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The market for specialty and organic meats is poised for strong growth in the near future, especially if grocers arm their departments with educational materials and their meat clerks with knowledge, said retail executives who headlined a Webinar discussion on the prospects for niche meat, hosted by Progressive Grocer and sponsored by the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board (NPB).
Kurt Luttecke, v.p. of meat, seafood, and foodservice for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets, Inc., and Aileen Magnotto, co-owner of Hermitage (Pa.) Shop 'n Save, shared their opinions, as well as details of their niche meat strategies, during the first-of-its-kind Web-based seminar.
The online discussion, "Kicking It Up a Niche in the Meat Case: The Potential of Upscale Pork to Increase Fresh Meat Sales," also featured Larry Cizek, NPB's director of culinary and niche market development. The exchange drew a strong audience of executives from all segments of the fresh meat industry.
"It's believed that there is confusion in the marketplace among general consumers, retailers, and even the media on what some of the commonly used niche terminology means," said Cizek, pointing to the terms "natural," "naturally raised," and "organic." "There is a real need in the marketplace for education and training so that consumers can get what they're looking for and understand what they're really getting."
The subject of customer confusion also factored heavily in Magnotto's commentary. "Consumers are bombarded with mixed messages in the media," she said. "But the majority often lack the time and inclination to decipher all of the conflicting information -- from mad cow to avian influenza, as well as mercury levels in seafood and red meat's association with high cholesterol. People aren't sure what direction to turn when it comes to what is and isn't safe this week, and what is and isn't healthy for their diets. And with the latest E. coli outbreaks, one cannot blame the consumers for their confusion.
"Frankly, I'm very concerned about the potential for even more confusion in the coming years, and, even worse, the possible abuse of consumers' trust," continued Magnotto, "especially as it relates to USDA's prevailing loose definition of what can be considered 'natural.' In our meat department, we're really trying to help reduce that confusion by providing personal assistance and ample point-of-sale information about our better-for-you meat products. People take their meat purchases very seriously, and since supermarket retailers have the closest point of contact with customers, I believe it's up to us to try and help educate them as much as possible, in any way possible."
For his part, Luttecke said that Wild Oats' demonstrated commitment and leadership position in the all-natural and organic sector is unrivaled in the marketplace, and stands as a beacon for discriminating, quality-seeking consumers.
"We believe consumers see Wild Oats as a company that is in the forefront of all-natural and organic proteins and products," said Luttecke. "Because of this, we believe we will continue to grow these categories, and grow our business along with it. Wild Oats is a true pioneer in this burgeoning organic industry, and we plan to continue to innovate and to lead this segment of the market."
While he conceded that the expansion of natural and organic merchandising at conventional supermarkets presents some new challenges for Wild Oats, Luttecke said that it also emboldens the chain "to remain true to our customers and associates, and never lose sight of our roots. And when we stay true to our mission, we will be rewarded with customer loyalty."
Among Wild Oats' greatest opportunities is its ability "to continue to be an innovator developing new natural and organic products," he said. "There are many categories that are tremendous sales generators in the conventional stores that are not in our stores because of our animal welfare standards and ingredient requirements. We see this slowly changing as new manufacturers get into our arena and are willing to take on the challenge."
The categories that drive sales for Wild Oats are its new value-added meat selections and its grass-fed beef offerings, noted Luttecke. "Our value-added category includes a variety of items offered in our fresh meat case, which [currently] includes as many as 21 items, such as Beef and Chicken Kabobs, Game Hens with Rosemary and Garlic Stuffing, Bacon Wrapped Turkey Kabobs, Buffalo Meat Loaf, and Turkey Tenderloin with Cranberry Walnut Stuffing, just to name a few."
Commitment to quality
Wild Oats was one of the first national retailers to make a large commitment to the emerging grass-fed beef category, said Luttecke. "Our customers like grass-fed beef for reasons of health, taste, and to support their strong social conscience. Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner than grain-fed, and is higher in omega-3 fatty acids because of the cattle's natural grass diet. Additionally, the taste and quality are superior at a price that is competitive. Customers like to know that the cattle is free-range, eating a natural diet on pasture rather than being confined to a feedlot, so that aspect ties into the social conscience of Wild Oats customers."
Organic protein sales also continue to increase at a rapid pace at Wild Oats, observed Luttecke. "We've experienced as high as 40 percent increases in our organic chicken sales in some areas of the country, albeit from a small base," buoyed largely by the increased exposure stemming from the 2002 USDA National Organic Standards, "as well as heightened awareness among our consumers regarding the food they choose to feed themselves and their families."
Finding local suppliers that are committed to Wild Oats' standards ranks among the chain's greatest challenges with specialty meats, according to Luttecke. "When we find a local supplier that has not been bought out by a much larger company, we try to bring them into the Wild Oats fold. In many cases we have to guide them and show them the ropes. This would include how to merchandise, market, and bring their products to the saleable state. When this occurs, it becomes very rewarding as you watch their business grow along with ours. We have supported many small local vendors in our stores from their humble beginnings."
Aside from premium protein products, convenient, diverse oven-ready products also continue to gain in popularity at Magnotto's Shop 'n Save. Said Magnotto, "We have a wide variety of ethnicities, so we try to celebrate that by offering a lot of traditional favorites," including stuffed chicken legs, stuffed Italian sausage peppers, marinated kabobs, store-made gourmet hamburgers, and pinwheel steaks, formally known as braciole.
"Leaner, easier-to-prepare cuts of meat are also moving very well," noted Magnotto, "especially flatiron and flank steaks in the beef category. In general, red meat has unfortunately gotten a bad rap and has fallen out of favor with many health-conscious consumers. But there are many cuts and varieties of red meat that are great choices as part of a healthy diet, which is in part why we are promoting natural meats."
Regardless of shifting trends, "Americans still love their steaks, but what they want is healthier options," said Magnotto, "and with more people grilling year-round, there's compelling reasons why we need to give them what they want."