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    FRESH FOOD: Annual Meat Conference Roundup: Marinating the meat case

    The Annual Meat Conference made good use of the timeless truism that if you want to find out what consumers are thinking, just ask them.

    Warning to grocers not looking to increase shopper loyalty and average dollar rings: Stop reading now. You'll have no use for the candid and revealing consumer insights presented at last month's 2005 Annual Meat Conference in Orlando, Fla.

    Conversely, all those in favor of higher rings and loyal shoppers should read on and, better still, heed the wisdom that flowed straight from the mouths of meat-minded shoppers, assembled in a focus group to air their likes and beefs concerning the meat case.

    The insights into the consumer psyche were the meat of the opening general session of the jointly sponsored American Meat Institute/Food Marketing Institute event. The session received accolades from many retailers in attendance. It was particularly helpful for retail meat executive Alan Warren, director of meat and seafood for Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's Super Markets, Inc., operator of 28 namesake banners, Joe's Market, a central bakery and kitchen, and a distribution center.

    "The conference was among the best in years, not only from an attendance standpoint, but also [as] an effective learning experience," says Warren, who additionally served as a conference co-chairman along with fellow retail exec Pat Ragusa, v.p.perishables for Save-A-Lot in St. Louis.

    The conference also gave rise to provocative discussions of timely topics that were not on the formal agenda, but found their way into informal exchanges between conference attendees, reflecting the issues on the minds of meat suppliers and retailers, including the difficult profitability climate many regional meat suppliers currently face, the continuing challenges of logistics and transportation, agro-terrorism concerns and their impact on traceability; BSE border-related issues, and two of the industry's perennial sore subjects -- country-of-origin labeling, and slotting fees.

    Consumers' wish list

    But the star attraction of the formal agenda was the consumer insights session, featuring video highlights of focus group feedback. (The results of a retail meat case trends study were also presented.) That feedback began with a forceful plea for retailers to replace the ubiquitous "sell by" date, prominently affixed to every fresh meat case item, with the more consumer-centric "use by" date.

    Also high on the consumer panelists' wish list was more store-supplied information on how to choose and use cuts of meat. Ditto for merchandising cuts of meat by cooking method, rather than species. The consumers also made it clear that they want ample access to easy-to-follow, easy-to-assemble meal ideas and recipes.

    Merrill S. Shugoll, president of Bethesda, Md.-based Shugoll Research and co-moderator of the session, noted the prevailing consumer perception that the meat department remains "intimidating and confusing," and that many shoppers from today's smaller households are coming up empty-handed in the search for smaller pack sizes and more easily digestible on-pack nutrition information regarding ingredients, and sodium, sugar, and fat content.

    The session's other co-moderator was Jerry Kelly, national coordinator of the retail task force for Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air Corp., Cryovac Food Packaging Division, which funded the retail meat case trends study.

    With an ever-expanding array of supplier and store brand items migrating into meat cases, case-ready's influence continues to grow, particularly in the categories of chicken and ground beef. Overall the Cryovac-funded retail survey found the average grocery operator is carrying five case-ready SKUs per category, for all proteins except lamb.

    The moderators said the study revealed the average amount of linear feet in the department declined six points to 63 percent, compared with a similar trend study in 2002; the biggest case space gainers came for the heat-and-serve category, which increased a whopping 11 percent, followed by processed meats, seafood, value-added, and sausage products. Supplier brands are also coming on stronger, the research showed, with 5 percent more retailers carrying them this year.

    From the consumers' perspective, if those supplier brands provide more help with cooking, so much the better. The focus group participants said they have a strong affinity for on-pack cooking instructions. However, trends indicate a disconnect, in that incidence of on-pack cooking instructions was found by the meat case study to have declined 3 percent, to 34 percent, from 2002.

    Other case trends: The moisture-added product segment is being led by pork at 45 percent, while 61 percent of fresh chicken SKUs now make a "natural" claim.

    Consumer panelists described being "really frustrated" and "really mad" when on-ad sale items are out of stock, and said they will occasionally substitute, but "mostly move on," when they encounter meat out-of-stocks.

    Among their other chief complaints are leaky packaging, and "surprises" regarding the amount of fat or color imperfections of purchased items once the packages are opened. On the flip side, transparency ranked high among key customer purchase and loyalty triggers.

    That transparency applies both to packaging and to meat department staffing. The consumers repeatedly voiced frustration over their inability to find front-line assistance in the meat department. The panelists also called for faster response times from meat department associates whom they're able to track down.

    On the bright side, however, focus group participants did praise the typically helpful demeanor and extensive knowledge of most meat department associates they found.

    What they also want to find, not surprisingly, are lower prices, a wider array of products in various sizes, and more prepared and convenience items.

    Pairing meat and wine

    They also requested more options for side dishes and raved about resealable meat packages, citing the convenience and portion-control functionalities of zipper-type bags.

    Shugoll said retailers have "lots of opportunities to do a better job" with many of the aforementioned issues. The moderator prompted grocers to conduct more product demonstrations in the department, citing everyday roasts as an ideal product to employ. "Consumers will try something on sale," she said, but the odds decrease significantly if they don't know how to use or cook it properly.

    The power of demos reverberated at another general session, "Food, Wine, and the Joys of Marketing," which centered on the hottest trends in cross-merchandising wine with meat and poultry.

    Petitioning meat department heads to collaborate with their wine department counterparts, the session panelists -- George Temel, chairman of the Southern Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food; Jeffrey Starr, culinary director and executive chef at St. Helena, Calif.-based Trinchero Family Estates, producers of Sutter Home wines; and Paige Poulos of Paige Poulos Communications, a Port Richmond, Calif.-based public relations firm -- reviewed a variety of fruitful cross-promotional and -merchandising opportunities that flow from strong relationships between the two departments.

    The session was among the livelier and more interesting at the conference, say attendees. According to Lucky Hicks, s.v.p./perishables for Kansas City, Kan.-based Associated Wholesale Grocers, "When you take a look at those retailers who are already doing a great job [of conducting wine tastings in the meat department], it's easy to see why it's something many are missing, opportunities they could otherwise be capitalizing on."

    Hicks also gives high marks to the conference's RFID session, adding that, like cross-merchandising, it's a meat retailing tool with a lot of potential. "There is just no doubt that RFID will have tremendous favorable implications on our business," says Hicks. "But it still seems quite apparent that as an industry, we're behind the curve on this front."

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