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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Making meat marketing meaningful

    Creative retailer-supplier partnerships are boosting sales and encouraging customer loyalty.

    Across America, supermarket retailers are working hard to make their meat departments as user-friendly as possible with the help of creative promotional and educational partnerships aimed at building loyalty and fortifying consumer relationships.

    By working together, many of the fresh meat industry's leading retailers and suppliers have been steadily moving to improve the shopping experience in the all-important department with consistent, high-quality offerings emphasizing value, convenience, quality, and variety.

    Here is a look at four efforts that have helped build consumer awareness and demand for fresh meat products.

    Nash Finch adds spice to value-added

    Even though manufacturers are spending millions trying to drive sales of fully cooked, microwavable items in the meat department, Mike Baker is hardly ready to hand over the value-added side of the case any time soon.

    "I certainly plan to continue taking advantage of and fully supporting the many excellent supplier-developed, branded meat products, but I'm just not comfortable putting all our eggs in one basket," says Baker, v.p. of perishables for Nash Finch Co., the Minneapolis-based retailer and distributor that owns and operates 111 stores in the upper Midwest principally trading under the Econofoods, Sun Mart, and Family Thrift Center banners.

    "It's gotten to the point that I just cringe when I hear about how everybody is time-starved. But everybody isn't time-starved. Yes, we've got a growing population that's time-starved, and yes, we've got a growing population that may have limited cooking skills. But that doesn't mean that they're not willing to try an easy alternative to prepare a meal."

    In seeking new ways to build loyalty and gain a larger share of the estimated $100 billion kitchen-ready category, Baker recently decided to spice things up by introducing a new meat marinade program that he says "gives customers endless variety across the entire spectrum of beef, poultry, pork, and seafood."

    The new Menu Sensations program, comprising seven Amazing Taste custom seasoning blends, was officially launched in early April in conjunction with Nash Finch's long-running 10-percent-off meat sale. The event, which Baker says is commonly used by retailers, allows consumers to fill a designated paper grocery bag with as many meat items as they can, all at a 10 percent discount. During the promotional period, Nash Finch-supplied stores gave customers a free .75-ounce packet insert of Amazing Tastes for each protein purchased.

    "The new seasonings not only enhance the flavor and tenderness of whatever protein they're being used on," he notes, but they are also low in sodium, have no MSG, and provide meats with a moisture-retentive property that can tolerate any overcooking that may take place. "I've worked with this product for a couple years now, and have gotten it down to how we want to roll it out for our corporate stores as a way to create another signature category of our value-added products from a store-produced means."

    The second tier of the Menu Sensations launch, which will break this month for the service meat departments, will showcase the various seasoning blends in full decanters displayed atop service meatcases. "When the consumer selects a steak or chop out of the service case, they are encouraged to select what seasoning they would like for us to prepare for them," Baker says.

    "The important piece here is being able to get consumers' confidence that they can utilize this product and present to their family a fully cooked meal that's not that difficult to prepare. It will also give us a better chance to interact with customers at the case by offering them ideas about how they can save preparation time and enjoy numerous flavor profiles that are available as a free service."

    Rather than trying to sell more seasonings or marinades, Baker's desire centers squarely on wanting to move more fresh meat through the system. "It's all about sales. I don't want to abandon the value-added side of the fresh meat business, but instead want to promote and do all I can to drive those sales, because that is what we still do best: move our fresh meat presentation through to the consumer. Because as it stands, we're still moving the bulk of our proteins that way regardless."

    Smithfield, Acme offer 'Taste of the Future'

    A variety of Philadelphia-area Acme Market locations were key stops on a 60-location tour conducted in March by Smithfield's Taste the Future Tour, which features a professional chef team and an 18-wheel mobile kitchen.

    The tour, which runs through December, showcases quick and easy meal solutions featuring Smithfield's Lean Generation pork and premium ham. Using an expandable, full-service mobile kitchen, the campaign welcomes shoppers to enter the 18-wheeler and learn from a team of professional chefs about easy-to-prepare recipes that fit into any lifestyle, life stage, pantry, or family size.

    Along with interactive cooking demonstrations and product sampling, the Smithfield tour offers a variety of branded product giveaways, as well as a free 20-page cookbook. Says Jim Schloss, v.p. of sales and marketing for the Smithfield, Va.-based pork processor: "Our Taste the Future Tour marks the first time a branded protein producer has shown this type of commitment to helping Americans cook and eat better."

    Rick Cefaloni, meat sales manager for Malvern, Pa.-based Acme, views the promotion as a valuable way to help make it easier for consumers to decide at the meatcase. "The fast-paced lifestyles, combined with increasing awareness of proper dietary needs, has prompted the industry to meet those needs using different methods of increased technology, better information sources, and higher quality products," he says.

    With 152 locations in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Acme Markets, a unit of Albertson's, is teaming with preferred vendors like Smithfield in its quest to offer restaurant-quality products at a value, says Cefaloni. "We are committed to giving our customers lean, better-for-you products, upgraded choice beef, heat-and-eat meals, high-quality seafood, and meal solutions to make the overall shopping experience as quick and pleasurable as possible."

    In its pilot year, the Smithfield tour, which will concentrate on supermarkets, fairs, and festivals in the Northeast and Midwest—the company's fastest growing markets—will run concurrently with a comprehensive marketing campaign that includes broadcast media and a series of print ads.

