Educate, Engage, Inspire

Meat case reinvention for today's consumers dominated discussions at the annual retail meat confab.

Consumers don't enjoy shopping at the meat case. They are bored and uninspired, and consider it a necessary evil. When asked to give a metaphor for the meat department, shoppers often compare it to going to the dentist or being alone in a cave.

That's according to the findings of a study conducted late last year by Midan Marketing and Shugoll Research, and unveiled at the 2011 Meat Conference in Dallas, which took place Feb. 20-22. “The opportunities that exist for you are huge,” Danette Amstein, principal at Statesville, N.C.-based Midan, told retailers at the conference session, “Translating Trends Into Sales.”

This study was among a mountain of data navigated by presenters and attendees at this year's conference, which was dominated by ideas of how best to improve the meat-shopping experience for consumers, attract new customers, and keep sales focused upward as restaurants recover from the recession and threaten once more to siphon off folks who had renewed their relationships with their home kitchens.

The Midan/Shugoll study was aimed at understanding the needs of today's consumers when shopping for fresh meat, current perceptions of the fresh meat department and shopping behaviors, and identifying problems and testing solutions to excite consumers and increase revenue.

Researchers conducted four 45-minute shop-alongs with shoppers in Washington, and four two-hour mini focus groups in Bethesda, Md., and Chicago. One group in each city was conducted with consumers in the 21-29 and 30-54 age groups. Subjects were the primary shoppers and meal preparers in their households, and ate dinner at home at least twice a week.

Study participants said they find it difficult to get their meat-related questions answered while shopping and are often forced to figure things out for themselves. As a result, they end up buying the same fresh meat cuts over and over again. Consumers also believe there's a lack of information at the meat department. They don't know enough about preparing fresh meat, and they're often confused, overwhelmed and intimidated while shopping there. They're also fearful of ruining a cut of meat, as it's the most expensive item in their grocery carts.

When asked which section of the grocery store is their favorite, all respondents agreed that the bakery and produce sections are the most appealing. They enjoy the full sensory experience that engages them while shopping. Conversely, the meat department lacks any stimulation to the senses, and is perceived as cold and flat. In response, researchers proposed some solutions:

  • Enhance the Sensory Experience: Prepare samples for tasting in the meat department, so customers can always smell something delicious cooking. Aromas can be seasonal, from hearty crockpot roasts to sizzling burgers. Make cooking tips and recipe ideas on “what's cooking” available to provide dinner ideas for the evening. Respondents across all ages and genders strongly like this idea.
  • Get Questions Answered: Have a “customer liaison” on site during key shopping hours to answer customer questions related to meal solutions, preparation and food safety. The liaison would be the go-to person for all things related to buying and cooking meat. Respondents across all ages and genders strongly like this idea, too. “There's something about a white butcher's coat that says ‘expert,’” Amstein said.
  • More Information: Retailers should post recipes and video demonstrations on their websites, with an option to “text me” the ingredients. Men age 30-54 and women age 30-54 like this idea. Researchers also proposed cooking demonstrations, which some retailers are already doing. “There's so much to learn, and consumers are afraid to screw it up,” Amstein reminded.
  • Variety: To many shoppers, variety means more portion sizes, not more cuts, to better fit different family sizes and lifestyles (see the related sidebar on page 98). Researchers also recommended setting up meal centers featuring all of the ingredients needed for one meal, anchored by fresh meat. “When all you put out is breaded or frozen items, you're missing the boat with Mom,” Amstein remarked.

Researchers advised retailers to commit to customizing solutions to finally resolve these issues and capture more of their customers' food dollars. “We could lose what we just gained from foodservice [during the recession] if we don't sit up and take notice,” Amstein warned.

The Shopping Experience

Adding depth to the argument was “How America Shops for Meat and Meals,” a study commissioned by the National Pork Board to better understand consumers' meal-planning habits.

