Want to sell more prepared foods? Try a chalkboard.

Study offers surprising facts about how consumers respond to menu boards.

Menu Chalk BoardsMenu boards were once an afterthought for supermarkets moving into the prepared foods business. The idea was that high-quality ready-made food would sell itself to busy shoppers. Well, that’s only partially true, according to recent findings from food industry research firm Datassential.

Datassential’s first in-depth study of the use and effectiveness of menu boards was driven by demand from the food service industry. Elements of the study will be presented along with other insights at Supermarket Sense, Sept. 21-22 in Atlanta. As competition heats up between traditional restaurants and grocery and convenience stores selling prepared foods, all of them are asking: How can I use menu boards to sell more food?

“Our study proved menu boards are an essential part of engaging shoppers and making a prepared food sale,” said Mark DiDomenico, Datassential’s director of client solutions. The research showed 52% of shoppers regularly use menu boards to make prepared food decisions at grocery delis. In the bakery department, 46% of shoppers regularly consult menu boards.

Compare that to the 70% of fast-casual restaurant customers who make it a habit to check the menu board before ordering, DiDomenico noted, and you can see the opportunity for grocers. “Consumers buying prepared foods have been ‘trained’ by the fast-casual environment,” he said. “They expect to see a menu board that will help guide their choices.”
The most effective menu boards are the highest-tech and lowest-tech options. On the high-tech end, digital menu boards with full-color photos are “tremendously important” for making sales, DiDomenico said. “When we test food items on menu boards, the options presented with photos always score better. People eat with their eyes.”

In addition, digital signs give food service providers a great deal of flexibility. They make it easy to change menus daily — or even throughout the day. “The same digital menu board can detail breakfast items in the morning and lunch options at midday. It can even be used for last-minute promotions,” DiDomenico said. “A grocer who has too many pastries left over from breakfast can use a digital menu board to advertise half-price baked goods and coffee at 2 p.m.”

Datassential’s research also shows the full power of digital menu boards has yet to be tapped. Only 16% of food service operators currently use them.

Mark DiDomenico, Datassential, Inc.But a low-tech approach is also effective, DiDomenico said. “A hand-written menu board really resonates with consumers,” he said. “It conveys freshness. They believe that the food described on a hand-written board was made that day. That’s especially important for supermarkets combating the shopper’s perception that prepared food has been sitting in the case too long.”

Interestingly, while research shows consumers are swayed by hand-written menu boards, food service operators don’t fully understand their potency. Those polled by Datassential said hand-written menu boards were just 57% effective with shoppers, compared with the 75% perceived effectiveness of static, printed menu boards. But Datassential’s research actually shows hand-written menu boards more effectively communicate freshness to consumers.

Again, here’s an opportunity for grocers and other food service operators to pump up their prepared foods merchandising. Just 29% of operators use hand-written menu boards, according to the Datassential study.

Effective menu boards can do everything from attracting shoppers to a juice bar from 30 feet away to educating consumers about the nutritional value of prepared foods. Grocers can wield influence by tempting customers to indulge with a luscious photo of a freshly baked chocolate croissant or using nutritional information to inspire them to eat a healthy salad.

“A greater awareness of menu boards is a logical follow to supermarkets’ growing share of the prepared foods market,” DiDomenico said. “The more grocers rely on ready-made meals to draw in consumers and sell more food, the better they understand the essential role menu boards play in effective merchandising.”

Prepaid Foods Menu Boards

Consumers rely on menu boards

Menu boards regularly influence prepared food purchases, according to a study that food industry research firm Datassential will present at Supermarket Sense. Here’s how often consumers look at menu boards before deciding what to buy from food service operators.