FRESH FOOD: A case for excellence

Against a backdrop of the beef industry's unprecedented opportunities and ongoing challenges, some aggressive grocers are seeking out new ideas, expanding their product offerings, and working closely with key suppliers to render strong sales from the meat case.

In the pages that follow, Progressive Grocer recognizes the efforts of three successful retail/vendor partnerships that are hitting the bull's eye. The retailers are making meat magic by merchandising and marketing signature brands that allow them to stand out -- with more than a little help from their meat industry friends.

Holiday Quality Foods' Sterling Silver lining

The independently owned neighborhood grocery chain, based in Cottonwood, Calif., operates 24 varied-format stores throughout the far northern end of the state, up and down the Sacramento Valley and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The retailer works diligently to do business "with companies that also have high standards, to provide the highest-quality products and services," says meat director Dave Parrish. Foremost among such partners are those suppliers with verifiably strong food-safety track records, he adds, and as such, Parrish applauds the superior attributes of Cargill Meat Solutions' Sterling Silver brand of hand-selected, carefully trimmed fresh beef and pork products, carried exclusively by HQF in its territories.

"The partnership we've developed with Sterling Silver has been the very best asset for our meat departments," he says. "We conduct focus groups with our customers once a month in different towns, and it never fails that we have customers who just rave about our beef."

That feedback, whether it's positive or negative, is an extraordinarily reliable performance benchmark, adds Parrish. In Sterling Silver's case, however, the feedback has been positive.

At presstime the chain was in the final stages of preparing to participate in Sterling Silver's "Incredible Roast" promotion in February. The last time HQF got involved in the promotion, in October, it yielded a 6 percent lift in monthly sales of roasts. Now Parrish expects an even stronger performance, given the enhanced firepower that's been applied to the winter roast promotion.

"When we did the roast promotion the first time around, I felt we could have done a better job," he says. "Sterling Silver gave us lots of tools to work with, but I felt like we didn't utilize all of them the way we should have. This time, going in, we've had a bit more time to prepare and I feel a lot better about what we're aiming for, which is a 10 percent lift. It will be interesting to see how we do. Even if we fall a little short, we're still keeping our sights set high, on a nice increase."

In the weeks leading up to the kickoff, Parrish held a managers' summit to thoroughly brief the in-store crews about how the promotion will unfold, including his precise expectations for results.

"The biggest thing we emphasized is building personal contact with consumers," says Parrish. "They're the big key. We can use all the bells and whistles we want -- POS merchandise, signage, banners, and so forth -- but there's nothing like personal contact with the consumer."

In addition, HQF's meat department teammates will also be "armed with recipes to go along with all the items we're running," to further encourage interaction across the counter.

"When customers come into the store after working all day, the last thing they want to do is rack their brains about what to make for dinner," says Parrish. "With the Sterling Silver promotion, our meat staff can offer them a meal solution and relieve them of that chore."

Parrish says HQF has embellished the "really neat job" Sterling has done with on-pack POS materials and roast recipes, by designing its own three-foot- by-two-foot stand-up signs in-house, using Sterling Silver's artwork. The signs, he says, will help reinforce meat department associate contact with customers, "since they call attention to the roast items being promoted for a particular week, and are reinforced by recipes that will be handed to customers."

The flexibility to customize and make a branded program suit a retailer's particular needs or company culture is a key element in any effective branded promotion, notes Parrish. To buttress the Sterling Silver roast program, HQF also leveraged recent employee wine training, by encouraging employees to offer wine suggestions for the recipes, and creating its own employee contest.

The signature program has come to mean much more to HQF than a handy way to differentiate itself from competitors.

"While we know what the challenges to our business are, with all the day-to-day management and problems we juggle, we don't have the time to sit down and think about the next thing or big idea," says Parrish. "A big reason for partnering with a national brand like Sterling Silver is corporate parent Cargill's ability to give us tools, solutions, and suggestions. It's huge to get all that input. Of course, then we have to be responsible for putting it into use."

Noting that as a national brand, Sterling Silver deals with a variety of retailers around the country, he adds, "If you have a problem, they're in a position to say, 'Here's what worked for so-and-so in the Midwest or another retailer in the East.' The ability to have access to that kind of information is huge."

"Being a retailer for Sterling Silver Premium Meats is very much like being a member of a private club," concurs Sterling Silver's senior brand manager, John Niemann. "As a company we strive to ensure that retail membership comes with a long list of benefits and perks."

One of the advantages, says Niemann, "is that retailers have exclusive rights to our brand in their markets. With the growing popularity of private label brands, retailers can distinguish themselves with a unique premium brand without [devoting] the time, effort, and investment required to create and establish their own private label brand."

