PHOENIX -- Since putting meat into its promotional spotlight two years ago, Abco Foods here has increased the department's dollar and volume sales and has boosted total store traffic.
So said Edward G. Hill, president of the 72-store chain, and keynote speaker at the National Grocers Association/National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association annual Meat Operations Conference here last month.
"We really do believe in our company that 'meat is the main attraction,' " said Hill, referring to the theme of this year's conference. "And it has really worked for us over the past two years."
The Phoenix region has become highly competitive with several new players entering the market, said Hill, naming Smith's Food & Drug, Albertson's, Fry's Food Stores and Megafoods as examples. "A lot of new store footage had opened," he said.
"The reason for all the new players is that there is a lot of growth in the market," he said, adding that at the same time, "it also makes it very difficult to maintain the market share."
The retailer made a "conscious decision" to look to the meat department to hold on to its market share. "The bottom line is, if we are looking to move business, we look to meat."
The revamping of Abco's meat department began two years ago with the development of a private-label line called Blue Ribbon.
Supplied by the Phoenix division of Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City, the meat is the same product Abco always carried, but it was repackaged and given top billing in weekly ads. It was also made the focus of the retailer's television and radio advertising, which features customer testimonials and employee commentary.
"With our Blue Ribbon brand meat, which includes pork, chicken
and beef, we claim to be first in freshness and offer a double- your-money-back guarantee," said Hill.
"Meat is the best department to differentiate ourselves from the competition," said Hill. "And meat customers are the ones we are looking for.
"Customers will be drawn in by meat features," said Hill. "Our research has shown that when you increase your traffic using meat, you will increase your total sales in that store and it turns out to be a profitable business.
"We believe that if a customer buys meat, they are going to buy profitable items to go along with it."
Due to the increased competition, Abco had fallen behind on its capital improvement plans, which called for four new stores and 10 remodels. Thanks in part to the meat promotions, those plans have recently been resumed, said Hill.
Meanwhile, the company's cost of business has been continually increasing, with labor as the largest expenditure, said Hill.
"We have to make up those costs in other areas. We chose to keep our meat grosses down and not use that department to try to increase our margins, because we are going to use this for our draw," he said.
"And if you operate in a market like we do, you sell most of your advertised merchandise below cost."
Hill said the message Abco conveys in its ads is also reflected at point of sale through packaging and use of stickers, labels and signs.
Another part of the effort is "convincing the stores to sell meat," Hill said. "It's not enough just to tell the customer what you are doing. You have to make sure that your employees know what you are trying to accomplish."
He said memos from corporate headquarters sometimes just don't get the message through. So when the department meets, it's important to communicate well with store personnel.
To do that, Hill likes to infuse a little humor into the sessions and poke fun at some of the issues that typically divide the corporate office from store personnel, he said.
In a sample video used by Abco to open one of its meat department meetings, Ken Davidson, Abco's meat merchandiser, cuts and wraps a tray of meat in fast-forward speed, then turns to the store manager, saying, "see, it doesn't take that long."
Then he models a cow costume, a "prototype uniform," he says he's considering for department personnel as a way to "maybe create some excitement."