Michael Shinall, president of Wilton, Conn.-based research firm Meridian Consulting, explained the key findings: There are three types of shoppers (heavy, medium and non-planners); meat is the “core department” for family meals; and there are opportunities for improvement in meat case “shoppability” and new meal ideas.

Heavy planners tend to skew toward younger age groups, while non-planners are mostly older folks, Shinall said. They all enjoy cooking to varying degrees and prefer to eat at home, and all believe the meat department is key to their meal planning.

But, according to the findings, meat isn't driving store loyalty, which Shinall said is a “troubling, troubling finding.” More than a third of each group buys up to 75 percent of their meat in a store other than where they buy most of their food, for reasons including price, quality, variety, hygiene and ease of shopping.

Further, few see the meat department as a source of new meal ideas, rating it below cookbooks, the Internet, television and magazines. “Improving overall shoppability is a great opportunity for us,” Shinall said.

Heavy planners, Shinall asserted, should be engaged before they arrive at the market, through advertising, Web initiatives and other visual media that push simple meal ideas, variety, convenience and health. Meanwhile, medium and non-planners can be engaged in the store by establishing the meat department as “idea central,” with better organization and sensory appeal.

Further buttressing the argument for enhancing the meat department experience were the results of the sixth annual “Power of Meat” research study, published by the conference hosts, the American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute, and sponsored by Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air Corp.

The online survey of 1,200 meat-eating primary household shoppers indicated that while consumers are still under lingering economic pressures, the market is beginning to stabilize since the recession was officially declared over.

Respondents' average weekly grocery spend is up to $96; 28 percent are spending less than a year ago, down from 45 percent in last year's study, while 16 percent are spending more, down from 9 percent. Fifty-five percent are spending the same amount, up from 46 percent.

Fewer shoppers — 36 percent, compared with 51 percent a year ago — are changing their meat choices. “When you compare it to the rate of inflation, it's a real increase in spending,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 2010 Analytics, which conducted the study.

Food spending is down by those directly affected by the economy; 62 percent are spending less, compared with zero of those not impacted. “When the economy recovers, we're going to see that go up again,” Roerink said.

Beef's Solution to Smaller Households, Smaller Appetites

Consumers' increasing interest in portion control prompted National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA) researchers to develop methods to further fabricate ribeyes, top loins and top sirloins to create small filets and roasts.

In addition to creating smaller portions, the new BAM (Beef Alternative Merchandising) cuts eliminate additional seam fat. The price per pound increases, but a package with two filets can cost less than the full cut.

“Consumers demonstrated considerable purchase interest in the newly developed cuts,” says John Lundeen, executive director for market research at Centennial, Colo.-based NCBA. “While the new cuts should not replace traditional steak options such as the ribeye, they do represent a marketing opportunity for more health-conscious consumers seeking to reduce their portion size or reduce fat intake.”

Focus groups were held in 2009 to understand the appeal of BAM cuts. Consumers assigned a wide range of benefits to the cuts, with convenience, enhanced nutrition and portion control leading the list. Products were placed in a middle-America grocery chain during the summer of 2010, and 150 consumers provided valuable insights on product appeal, first in the store, and then after cooking and sharing the product with their respective households.

The chosen customers were given a ribeye filet BAM cut and a top loin petite BAM roast to evaluate. They cooked the products in their homes using their chosen techniques, and completed a diary capturing their reactions.

“A remarkable 84 percent indicated purchase interest in the ribeye filets, and 78 percent in the petite roast,” Lundeen notes. “This speaks to the add-on opportunity these filets represent. The retail team suggests keeping traditional ribeyes, top loins and top sirloins in the case for those who prefer the cuts they have always loved, with the marbling they have been accustomed to. But a more health-conscious consumer represents a valuable new market for the BAM filet and roast options.”

Oklahoma City-based HAC Inc., which operates supermarkets under the Homeland banner, selected 11 key stores to introduce the BAM program.