    Giant Eagle takes a CAB to the Olympics

    For 23 years, Certified Angus Beef has been offering consumers the best beef Angus producers raise. This year, Wooster, Ohio-based CAB turned a new page in presenting and promoting the brand with its retail partners with a fun and exciting consumer-awareness campaign in conjunction with its role as the official branded beef supplier for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

    "The uniqueness of the Olympics offered us the opportunity to build promotions that retail grocers could conduct at many levels," says Eileen Keller, communications and media manager. "We not only thought about it as an opportunity to build our relationship with the consumer as well as with our licensed retail grocers, but also as a way to help retailers build relationships with their consumers. Our goal is to help our licensed retailers use the CAB brand and its great reputation as a pillar of their business."

    CAB's in-house graphic department created ads and a variety of POS materials retailers could use to promote the brand and their stores throughout the Olympics.

    Keller says 1,223 licensed retail grocery stores, including Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, participated in CAB's Go for the Gold Olympic sweepstakes. Doug Haniford, the chain's marketing manager, says the flexible campaign "provided us with everything we needed to help our stores build unique displays and really help promote and create awareness about the CAB brand and its association with the Olympics."

    Most importantly, Haniford says, "the promotion served as an ideal platform to use to drive sales and move more steak. We thought that a tie-in prize give-away linked to our frequent shopper Advantage card was one of the most effective ways to accomplish this," he says, noting that customers were automatically entered in the sweepstakes with every CAB purchase made during the promotional period. The grand prize winner received $500 worth of groceries—$450 in Giant Eagle gift cards and a $50 CAB gift certificate.

    Haniford says Giant Eagle promoted CAB's sweepstakes in its weekly circular for five weeks, "and we were not only pleasantly surprised by the amount of entries we received, but also by the fact that we were able to drive some business. Customer reaction was great, and the promotion generated a lot of interest and some nice feedback."

    Giant Eagle also got the kids involved in a coloring contest with CAB-supplied art in its in-store Eagle's Nest child care centers. The children's entries, which qualified them to win officially licensed Olympic merchandise, were displayed on the windows and walls of stores where shoppers and employees served as contest judges.

    Fresh Fields goes to the source for Niman pork demos

    Surrounded by curious onlookers in a suburban Washington, D.C. Whole Foods/Fresh Fields Market, the soft-spoken gentleman seems like the last person you'd expect to see conducting a demo at the meatcase. Upon further observation, however, the knowledgeable demonstrator seems right at home responding to a customer's question about the great-tasting fresh pork he is sampling.

    He tells the customer about how he is among a select group of Midwest family farmers who raise their hogs in accordance with strict husbandry principles and dietary protocols calling for the finest grains and natural ingredients. He further tells them how his hogs mature naturally on an open pasture and in deeply bedded pens on land that is cared for as a sustainable resource. Finally, he explains how the meat he produces for Niman Ranch, which has been Fresh Fields' exclusive pork supplier for the past three years, has become recognized as the finest-tasting pork in the world.

    Indeed, this is no ordinary product demonstrator. He's Iowa farmer Paul Willis, one of the 45 hog-farming members of the Thornton, Iowa-based Niman Ranch Pork Co. and one of six of the company's hog farmers who conducted demos in 10 Mid-Atlantic Whole Foods/Fresh Fields Markets last October.

    Virginia Watkins, Niman Ranch's marketing and public relations manager, describes the event. "We have the store's prepared foods department cook up a pork loin roast, and the farmers talk about the product with customers while handing out samples. They talk about our close work with the Animal Welfare Institute as the first company to embrace their humane pig husbandry standards."

    The demos "have been incredibly successful and make a big impact on a lot of people, so we try to have them at least once or twice yearly," says Watkins, who notes that retail is now Niman's largest segment, with approximately 80 chain and independent grocers in the pipeline.

    Theo Weening, meat coordinator/buyer for Fresh Fields, is an enthusiastic proponent of Niman Ranch's farming and marketing practices. "The biggest benefits of the hog farmer demos is that they get to see where their products end up and their interaction with our team members. Those farmers are so proud of what they're doing, and when they see their products in the case it makes a big difference. Quite a few of them bring pictures of their farms along and share them with our staff and customers, who also get into it, too. The three-way interaction is just incredible."

    Throughout the closely monitored introduction of Niman's pork, sales immediately began to pick up, "and by the time we got going, our pork sales were up 30 percent," says Weening, who also requires his ham and bacon producers to purchase exclusively from Niman farmers.

    In June, Weening and 20 Fresh Fields team leaders are heading to Iowa to "visit and hang out for three or four days with Niman's farmers. In our free time, we won't be going to any fancy restaurants, but will be sitting down at these farmers' dinner tables with their families.

    "This is not some kind of marketing scheme," he continues. "It's the real deal. When we first started out, these farmers were really struggling, and they had a decision to make to either get out or go in another direction. Niman and I devised a program to ensure solid prices for them to curtail possible hardship during periods of fluctuation. And even though I've gotten a couple of corporate awards, the most meaningful accolade I ever received was from one of the farmers who said, 'Thanks for saving our farm.'"

    Fresh Food editor Meg Major can be reached at [email protected].

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