Meat To Meals

Grocers can up their share of shoppers' meat purchases with almost no cost other than time.

The meat department provides the centerpiece of consumers' meals, and serves as a core factor in a typical shopper's decisions about what to prepare for family dinners. Yet most grocers aren't getting their shoppers' full share of meat purchases — even in the case where a shopper has a primary grocery store where she conducts the bulk of her food shopping.

Interestingly, the reasons that some shoppers aren't buying more of their meat in one place are, by and large, quite easy to address with little or no cost, as Progressive Grocer uncovered in its “Meat to Meals” research study conducted in partnership with Wilton, Conn.-based Meridian Consulting Croup and sponsored by the National Pork Board.

“The meat department has lots of opportunities to improve shopability and better engage consumers in the department,” says Karen Strauss, executive consultant for Meridian. “This in turn will drive loyalty, and increase shoppers' share of meat purchases, and more money to the bottom line.”

It's no secret that competition for the food shopper's satisfaction and loyalty has steadily grown as more retail channels enter the fresh food business. Many years ago, most fresh items were purchased at a retail grocery store. Now, consumers planning their meals can visit club stores, discount retailers, convenience stores and even drug stores, the last of which have recently begun selling fresh food. And with the growing popularity of prepared diet programs such as Jenny Craig and NutriSystem, consumers are having every aspect of meal planning taken care of for them.

Despite all of the venues available, shopping for meat remains difficult for most consumers. Products are similar in shape and color, are often mixed together, and there are so many different types of items and cuts that it can be overwhelming for some to determine the difference between cuts of meat, or to understand why one may be more expensive than another.

The resulting challenges in meat purchase decisions present grocers with an opportunity to improve the “stopability” and “shopability” of the meat case to take back their share of meat sales from competitors.

The Shopper Purchase Pathway

To better understand how to increase the shopability of the meat department, the best starting point is to understand how they shop — or don't shop — the category. “Understanding the decision points along the shopper purchase pathway is key to optimizing the shopping experience within the meat department,” affirms Strauss. “It's important to understand the shopper's needs and how they use the product, but in addition to this, it's important to know a couple of additional points, because before the shopper consumes the product, they need to buy it.”

Strauss says there are three main points of decision that take place, “which we refer to as the Shopper Purchase Pathway. The first is choosing the channel and retailer. Once this is done, they need to decide which department or category they're going to shop. Finally, they select the product.”

Meat and produce are more often than not the top two departments in terms of a shopper's store decision.

Meat's role in a shopper's store selection is well recognized. In fact, meat and produce are more often than not the top two departments in terms of a shopper's store decision.

When it comes to daily or weekly meal planning, there are three basic types of meal types a consumer buys at the grocer: The first one is ingredients for a homemade cooked dinner, next is a prepared frozen entrée, and third is a prepared entree that's picked up at the store.

When it comes to the first option, 90 percent of the study respondents say they prepare a homemade cooked dinner, including the entrée, at least once a week if not more. Just about half prepare dinner including an entree four or more times per week.

When it comes down to preparing a meal for a specific day, 70 percent say that meat, poultry or fish is the main course of the entrée and they build their meal around it, including ingredients they are going to use to prepare the entrée, vegetables and other sides and beverages (especially in the case of wine) to complement the entrée. “So they start with the protein, and then build around it to make the meal,” Strauss points out. (Grocers with in-store bakeries take note: 3 percent say they build their meals around dessert.)

Unfortunately, these same consumers say that their meat needs aren't fully satisfied by a single store. When asked how much of their meat is purchased in the store where they do most of their food shopping, two-thirds say they purchase 75 percent or more of their meat at the same store where they do most of their grocery shopping. For the remaining third, the figure is even lower.

This is a key opportunity for grocers, notes Strauss, especially since the reasons these shoppers gave for not buying all of their meat in one place are relatively easy and inexpensive to address. They are price, quality, cleanliness of the department, and variety.

“We have seen time after time that variety across the three core species of beef, chicken and pork is a critical point for shoppers,” says Strauss. “The average consumer is looking to put something different on the table for dinner every night across those main offerings. Along with price, quality and cleanliness, these issues don't require a lot of work or investment to address, and can be done now.”

“We have seen time after time that variety across the three core species of beef, chicken and pork is a critical point for shoppers.” —Karen Strauss, Meridian Consulting Group

Value-added = Value Taken

The study also revealed that grocers may do well to revisit the value-added sections of their meat departments, including items like pre-cut meat, marinated meats, and shish kabobs. More than half of those surveyed say that in an average week, none of their dinners include these value-added products. “This is a large section of the meat department in many stores, and nobody is shopping it,” says Michael Shinall, Meridian Consulting president/CEO. “Often, many consumers think that they can make it themselves a lot cheaper. Just think of the price per pound of prepared shish kabob. So there is a price value perception.”

The same goes for the service meat department. Forty percent of shoppers say they never use the service meat department, and another 35 percent say they sometimes use it. “If this is the case, many grocers should rethink how they are using the service department, or get rid of it because it is costing them money and it's lost space,” notes Shinall.

One way grocers can reinvent the service meat department is to look at service more as educating and servicing the shopper rather than merely cutting meat. Among consumers who use the service meat department, 16 percent do so because it offers unique, special cuts of meat, but an almost equal amount rely on the department's staff to provide information about the various cuts of meat and how to prepare them.

This is a key opportunity that's going unnoticed, according to the study. Among the places shoppers go for menu ideas, the grocer's meat department ranked low in shoppers' minds. Cookbooks and friends and family top the list, followed by websites, food TV shows and magazines. The recipe go-to sources are especially ironic when you consider that the department helps these shoppers select their store, is the center for their weekly meal planning, and is the main destination for center-of-the-plate products that meals are planned around —yet the meat department is not apparently helping them plan their meals.

This is one area in which grocers can leverage the popularity of social media to showcase the in-house expertise of the meat department staff by offering their shoppers recipe and meal-planning ideas via blogs, Facebook pages and even video cooking demonstrations.

By more effectively engaging meat shoppers in this way, along with providing a cleaner, easier-to-shop department, grocers can help their shoppers bring home the bacon — and perhaps bring some more profits home themselves. ■

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