Data: The Key Ingredient in a Profitable Prepared Foods Strategy

With so much focus on the fresh food movement, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of a grocer’s prepared food items. There are still plenty of customers that don’t cook on a regular basis, or simply don’t have time in their busy schedule to devote to preparing food at home. And don’t forget that prepared foods—meats, salads, cold cuts, sliced cheeses, cakes, pies, and so on—are wildly popular for holidays and convenient for impromptu gatherings of family and friends.

Today’s prepared foods go beyond the usual items customers expect from in-store bakeries and deli counters. This category also includes grocerants—those trendy, in-store cafes and restaurants featuring everything from coffee and fresh pastries to gourmet dinner packages. These items can be as profitable as they are popular and convenient for retail customers.

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But offering prepared foods can also be a gamble. Prepare too little, and customers complain when they can’t get their favorite fried chicken or blueberry pie. Prepare too much, and you have to run an unannounced fire sale to get rid of the excess inventory. If you’re lucky, that will at least cover the cost, but just as often, it goes into the trash bins.

Using store data to estimate prepared food demand

Thankfully, readily available store data can help you optimize the preparation and inventory of your prepared foods, from the number of each flavor doughnut you make to how many ham and swiss on ryes your deli should wrap for the display case.

Your point of sale records the number of each prepared item you sell, which is the basis for estimating the amount of ingredients to order and quantities to prepare. But your staff should also record the number of requests for items of which you did not prepare enough, as well as those you don’t normally prepare at all. This data will help better inform your staff of actual customer demand for each item, as well as the optimal quantities of ingredients to order for each.

When planning quantities of prepared foods, you should also examine data on overall store traffic for each day of the week, month or year, as well as the impact of seasonal, holiday, and local events. This helps you order ingredients and inventory quantities that better align with how much you’ll actually need to prepare, which is critical for perishable fresh-item management of ingredients such as meats and cheeses. It also informs your deli, bakery, and grocerant staffs of the optimal quantities to prepare. Both help ensure you meet customer demands for prepared food, while minimizing waste for both ingredients and final product—and that helps maximize your margin.

Maximize use of every ingredient with integrated systems and data

Even with the insights the POS data provide, it isn’t possible to account for every single variable. Customer patterns fluctuate, and it’s inevitable that you’ll sometimes roast too many chickens or bake too many loaves of sourdough bread.

However, integrated retail technologies can minimize waste in these situations, too. Smart inventory systems know exactly how much excess you have on hand, and your smart scale contains recipes so you can use excess inventory in other prepared foods. Essentially, these systems can help you make lemonade when life deals you lemons, as the expression goes.

For example, let’s say the deli department does roast or fry up too many chickens. Using smart scales, your staff can weigh the leftovers and find recipes for chicken salad—another popular item in your deli. Past sales data will help you estimate how much chicken salad your customers are likely to buy the next day, once again helping them to prepare the right amount. The scale and inventory solutions should also work together to determine if the store has all the other ingredients on hand to prepare that quantity. 

This technique works for many other unsold inventory items, such as those extra sourdough loaves. Simply turn those loaves into fresh-made toasted croutons—another popular bakery item—or even breadcrumbs to put in your chicken salad. You may not be able to repurpose every prepared food in this way, but it will reduce waste for many items. And that’s good for margins.

Data + integrated systems = an optimized prepared foods and fresh-item management strategy 

Customer buying patterns can be tricky, making it difficult to stock just the right amount of inventory in each department—especially for prepared food items. But the data available from integrated retail systems like point of sale, ordering, inventory and smart scales can make the task simpler and more accurate. The right technology enables you to optimize your prepared foods strategy, ensuring your deli, bakery and grocerants maintain a healthy profit margin.


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