Every now and then it's possible to pick up an issue of SN and read a news article that identifies an acorn of change that's likely to grow into a mighty oak of transformation. This is such a week.
On Page 33 you'll see a news article that details Kroger Co.'s plan to virtually eliminate meat-cutting and wrapping in the back rooms of the chain's 154 stores in the Atlanta market. The article, written by SN's Senior Section Editor Stephen Dowdell, clearly foretells that the industry tradition of cutting and wrapping meat in stores' back rooms is approaching its end -- assuming one issue can be resolved.
Here's a little of how the plan will work: In place of traditional back-room meat-preparation methods, stores will be supplied some 100 stockkeeping units of meat that have been cut, trimmed, tray packed, wrapped and priced at a central processing facility. Consumer-ready products will be delivered directly to stores from the packaging plant.
The packaging facility won't be Kroger's, but will be owned and operated by a meat processor, with the plant's output to be entirely dedicated to Kroger's case-ready meat. It's anticipated the plant will supply nearly all fresh-meat needs of stores in the marketing area, including beef, pork and ground meat. The only back-room meat preparation to remain at store level will be in response to special customer requests and the like.
By the way, a system such as the one described here has been in use successfully for Loblaw's stores in Toronto for several years, but the Kroger plan marks the first large-scale use of centrally packed, case-ready meat methods in the United States.
Assuming that Kroger's experience with case-ready is as successful as it has been in Canada, there's every reason to think that the process will spread to more Kroger marketing areas and perhaps to any chain with sales volume sufficient to make central packing an attractive proposition.
In short, the stage seems set for the virtual elimination of back-room meat preparation. Or at least it seems to be except for one big question surrounding this entire situation: What is to be the fate of those who practice the skilled craft of meat-cutting?
And in posing that question, the Achilles heel of central processing is exposed, although Kroger's plan addresses that very issue: Kroger plans to move meatcutters from the back room to the sales floor where they will become ambassadors for meat by talking to shoppers about products and answering questions about preparation and food safety. Kroger people say there are no plans to reduce meat-department staffing levels and that the reason behind the move to case-ready has more to do with marketing and promotion efficiencies than with labor attenuation. One observer told me last week that Kroger can well afford to make a no-job-cut pledge because meat-department labor has already been reduced to the point where it is difficult to effectively cut and wrap boxed beef at store level.
There's no doubt that causing meat to move through a well-conceived logistical system will improve the efficiency of everything from preparation to promotion. It now remains to be seen if meatcutters can move from behind the cloistered environment of the back room to become salespeople, and if the staffing solution proposed for Atlanta will translate successfully to areas where organized labor is strong and current staffing levels greater.