CHICAGO — Competition between retail food outlets and restaurants has never been hotter. Retailers in a variety of segments have significantly stepped up efforts to offer new, appealing and competitively priced meal solutions to consumers. This places them in an excellent position to compete head-on with restaurants, according to Technomic.

With better product quality and more product variety available at retail food stores, consumers now have many more options that simplifies and accelerates meal preparations at home.

Based on results from recent research conducted by Technomic for its RMS (Retailer Meal Solutions) Monitor intelligence service, evidence of the shift was found across nearly 20 product categories. Although rotisserie chicken, macaroni and cheese, and deli salads remain a substantial part of the mix, they are by no means the sole anchor to capture consumer attention and dollars.

"From Korean-style barbecue, Hispanic baked goods and Mediterranean salads to gourmet versions of retro Americana sides, made-to-order specialty sandwiches and chicken wings in a host of flavors, it's immediately clear that 'deli' doesn't do these offerings justice," said Jenny Anderson, manager of the RMS Monitor project.

Although "retailer meal solutions" is an accurate label for this broad collection of products, retailers are using other terms and marketing messages to promote their prepared foods offerings to consumers, according to Anderson.

Positioning options and examples include:

? Restaurant quality at home — Restaurant trends are migrating to RMS more quickly and it is not just upscale markets that are incorporating ingredients, flavors and preparation techniques proving popular in restaurants. Retailers can now justifiably market their prepared foods and other items as restaurant alternatives with lower prices and do so frequently. Examples range from c-stores like Quick Chek (“Restaurant Quality, No Reservations Needed”) to chef-inspired meals from Safeway’s extensive Signature Café program and Walmart with its new Marketside brand.

? Restaurant dining in-store — Retailers are also marketing the stores as restaurants and offer onsite dining to further blur the lines between foodservice and retail. Kroger features many of its RMS items in areas called The Bistro. For Hy-Vee, a foodcourt is among the store departments. Others have taken it to the next level with distinctive in-store dining concepts like The Pub at Wegmans and the many diverse dining concepts from Whole Foods (e.g., Italian osterias, wine and tapas bars, diners). Besides a stronger emphasis on quality, retailers are also tapping into consumer stresses and concerns to more effectively position RMS offerings as true solutions that fit consumer lifestyles.

? Convenience without sacrifice — Removing the “chore” of cooking and freeing up that time for something else is another key appeal for RMS. Perusing prepared foods sections that offer complete meals also eliminates the stress of planning what to make. Lunds & Byerly’s use the tagline “Great Food Fast” and other examples abound, including “Easy Meals” at Giant Eagle.

? Better-For-You without Effort — Another area where retailers are taking a cue from restaurants is in marketing healthy meals. Fresh & Easy, Market Street and others now offer specific lines of healthy options to help consumers maintain a healthy diet without having to calculate calories and fat or seek out good-for-you ingredients. Offerings priced by the pound are very common and have been promoted as an option that gives customers more control over portion sizes, which also taps into budget-minded concerns about food going to waste.