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    FRESH FOOD: Merchandising and Packaging: School for meat

    Marsh lassos higher sales with on-pack beef nutrition labels.

    When offered a choice, shoppers are more likely to buy a given beef item when the nutritional benefits of the product are spelled out on-pack at the meat case, because delivering the right information at the right time is a sure way to boost sales and make the shopping experience more satisfying. Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets found this out for itself in a pilot test of on-pack nutrition labeling with the Beef Checkoff Program.

    Marsh added a nutrition facts panel onto the scale label for beef, veal, pork, and lamb, and nutrition information labels for both raw and cooked ground beef. The goal of the test, conducted in 2006, was to document customers' response to fresh meat nutritional information on each package.

    Its positive results largely validated findings from a 2003 pilot study and "confirmed that on-pack nutrition information is of value to our customers," says Dewayne Wulff, Marsh's v.p./meat merchandising.

    That confirmation prompted the regional chain, which operates 69 Marsh supermarkets, 29 LoBill Foods, six O'Malia Food Markets, and 158 Village Pantry convenience stores in Indiana and western Ohio, to roll out the program across all of its stores.

    "It is a new standard of meat labeling that our customers now expect, and it differentiates us in the marketplace," adds Wulff.

    Beefing up sales

    The program also stands as proof that giving retailers useful tools to help them stand out in the competitive marketplace can help bring customers through the doors, says Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

    The 16-week on-pack labeling test -- conducted in Marsh's eponymous stores as well as in its sister LoBill's value-oriented format locations -- revealed that by reading the labels, over 50 percent of customers learned more about beef's nutritional contribution to a healthy diet.

    Even better, on-pack nutritional labeling was found to increase both dollar and pound sales of beef at both banners. Comparatively speaking, the Marsh stores experienced increases of six percentage points in dollar sales and one percentage point in pound sales, vs. similar control stores, while LoBill Foods saw increases of two percentage points in dollar sales and four percentage points in pound sales, compared with control stores.

    Researchers interviewed shoppers before and after they were introduced to the on-pack nutrition labels. Forty-five percent of them said they believed beef was healthier than they'd previously thought after viewing the labels, while nearly 15 percent of respondents also said they'd be more likely to shop at stores that featured meat with that kind of nutrition labeling.

    "The results revealed very positive reaction from consumers," says Irion. "Consumers very much want to have as much information as possible to make educated purchase decisions. As such, the beef nutrition labels offer grocers "one more opportunity to be a leader in their community."

    The subsequent chainwide expansion of on-pack beef nutrition labels at Marsh appears to be a well-timed decision, in view of ongoing efforts by the chain's new owners and management to fine-tune the merchandising mix in a bid to become more efficient.

    Seven months after buying Marsh for $88 million and assumed debt, Florida-based Sun Capital Partners is carefully evaluating the retailer's companywide fleet, and has already eliminated full-service meat counters in two Indiana stores.

    The nutrition labels thus become even more crucial in helping consumers weigh their options across different types and cuts of beef. Not surprisingly, ample POS merchandising highlighting the key nutrients found in beef -- protein, zinc, iron, and B vitamins -- factors heavily in the on-pack program. Supplemental information in weekly ads further reinforced key messages such as "Beef, an excellent source of protein to help your body build lean muscles" and "Beef, an excellent source of zinc to help your body fight colds and flu."

    Healthier profile

    The thing that surprised Irion most regarding the results of the Marsh beef-labeling study was the wide appeal nutrition labeling has across diverse economic groups.

    "When we went into LoBill's, which is a more value-oriented format, we saw that the positive results weren't all that different from what we saw in the Marsh stores, so I believe that nutrition information really resonates across the economic stratum."

    Irion says he's also gratified by what he calls "the large percentage of customers who walked away with the idea that beef was healthier than they expected before they read the nutrition statements. The upside [of nutrition labels] is significant."

    While beef nutrition labeling still remains voluntary, interest in on-pack nutrition labels within the fresh meat segment is "definitely growing," adds Irion. "We are seeing more and more retailers utilizing it." One of the driving factors behind the heightened interest is USDA's pending development of a new ruling, "Nutrition Labeling of Ground or Chopped Meat and Poultry Products and Single-Ingredient Products," that will soon become mandatory.

    "We've been waiting for the final announcement since 2001," notes Irion. "It could happen any day now."

    The good news is that retailers are really moving forward, regardless of the final outcome of the regulation, with their progress being monitored by the Meat and Poultry Nutrition Labeling Coalition.

    Although the vast majority of retailers now have some kind of nutrition labeling on ground beef products, Irion believes that "[w]e're going to see more of an evolution of retailers picking it up" for use with other fresh meat products.

    The biggest shot in the arm for the meat nutrition labeling movement could come about if a large national operator gets on board, says Irion. Early adopters "have tended to be regional chains up to now. However, if we saw a national player lead the charge, it would make it visible to a lot more consumers," allowing aggressive retailers "to get out in front and capitalize on the [business and marketing] opportunities it gives them to meet needs of a lot of their shoppers."

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