In addition, notes Niemann, Sterling Silver brand retailers have access to a wide range of multinational industry expertise, R&D, and marketing support that few other brands can match, due to Sterling Silver's status as part of the Cargill family of businesses.

Another highlight of being a Sterling Silver retailer, he adds, is a steady flow of consumer-focused, on-trend promotional and POP support materials, including the fall "Season of the Roast" program and the summer burger theme campaigns.

Meijer, CAB keep the wheels turning in Detroit

From an Angus producer's perspective, the market has never looked better. Record-high cattle prices and premiums are rewarding the trading partners who keep their focus squarely on the prize.

And so it goes for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer, Inc. and Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef, which together have devised a well-planned target marketing and promotional strategy that's a success in metro Detroit.

By layering advertising dollars inside solid event sponsorships and injecting creative public relations to heighten brand awareness, both Meijer and CAB are realizing solid results.

Raymond Bozzacco, Meijer's v.p. of meat and seafood, says this or any productive partnership "begins by believing in the product itself. And in the case of CAB, the brand's specifications, quality assurance, and consistency make Meijer proud to sell it."

A seasoned supermarket veteran who's been with Meijer for 17 years, Bozzacco says the consumer feedback the chain has received regarding CAB -- or, in this case, the lack of any negative feedback -- speaks volumes about the brand's solid reputation.

"In the 10 years we've been selling it, I've never, ever received a customer complaint on the quality of CAB. Not one. And I think that's where it begins -- believing in the product, and following through with a commitment by our team members at store level to maintain adequate supply and variety of product on display."

Meijer, the nation's ninth-largest private company, with 162 units and an estimated $11.1 billion in annual revenues, is committed "to providing quality service and a variety of choices for our customers," says Bozzacco, explaining that the retailer's stores offer full-service meat counters at which shoppers can have their selections hand-trimmed by a butcher.

An ongoing customized program, created by CAB exclusively for the 24-store metro Detroit market, spotlights both the supermarket's and the packer's brands -- a prime goal of good co-branding. It uses tried-and-true components such as staff education, advertising, in-store and regional special events and demos, and public relations efforts ranging from television and radio to print coverage and truck wraps.

"We began the campaign, which has been expanded to two and very possibly three years from the original one-year agenda, with a planning session in the latter part of 2003," explains Bozzacco, "which was followed by a more extensive meeting in early 2004, during which we brought all of our meat team leaders, store directors, and food team leaders together to talk about the program and provide specific details regarding our goals and vision."

During the meeting, Bozzacco says, CAB delivered a stroke of genius "by handing out $10 gift certificates for those at store level who had never tried the product. By giving everyone a chance to prepare and taste the meat in their own homes and see the difference, they were able to become much better salespeople."

"In my opinion, CAB's choice program really provides consumers a rewarding experience," he says, likening the experience to eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream: "There's nothing like it." In view of "increased sales, the pride of our in-store team members, and the support we receive from CAB, we're confident we're on the right track."

"We knew we had the right formula with the market strategy of one consistent message in a specific city for a targeted demographic," notes Tracey Erickson, CAB's v.p. of marketing communications. A concentrated radio message that aired from March through August "reinforced Meijer as the destination place to buy premium CAB products," says Erickson.

In addition, CAB used the Novi, Mich. Home & Garden Show as a platform to showcase the brand in general, and its corporate chef, Dianna Stoffer, in particular. Not surprisingly, Stoffer was on hand at Meijer's CAB kickoff meeting, "to provide demonstrations and samples for our team," says Bozzacco.

Chef Stoffer plays a lead role in connection with CAB's target market campaigns, by providing numerous live demonstrations at various venues while also spearheading media visits with local radio and television stations. In one instance, Stoffer tempted Detroit drive-time radio listeners with a steak-and-eggs appearance at radio station WNIC. The morning show hosts enjoyed ribeyes and eggs while they talked about the quality of the brand and where to locate CAB products.

Erickson says additional advertising promoting Meijer and CAB was also placed through regional buys inside Bon Appetit, Country Home, Food & Wine, Garden Design, House & Garden, This Old House magazine, and Traditional Home, which also reinforced the brand message.

Of the many advertising elements the partners employ to spread the word, Bozzacco is especially partial to the "truck banners, which act as moving billboards on Meijer trucks in the Detroit area and beyond. They pay great dividends all the way around."

