A few months ago, the home-meal replacement phenomenon was relatively unknown in the supermarket trade. No more. “HMR” is a designation that’s winning no little prominence in the industry’s ever-expanding constellation of three-letter abbreviations. And, as has been the case for several weeks running, the HMR concept is mentioned in this issue of Supermarket News.

But before we get to that, here’s a little by way of introduction: Undoubtedly, the HMR business is being driven largely by Boston Market, the restaurant and takeout chain that has elevated the HMR concept to a science – and which is destined to divert increasing amounts of revenue from supermarkets in years to come. Boston Market was profiled in a front-page SN feature last month. Boston Market is very effectively capturing consumers’ hearts and minds when it comes to what might be thought of as the “meal kit” business. And, as it develops, supermarkets aren’t even in that game. That disquieting bit of information was pointed out in a news article in last week’s SN that reported on results of a consumer survey. Pollsters asked consumers’ opinion about whether they thought supermarkets should try harder to compete with Boston Market. Twenty-four percent said yes. That’s a surprisingly low percentage, which might suggest, at first glance, that consumers are convinced supermarkets compete effectively in the HMR business. But that’s hardly the case. What the result shows is that consumers don’t believe supermarkets are in the HMR business at all, and that they wouldn’t even consider a supermarket as an HMR source. “As far as I’m concerned, supermarkets can’t compete on the meal business,” said one consumer polled. “Boston Market has fast turnover. I don’t know how long chicken has been sitting in the supermarket.”

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Brace yourself; there’s more: Consumers tend to think of supermarket-deli offerings as centering on deli and salad items that trend toward the fatty side and that, in any case, may require further handling before being ready to serve. And, in terms of “healthfulness,”consumers tend to lump supermarket-deli products into the same category as those vended at fast-food outlets. Unfortunately, and in contrast, they tend to think of Boston Market and such HMR suppliers as providing healthy food. All this is according to the same consumer survey. (There’s more on consumers’ perceptions of supermarket food service this week too; see Page 15.) In short, the message that prepared-meal solutions are – or at least could be – strong features of supermarket delis simply isn’t penetrating.

Now, let’s look at the HMR issue from another angle: The HMR concept is obliquely discussed in a two-part series that started in last week’s Fresh Foods section and concludes in this issue’s Fresh Foods section.

The interview is based on talks with executives of four major poultry producers. It spreads their ideas on how supermarkets might merchandise poultry. They also talk about the competitive dimension of the HMR market.

Here are some truncated quotes from the first part of the series, which ran last week (I’ll let you take a look to see who is speaking):

“I really think the consumer wants to find easy, quick meal solutions and we haven’t given enough of those through the grocery trade.

“I think the consumer really wants us to be emphasizing a quick meal at a price.”

And here are some quotes from the second part of the series, in this week’s issue:

“I think more and more people don’t want to cook, but want to eat at home, so that’s something that supermarkets can provide.”

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Another supplier said: “Grocery trends start on the food-service side. As retail marketers, we need to do a better job of staying in tune to changing trends.

“We’ve got to do a better job working with retailers on alternatives.”

A third: “We’re going to be looking at our [chicken programs] to help push whole-meal sales. I think it makes more sense for the consumer’s needs today.” Considering all these opinions, this seems to be the situation: It would be a big mistake for supermarkets to ignore the HMR phenomenon, or, like the consumers mentioned in the poll, to be lulled into thinking that HMR is an alien form of business that’s totally detached from what supermarkets do. In short, now is the time to tinker with ways to staunch the impending revenue outflow to HMR providers.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>