ANAHEIM, Calif. (FNS) -- Wrestling with the issue of increasing meat demand, industry members heard a number of merchandising strategies from top retailers that show how meeting consumer demands can increase fresh-meat sales.
"The company I represent has meat sales of little over a billion dollars a year. And we've grown double digit for the last four years and are continuing to grow at double digit," Steve Harper, vice president of H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, told an audience attending the Annual Meat Marketing Conference here.
Noting that increasing demand "is not that difficult," Harper ran through a list of frequently-asked consumer questions, starting with "Will it hurt me?"
"Food safety is not an option. It is not a marketing tool. It is the cost of doing business," he responded. "And I think it's a shame our industry is as segmented as it is and has yet to give the government a clear signal on food safety. The government is justifiably confused, because we're asking for different things."
Another question, "Is this good for me?" had Harper pitting the 6 grams of fat found in a 3-ounce piece of sirloin against the 10 to 12 grams per tablespoon in mayonnaise. Noting that 6 grams is a tiny part of the 65 grams allotted daily for women aged 25 to 54, he concluded: "I think the nutritional conversation is sadly lacking. In our stores, we have a nutritional program with nutritional signing that has things like this in it."
The question, "Do I know how to prepare it?" brought a similar response from Harper. "We have to try to have a culinary conversation with the customer," he noted, describing a number of positive moves within his supermarkets.
These include cooking instructions on packages of meat that are "thickness specific and grade-of-beef specific." In addition, at least two of the company's stores have "a full-blown kitchen on the sales floor," he said.
"[The kitchens are] in front of the meat department, staffed by culinary professionals whose job it is to constantly help the customer by cooking, letting them taste, having all the ingredients right there -- and giving them the confidence many of them lack," he noted.
The company also has what Harper called "beef boot camp" for the chain's associates. The camp is a full day of cooking and eating beef, along with education, "because you'd be surprised how many people in the meat department don't cook and eat beef. We've trained about 600 people, and we've had so much fun, we have a waiting list of about 600 more."
Addressing the issue of consumer convenience, Harper said that meat selections should include cooked products that customers can reheat and that will give them a restaurant eating experience.
As an example, he said his stores offer an H-E-B cooked brisket that sells for "about half the price you would pay in a restaurant." Brisket in Texas is a big deal, he added.
"Cooking it is a religious experience; it takes about 18 hours. But ours takes about 40 minutes to retherm. And in blind tests, [it] was chosen 8 out of 10 times over other briskets," he said.
James Reagan, executive director of science and technology for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Chicago, referred to Harper's list in describing consumer-response studies conducted in cooperation with Denver-based King Sooper.
"What made you like it?" was the question Reagan said was posed to 700 participants, who included light users and variety-rotaters, who combined represent about 40% of the beef-eating population, he noted. "So, we thought if there was anything we could do to increase servings there, that would really help the beef industry."
Participants were sent home with a guaranteed tender, lean product dubbed Tender Select, which cost 50 cents per pound more than the center-cut commodity steak they also took home. The results were outstanding, according to Reagan. He said that 89% of the participants stated that they would continue to buy the product; 65% said that if their retailer carried the product they would buy all their meat in his store.
There was also a halo effect, he added. "If the consumer rated the product as being very tender, they also rated it very high in juiciness and flavor."
Charlie Bergh, vice president of fresh foods for Bristol Farms, headquartered in El Segundo, Calif., emphasized the need to build demand through meaningful differentiation.
His company is living proof that the concept works: Founded in 1982, it will soon add an eighth store, and sales this year "will reach the $100 million mark for the first time," he said.
To get higher returns in both sales and profits, he urged retailers to increase the value of the product.
"Change the value perception through marketing and advertising; and, most importantly, at the time of eating, [make sure] the product produces a superior eating experience," he said.
As an example of how Bristol Farms differentiates itself, Bergh said that to further enhance the value of porterhouse steaks, "our meat specialists remove the first inch-and-a-half from the short line -- that's where the toughness is."
And all top sirloins have the cap and rough fronts removed, which results in "a truly center-cut steak." he added.
As a result of such efforts, Bergh said, the chain has been at the top of the Los Angeles Times consumer poll for the last three years. In addition, the Zagat Guide to Great Food and Dining rates Bristol Farms "the best store in Los Angeles when shopping for meat and poultry."
"Value-added items like fresh sausage, fresh kabobs and a variety of prepared meats account for over 15% of our meat sales," he said. "Our customers view these products as highly differentiated and an exceptional value."
Bergh's encouraging figures came at the end of a seminar that began with a rallying call from Wayne Purcell, professor of agriculture economics at Virginia Polytech Institute. Purcell assured the group that despite the negative numbers he was about to show them, "we can get back some of those meatless meals and some of those opportunities that we've lost to nonmeat items. There's no secret as to how we do it. The modern consumer will pay for quality, consistence and convenience. They just haven't always gotten it."
Pointing to production as a key to demand, he said that per capita beef production has declined from about 95 pounds in the late 1970s to a projected 64 to 65 pounds in 1999.
"The price the consumer has been willing to pay hasn't been high enough to keep people in business," he said. "That's the big problem."
And despite what Purcell termed "huge problems" in the industry, he said some of his latest figures are actually encouraging. They show a 1.06% increase in the demand-based price for beef in the fourth quarter of 1998 compared with the same period in 1997.