CAB's Erickson says it all comes down to having an ideal retail partner. "Regardless of having the perfect demographics and the right number of stores in place, the most important factor is the commitment of the retailer. If a retail partner is not ready and willing to invest at a significant level -- not necessarily monetarily, but with training, mindset, and participation -- it just really doesn't click in the best way possible."

Bozzacco's commitment includes a willingness to work with local restaurants, contrary to the "us vs. them" mentality that often prevails between the two food channels. "We invite chefs from several local restaurants into our stores, to demonstrate the products and interact with our customers," says Bozzacco. "We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with local chefs. It's been working out really well for both of us."

Albertsons' 'Blue Ribbon' role in the National Beef Cook-Off

Focusing on America's passion for beef, the nation's largest amateur beef-cooking contest is off and running in Albertsons stores, with a new "family favorites" category to showcase original beef recipes tailored to families.

As the exclusive retail partner of the beef promotion, Albertsons is once again partnering with the American National Cattlewomen and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), on behalf of the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board and state beef councils, to entice more consumers to the meat case throughout 2005.

This year's National Beef Cook-Off comes as Americans' appetite for beef continues to climb. "A record $70 billion in consumer expenditures on beef is projected in 2004 -- a $24 billion dollar increase over the annual average spending of the decade of the 1990s," says Randy Blach, e.v.p. of CattleFax.

Now in its 26th year, the cook-off is an integral part of the beef industry's efforts to educate the public and reinforce positive perceptions about beef by showcasing the ease and versatility of cooking with beef, notes Randy Irion, NCBA's director of retail marketing.

In addition to promoting beef demand, says Irion, "The cook-off continues to drive awareness and purchase of fresh beef cuts from the chuck and round that are undervalued, including the new value cuts. It also inspires consumers to try convenient refrigerated or frozen beef products."

Sherry Hill, the beef cook-off project manager, says that with Americans' enduring enjoyment of beef, "the event offers the best opportunity for family chefs to share their beloved recipes and secrets with everyone. The fascinating thing," she adds, "is that the winning recipes always reflect and celebrate America's changing tastes in beef," citing, for example, the grilled beef category, which encourages use of fresh beef cuts, including boneless chuck eye steak and shoulder top blade steak or flatiron, which are perfect choices for grilling.

Entries have already begun rolling in for the Sept. 19 to Sept. 21 national cook-off event that will take place in Rapid City, S.D., says Hill, who notes that 20 national finalists will compete for a $50,000 "best of beef" grand prize and eight other cash prizes totaling $110,000. The recipe entry deadline is March 31.

Commenting on the recurring partnership with the Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons, Irion says the chain "has been great partner with us in the past, and we're expecting that relationship to continue through this year's effort." Moreover, he notes, "The latest cook-off provides a great opportunity for Albertsons to showcase one of their major initiatives launched last year, with its signature rollout of the 'Blue Ribbon' beef brand in its supermarkets across the country."

The line features a wide range of high-quality roasts and tender-aged steaks that are "guaranteed twice" for satisfaction. The brand is being marketed under the names "Albertsons Blue Ribbon" in its Albertsons stores, "Jewel Blue Ribbon" in the company's Chicagoland Jewel/Osco stores, and "Lancaster Blue Ribbon" in its Philadelphia-based Acme Markets.

Irion says cook-off entry brochures are available at Albertsons meat cases, "which is obviously the ideal location. A one-way hyperlink featuring cook-off information, entry forms, and rules is also available online, which also links contestants directly to Albertsons' Web site." He adds that the chain will include placement of several winning recipes in its third-quarter recipe brochure.

Hill says the cook-off "really helps Albertsons deliver value at the meat case with news and information, as well as having a chance to offer consumers an opportunity to win something." Even more important, she adds, "is the fact that it's a great way to inspire consumers to do something different with products once they purchase them."

With its national presence, says Irion, "Albertsons is a great partner for generating entries into the contest, but people are going to continue shopping for beef in all supermarkets. Like anything with the benefits of positive publicity behind solid partner promotions, good things are bound to happen."

That was indeed the case with NCBA's 2004 Summer Grilling campaign, an integrated retail marketing effort that featured all cuts of beef, including the chuck and round, and incorporated the well-recognized enjoyment message "Beef. It's What's for Dinner."

"The success of this seasonal campaign has been the result of a variety of promotional initiatives, with the support of key retailers and strong partners," says Irion, noting the participation of A.1. Steak Sauce and Sutter Home.

"The beef cook-off and grilling promotions complement, rather than compete for, consumer interest," says Irion, who notes that the 2005 Summer Grilling campaign will build upon the success of the past three summer promotions.
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