Meat merchandisers are trotting out a large and varied menu of methods to try to bring their departments around to the pursuit of more value-added sales.
In spot interviews across the country, retail meat executives recently told SN they will make the best of the department's offerings this year, and that includes exploiting the inherent appeal of taking enough of the preparation out of consumers' hands to make it convenient, but still allowing those consumers to participate in the cooking.
One advantage for the meat department is there are clear and appealing choices with regard to nutritional values as well as quality, said John Kovach, director of meat and deli for Schear's Food Centers, a six-store operator based in Dayton, Ohio.
"If people look at the nutritional value of fast food, they may want to get away from it. But they still want convenience," Kovach said. "You see a lot of two-income families who want to go home at night and have something nice for dinner."
Schear's meat departments offer a 6-foot convenience meat section, called Schear's Own, where they merchandise items such as marinated roasts, cabbage rolls, stir fry mixes and other ready-to-cook, fresh meat-based products, he said.
To keep customers in the meat department -- and away from hamburger and pizza restaurants -- Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind., has added service programs that focus on value-added meats to all of its stores, Phil Plummer, director of meat and seafood said. Currently, he estimates that 15% of Martin's meat sales are value-added or ready-to-cook items.
Pick N Save Supermarkets, West Bend, Wis, have gourmet sections in the meat case with items such as stir-fry meat with vegetables, or premade meat loaf ready to go in the oven, according to John Besmer, senior merchandiser for meat and deli.
He said he has found it important to advertise both the value and availability of the meat department's new ready-to-cook items, which may be unfamiliar to some consumers.
"I put a couple items in the ad every week, and sometimes we demo them, too," he said.
For wholesaler Spartan Stores of Grand Rapids, Mich., ready-to-cook meat offerings such as marinated and dry-seasoned boneless chicken breast, kebabs and stir-fry mixes "make up a small portion of our business, but it's starting to grow fast, especially in the case-ready area," according to Gary Evey, spokesman for the wholesaler.
Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, expanded the value-added meat program "to a nice assortment of 100 to 150 items," said director of meat merchandising Dave Young. The effort started with ready-to-cook marinated items some 10 years ago, and now it ranges from stuffed flank steak to kebabs to shrimp scampi.
"At any one time, Marsh will have about 20 to 25 items on display and the others we can make on request," he said.
Judging from retailers' comments, there is no pat formula. Product offerings, and the reception they get from customers, depends on the particular store's demographics, according to retailers.
For example, Minyard's Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, offers ready-to-cook items such as meatballs and marinated chicken in all of its stores, except for its smaller and more ethnically oriented Carnival Food Stores, according to Arley Morrison, vice president of meat and deli for the chain.
Young of Marsh estimated that ready-to-cook items account for about 7% to 8% of Marsh's overall meat sales. But the program is a significantly better performer in certain stores.
"I wouldn't hesitate to say it's over 10% of sales in our high-profile stores," he noted.
At Furr's Supermarkets, based in Albuquerque, N.M., "The oven-ready items and other items that are precooked are more popular in our upscale stores, or stores that are around apartment dwellings where younger, unmarried consumers may shop," said Clyde Lujan, director of meat and seafood.
In such units, Furr's often offers a heat-and-eat section of two to six feet, with products ranging from stuffed game hens to chicken-fried steaks.
"We have some stores that are doing a very large percentage of sales in these items," said Ron Vancour, director, meat at Bozzuto's, a wholesaler based in Cheshire, Conn., which has offered ready-to-cook items such as marinated and stuffed meats for about five years. "I would say some are doing upwards of 20% to 30% of their fresh-meat business in prepared meats."
Plummer added that it's important to have explicit cooking instructions with ready-to-cook meat products. "We want to make it as simple as we possibly can," he said. And toward that end, many Martin's stores offer an 8- to 12-foot section of Easy Entrees, like stuffed peppers or stir-fry mixes with recipes and cooking instructions on the package.
Marinated items, which are among the most popular in this category, save consumers not only the time needed to marinate meat properly, but also the necessity of buying lots of costly spices that are necessary for preparing a marinade. Retailers think that's worth something.
Besmer of Pick N Save said he usually adds 50 cents per pound to the price of marinated fresh-meat items, which he considers a good deal for consumers because "the seasonings we use are very expensive."
Furthermore, Pick N Save last year installed tumblers in its stores that marinate the meat under vacuum conditions more thoroughly than might be done at home, he added.
Marsh's Young also said that his chain's value-added meats are still a bargain.
"We add 20 cents a pound for dry seasoning, 40 to 50 cents for regular marinade and sometimes 80 cents for more complex marinades, such as Szechuan," Young said, adding, "If the consumer had to buy what we add, it would be more than 80 cents a pound" for the cost of ingredients.
Meanwhile, some meat departments are trying to pull supermarket departments in as they seek to meet consumer demand for convenienyt meals.
Plummer of Martin's said, "We are trying to tear down the merchandising walls within the store," by offering a weekly advertised Meal Solution in which all ingredients for a meal are brought to a central location in the store.
For example, he said, on Italian week the stores displayed ground beef, pasta, pasta sauce, garlic bread and a 1-pound fresh-cut salad mix, with the grocery items displayed around a bunker cooler for the meat and other perishable items.
Meat executives said there can be no doubt that they will continue to cultivate their department's role in the industry's play for the HMR dollar, whatever form that role takes on.
Said Lujan of Furr's: "Those types of items are the focus of what we are going to be putting into the meat department in the future."