A growing number of retailers are discovering that a proprietary, branded beef program, developed with packers or trade associations as a partner, can boost sales of red meat, as well as the department's quality profile.
There's plenty of business to round up: According to Cattle-Fax, Denver, 2002 per-capita consumption is expected to approach 67.3 pounds per person this year, only a marginal decrease from 68 pounds in 2001. By comparison, poultry consumption was 78 pounds last year.
Though beef is still lagging behind chicken, supermarkets are using marketplace changes -- empowered by consolidation and customer-data technology -- to dictate a list of specifications that rely on such quality-oriented terms as "certified" and "corn-fed." Indeed, if there is one overriding umbrella theme behind the big push, it's the premium nature of the products, retailers and industry observers tell SN.
"We were looking for a very high-quality product, and at the time we started [our search] in 1992, consistency was a problem in the industry," said Bob Buehler, meat, poultry and seafood supervisor for Buehler's Fresher Foods, Wooster, Ohio. "We wanted to get as close to Oreo cookies as we could with a natural product."
Buehler's has been selling only certified Angus beef for the past 10 years, using a program established in 1978 by the American Angus Association, also in Wooster. The brand is currently selling in excess of a half-billion pounds around the world every year, according to CAB officials.
The products, which today include whole muscle cuts, ground beef and value-added items like chili and hot dogs, are carefully monitored and tracked; a real-time database established by CAB's brand-assurance division traces product from packer to distributor to retail sales outlet. The well-established system is designed to protect quality -- and the brand's image.
"Certified Angus beef has great appeal to two groups," Buehler said. "There's people who regularly consume beef, and know they're going to get consistently tasty, juicy beef. The other group is the people who would like to eat beef, but cannot on a regular basis. For them, they have this dream in their head of what a great steak is going to taste like.
"If it's CAB, it's going to match their expectations," he added.
Kroger Co., Cincinnati, is large enough to dictate its own specifications. The retailer has contracted with Excel Corp., the Wichita, Kan.-based meatpacking and marketing company, to develop its line of Cattleman's Collection, introduced into King Soopers and City Market stores in the Denver market area in May 2001.
"We've linked all the partners with 24 quality checkpoints," said Paul Hiemenz, vice president of new-brand initiatives for Excel, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cargill, Minneapolis. "It's these checkpoints that are the quality-control glue that holds the [supply] chain together."
Kroger officials declined to comment on the program.
Working closely with a select number of beef producers and corporate partners, Excel uses the 24-point quality checks to navigate the product through quality-control points that include seed-stock producers, commercial cow/calf operators, stockers and feed yards. Vision grading involves taking digital pictures of the rib-eye surface to evaluate its size and fat content, which improves the consistency of the product, Hiemenz said. The final product is hand-selected and carefully tracked to ensure it meets the agreed-upon standards for quality, including trim.
Industry observers credit some of this heightened retail activity to industry consolidation. Mergers and acquisitions on both sides of the supply chain have produced particular benefits for retailers, who are using the current business climate to strengthen their buying positions. National chains, like Kroger, can now leverage their tremendous multistate purchasing power to push for higher quality and consistency.
"I think consolidation is a big part of it," said Len Steiner, principal of Steiner Consulting Group, Manchester, N.H. "But there's also new technology and ways of doing business, like prepackaging product at a central facility and selling product with a longer shelf life. I think all these things coming together give retailers the ability to not only dictate what they want, but to help support growth and efficiencies on the packing side of the business."
Even small independents have found new opportunities to improve red meat volume by enlisting trade organizations to handle most of the procurement logistics, they said. One independent who's taken the bull by the horns -- almost literally -- is Yoke's Foods. Last fall, the Spokane, Wash.-based retailer purchased its own herd of certified Hereford cattle, and plans to bring whole-muscle cuts to stores within the month.
"We have two herds, and most will be through in May and coming to market," said Ken Chapin, meat director for the chain, which opens its 11th store in May. "There won't be enough to cover all our beef needs, but it will get our feet wet in learning how to run such a program."
Yoke's purchased 421 head of certified Hereford as an extension of its year-old certified Hereford beef program, which appealed to Chapin for three reasons. Virtually all of the cattle is sourced from Northwest feedlots; the American Hereford Association, St. Louis, which administers the certified program, provides market exclusivity; and the whole-muscle line enjoys pricing parity with USDA Choice commodity products.
"We're hearing it from our customers that it's better tasting," Chapin said. "There are really nice sales increases in our meat department. They're up double digits."
Retail meat departments selling better-tasting beef enjoy repeat visits from customers, and enhance their name as a destination for quality and consistency. Al Kober, director of meat sales and merchandising for Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., said the retailer joined the Certified Angus program nearly six years ago in an effort to reverse what seemed to be a deterioration in commodity quality.
"When I took over this job many years ago, one of the owners impressed upon me the importance of making quality the primary decision on any product line I took in, and that is still true today," he recalled. "[Certified Angus beef] complements what we're trying to do to deliver the highest-quality product possible to our consumer."
Kober added that sales of CAB have been helped in recent years by a return of consumers' desires for a good steak.
"[Before], there was a great emphasis on lean and mean and dry and tasteless, with the low-fat focus," he said. "The current switchback to a more rewarding type of eating experience has been a good trend for CAB, because consumers -- especially baby boomers -- are more interested in using the purpose of eating for enjoyment."
Though there's growing excitement over the branding trend, the evolution of the service and self-service meat department from commodity to brand has been slowed, in part, by retailers' desire to avoid confusing the consumer. That is one reason why they're relying on their supplier organizations for more than just product specifications. They also need information to guide the consumer through the changes and upgrades.
"We knew our biggest obstacle to success would be educating the customer about the differences between certified Hereford compared to what we were using," said Yoke's Chapin. "I've taken a page of our ad, almost weekly, and have put in pamphlets and facts about Hereford beef."
At Clemens, Kober uses all the materials provided by CAB, particularly the banners hanging over the department that clearly identify the CAB from a distance as customers enter the store. Meat cases also get recipe racks placed along the shelf rail to hold recipes and related point-of-purchase materials.
"One of the things we also use is something we call 'cheat sheets,' that we provide to each one of the associates in the stores. The sheets provide, at their fingertips, some of the characteristics and benefits that are found in CAB, and give them quick points of reference they can use with customers," Kober said.
Buehler's uses the CAB logo to connect the beef program directly with the chain. The black-and-red symbol shares space with the retailer's own logo on the front door of stores, as well as on grocery bags and signage in the stores.
"We want the two to be coupled together every chance we get," said Buehler.
The American Angus Association today has nearly 6,500 licensed retailer members, who have access to the group's complete library of images, logos and marketing support. But some retailers successfully use their own promotion tracks. For example, Kober ties in his Angus program with local restaurants and other distributors of CAB, and includes quotes from some chefs in his promotions.
"Instead of looking at restaurants as a retail competitor, we look at them as someone who could complement the brand, and that's worked out real well," he said.
While Yoke's has been actively promoting its Hereford brand, it plans a "soft opening" for the Yoke's Cattle Co. line of beef coming to stores next month.
"We're in a learning curve right now to figure out this program. This is our testing herd, to make sure that the whole process functions the way we think it should," said Chapin. "All those aspects of the beef business we haven't had experience in we want to take a look at."