Grocers are upping the ante in the meal kit space, the latest battleground for the hearts of convenience-crazed consumers.

Subscription-based companies like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Home Chef, Plated and Sun Basket have defined the category — until now.

Thanks to some willing retailers, ready-set-cook dinners need no longer be ordered in advance and accompanied by shipping fees.

Grocers are capitalizing on the opportunity to make a convenient offering even more convenient — providing more options for customers and in the process capturing dollars that might otherwise be going elsewhere.

Publix, Kroger, Hy-Vee, Whole Foods and Coborn’s are among the retailers now selling meal kits in at least some of their stores, and exploring that area makes perfect sense to me.

To buy a meal kit from a retailer, a customer doesn’t need to depart from his or her routine in any way. It doesn’t require a subscription nor a days-long wait.

 

Why consumers use meal kits

Consumers have reported a number of reasons for using a meal kit: to add variety to meal planning, to have a fun experience, to experience new ingredients, and to save time in a busy life, according to the 2017 Grocery Benchmark Study by Market Force Information.

About 11% of the 12,000-plus people surveyed for the study had tried a meal kit delivery service, but 47% deemed the experience not up to snuff. More than 75% of those who had tried it said they had since stopped, and 65% cited value as the reason for jumping ship.

Meal kits do tend to be on the expensive side, but retailers have an opportunity here to provide a better value without necessarily deviating too much in terms of price.

In addition to price, value can also be the flexibility to pay for and pick up as many — or as few — kits as you want at a time.

Value can be the convenience in picking up your meal kits at the same time and place you are picking up the rest of your groceries.

Value can be the comfort level of being able to talk with someone face-to-face if there are problems — a missing ingredient, for example.

Some retailers, such as Hy-Vee, are also distinguishing their meal kit offerings by making sure the preparation of the ingredients required by customers is limited, a contrast to some of the subscription-service kits.

Coborn’s and Hy-Vee are two grocers that have offered meal kits in at least some of their stores for a while.

Coborn’s rolled out the service last year with eight recipes and now lists 22 “To the Table” meal kits on its website.

 

‘Chef in a Box’

Hy-Vee began its “Chef in a Box” program last year in Waukee, Iowa, and several other stores, including some of its new ones, have picked it up since then. Depending on the location, kits are also sold under the names “Hy-Vee Fresh Meal Kits” and “Simple Fix To-Go.”

Whole Foods carries meal kits from two outside companies, Salted and Purple Carrot. Salted kits can also be found at Gelson’s.

Kroger recently started testing its “Prep Pared” kits, and Publix began pilots with its own version in late February.

Brian West, media and community relations manager for Publix, said the kits have been doing well, and increasing media attention has spurred more interest.

He said many people still want to cook at home but are intimidated by the prospect or feel they don’t have time.

“Anything we can do to make that process simpler and show them that it really isn’t that difficult is really helping them out,” West said.

I couldn’t agree more. For grocers looking for ways to differentiate themselves, meal kits look like an excellent one to explore.

Ashley Nickle is a staff writer for The Packer. E-mail her at anickle@farmjournal.com.

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