Summer is the sweet spot of the year for many meat departments. With wholesale costs generally down and availability generally up for major commodities like beef, pork and chicken, the demand spike lent by summer cookouts couldn't come at a better time.
Setting a chain's meat departments apart from their competition during busy holidays like Memorial Day, Father's Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day continues to be the greatest challenge. Retailers this season are responding with a variety of tactics to make their stores stand out.
Signature items, for example, can provide a powerful draw during summer months. In Minster, Ohio, Wagner's IGA has cornered the market on fresh sausages and bratwurst.
"Probably the biggest strong point about sausages is that everyone seems to have a different, regional twist to their recipe," Wally Wagner, president, said. "If you can develop something that appeals to your area, it's a major, major draw."
Of course, Wagner's has history on its side. The company has been making its own fresh casing sausage, bratwurst and in-store smoked sausages since the early 1930s, when Wagner's grandfather added a butcher shop to his general store.
Several of the family recipes used then are still used today, and in a region with deep German roots, many locals have adopted Wagner's sausages as part of their own family traditions. Prior to this most recent New Year's holiday, for example, the company sold two tons of its fresh casing sausage alone.
Brats and sweet Italian sausage are the big sellers during the summer, Wagner said. The chain's signature items are used in local festivals, and sales of brats generally double during grilling season.
This year, the company hopes to boost the brats' popularity even further with its new "Cookout on the Patio" promotion. Launched in April, the promotion features bratwurst grilled on the store's patio every Friday at lunchtime throughout the summer. To encourage trial, Wagner said he was keeping prices "minimal." Customers can get a brat, a soft drink and a bag of chips for only $3.
With customers traveling from miles away to order from the chain's meat counters, and with Ohio expats ordering shipments of Wagner's sausage from far-flung corners of the country, Wagner is a big believer in signature items. The company has recently begun branding its pre-marinated and grill-ready products with a "Store Made Recipe" label.
"It's one of the last niches that independents have to compete with big-box stores -- the Wal-Marts of the world," said Wagner. "It's something that they don't do, something that customers can only get at your store."
Similarly, larger companies have found ways to differentiate their meat cases with proprietary value-added grilling items.
Giant Eagle, for example, features gourmet hamburgers made from Certified Angus ground chuck infused with exclusive spice preparations, such as Cajun, Blue Cheese, Bacon and Cheddar, Greek, Italian, and Cracked Pepper and Garlic. Two new flavors will also be added to the company's private-label frozen burger line this summer.
To build on the program's success, the burgers will be incorporated into Giant Eagle's quarterly employee training program this summer, when store associates will be trained to offer customers tips on selection, handling and meal preparation, according to Brian Frey, spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based retailer.
The goal of the training is for employees to have a "conversational knowledge of the 'story behind the food' that they can share with customers," said Frey.
Uniqueness has also been a goal for the National Pork Board with this season's roster of retail promotions, which the marketing group usually tailors to each retailer.
"Pretty much all of our programs are unique and original in their own way," explained Jarrod Sutton, retail marketing manager for the organization's Midwest division.
Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, worked with the board to put together a grilling-oriented sweepstakes for Father's Day featuring a Harley-Davidson motorcycle giveaway.
In St. Louis, Schnucks will be hosting a Fourth of July pork grilling and barbecue promotion with grill giveaways and a recipe contest.
"The key selling point for us is the ability to customize our programs to each retailer," said Sutton.
Although retailers generally promote the events or prizes locally, the Pork Board helps organize sponsors, fund the giveaways, and create point-of-sale materials like signs and displays.
For example, when Stillwater, Minn.-based Cub Foods said it would like to organize a summer pork promotion around an H2 Hummer giveaway, Sutton initially thought it might not be financially feasible. However, through a partnership with Minnesota pork producers, the National Pork Board and Hormel (Cub Foods' fresh pork supplier), they ultimately were able to put together a sweepstakes running from April through July.
During these months, 10 customers will win keys that could potentially start the Hummer. Those customers will get their chance to test their keys at this year's Minnesota State Fair, where sponsors, including Cub Foods, will almost certainly draw additional publicity.
Other commodities groups, such as National Cattlemen's Beef Association, have already kicked off their annual summer promotions. NCBA's new eight-page "Grilling Across the U.S.A." guide -- which features grilling recipes from Santa Fe, New Orleans, San Antonio and Chicago -- appeared in the May-June issue of Midwest Living magazine, and will be available for retailers to give away at their meat departments.
Renewing its partnership with A.1. Steak Sauce, NCBA will also distribute more than 84 million coupons offering $1 off any beef item with the purchase of A.1. sauces and marinades. To drive retail traffic, national radio ads will run for two weeks prior to Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
"We sell beef throughout the year, but the most popular way of preparing most of our cuts is by grilling. So summer is one of the most important times to promote beef," said Randy Irion, director of retail marketing services for NCBA.