“Initially, we displayed the product in the service case and self-service case,” explains Park Ribble, HAC director of perishable merchandising. “We surmised the most effective way to sell these new ‘Simply Beef’ pre-portioned steaks to the public was to display them in the service meat counter, where the meat person on duty could talk about the benefits and attributes of the product. But we found out early on that because the smaller portions made the total package retail lower, customers were buying the steaks from the self-service counter also.”

Consumers are saving money by eating out less often, using coupons and other money-saving measures, shopping secondary stores for specials, purchasing less, and switching their primary stores.

But many saving measures that would benefit the meat industry are losing steam, Roerink noted. Seventy percent of folks stock up when there's a sale, down from 75 percent a year ago, while the number of people who buy in bulk plummeted from 70 percent to 57 percent. “Buying bulk was always a measure for those who chose to save rather than those who had to buckle down,” Roerink noted, adding that people likely have been without extra cash to invest in bulk buys.

Still, home cooking remains popular, and at least four out of five weekly at-home dinners include meat or poultry, with a slow, gradual return toward pricier cuts. Shoppers are showing more interest in marinated meats — 81 percent, up from 75 percent last year — mirroring trends in ethnic cuisines and exotic spices. “There is an enormous cross-merchandising opportunity with marinating spices,” Roerink observed.

Use of ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat products is on the rise, and thus, as could be expected, shoppers express a growing need for help with meat preparation. “Education matters — it does drive purchasing decisions,” Roerink said, suggesting that grocers should act accordingly, “so when the economy recovers, we can keep [consumers] in the kitchen.”

To that end, survey respondents expressed a desire for easy recipes, online cooking tips and in-store cooking classes. Further, with 22 percent of the population using smartphone applications, food prep and advice apps would likely be a popular feature.

The recession didn't significantly impact the market share of natural and organic products; one in five shoppers report purchasing these items, and 44 percent of purchasers believe organic products offer long-term health benefits. Organic products account for less than 1 percent of the overall meat case, Roerink noted, but when combined with natural, “availability is growing.”

Interest in environmentally friendly packaging is soft, with 49 percent willing to buy such products if the price is equal to traditional packaging and 39 percent not interested in the issue.

This year's study indicated that quality perception of case-ready meats is at its highest point: 60 percent say quality of case-ready products is the same as last year, while 10 percent say it's better.

Sixty-nine percent of all meat purchases in 2010 were from the self-service case, with 22 percent of survey respondents saying they purchase only from the case; 4 percent say they never do. Seventy-five percent of supermarkets have full-service meat counters, down from 82 percent over the past five years.

Of the suggestions offered by survey respondents for improving the meat department, most said price — offer lower prices and more frequent specials or coupons, make sure to have advertised specials in stock, and offer complete meal deals with all necessary ingredients.

But perhaps the hardest-hitting finding was that 40 percent of respondents say that no changes or improvements would make them buy more meat. And that sentiment is growing — up from 34 percent a year ago and 21 percent in 2008.

The Tasting Experience

More than 40 companies sampled their latest wares during the product tasting reception. The Certified Angus Beef brand presented ideas on expanding the merchandising potential of top sirloin butts and chuck rolls, offering guidance to in-store butchers on how to convert these cuts into more lucrative steaks, roasts and ribs, more suitable for the outdoor grilling season.

Butterball showcased its new Every Day Frozen Turkey Burgers. Available to retailers in select regional markets early this summer, these burgers are the first seasoned and grill-ready turkey burgers on the market.

Also among the products on display for tasting were Armour Pepperoni with Cheese and Curley's sauce-less pulled pork, Smithfield summer ham, fully cooked hickory bacon in resealable packaging from Tyson, Land O' Frost wrap sandwich kits, several new chicken bite varieties from Pilgrim's Pride, Tennessee Pride turkey sausage, and Lopez Foods fully cooked Angus burgers.

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