likely tried a meat alternative several years ago, when mimics were not nearly as convincing as they are today – or they have never tried them because they feel they would miss the taste of meat and dairy too much. One of the strengths of a good counter is the ability to interrupt unthinking shopper behaviour with conversation and sampling. Therefore, getting the best plant-based products in the mouths of sceptical shoppers is where we can challenge stereotypes and change attitudes. There is also a chance to introduce suitable seasonings and big flavour condiments to help ensure that vegan alternatives are given the best chance to shine.

©The Vurger

Nutrition can be an area of concern even for consumers who are well disposed towards the plant-based category. Counters have advantages over regular fixture space that can help to alleviate these concerns. They can provide the opportunity to merchandise iron and calcium-rich fruit, vegetables and wholefoods alongside fortified meat and dairy alternatives, to stock supplements in the same space, and to have literature on hand or train staff to give advice on the nutritional content of the foods on offer.

Many non-vegan or vegetarian consumers’ recipe knowledge is centred on meat-based dishes. While meat alternatives have helped to make switches much easier, there are obviously a wealth of recipes that don’t require them but are unfamiliar to lots of shoppers. Counters can bring flexibility and enable solutions like tailored recipe boxes or the merchandising of fixed meal kits. Cookbooks, screens and staff can all provide recipe inspiration as well. Beyond home cooking, prepared food-to-go is a successful trend in former counter space already, for example, the success of Sushi Daily in supermarkets nationwide, or ASDA’s hot pizza counters. But vegan-friendly examples are still rare, despite the explosion of plant-based foodservice outside of stores – which means there is some catching up to do for retailers.

asda pizza counter
©Asda

A plant-based offering doesn’t negate the need to get the fundamentals of counter retailing right of course. Waste must be proactively minimised, different store locations require different ranges, the offer must be different in some clearly discernible way to the regular fixture, and there needs to be a clear reason for shoppers to come.

So what’s in it for the retailer? Well, if they help consumers to make a desired lifestyle change, they can expect to be rewarded with sales and increased loyalty. No other category has the same word-of-mouth grapevine as plant-based, and a truly inspirational vegan counter will be championed by both its customers and its retail marketing teams! The curious will come and try, and the right offer will bring them back again and again.