NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After a thought-provoking morning spent visiting the meat departments of some of Nashville's more interesting supermarkets, attendees of a seminar at the annual Meat Marketing Conference here were presented with a question: Is the meat department the destination for meal solutions?
The resounding response was yes, delivered by the session's speakers, who shared their experiences in implementing meat-department meal solutions and offered suggestions for further development of this lucrative sector of the meat market.
Dave Balderson, director of McCormick & Company's business segment, called Supermarket Food Service, was the session's moderator, and he kicked off the panel discussion by posing a variety of questions, including: How are time-starved consumers changing the supermarket? What new product ideas and merchandising techniques are being implemented? How will meal solutions change the meat case, and the supermarket?
Bill Poindexter, director of marketing for Oklahoma City-based Fleming Cos. meat operations, stated that in order to capture the home-meal replacement market, "We need to set new and realistic goals." He stressed his belief that product consistency is important to the customer, and suggested, "Our biggest goal is to change the customer's mind-set."
Poindexter talked about his ongoing role in the development of Fleming's Meal Time Solutions HMR program for retail customers, which is divided into two categories. The Heat & Serve program offers fully prepared foods, and the Cook & Serve program, a joint undertaking with McCormick & Company, is a collection of meal solutions complete with detailed cooking instructions and seasonings; both are situated in the meat department.
"Meal Time isn't a brand or manufacturer," he explained. "It's a mealtime solution . . . and point of service, or how to identify that section of the store, seems to be what everyone is dying for."
Marty Stephanie, director of meat buying for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., discussed his company's Fit & Easy meal-ideas program. He explained that the 10 different categories of HMR they offered were often inspired by employee's ideas.
A successful meal-solutions program, according to Stephanie, should focus on the customers' needs first. "We tend to create HMR around what we have instead of what the customer wants," he noted.
One of the ways he suggested to meet those needs was through creative cross marketing. "You can generate sales by cross-merchandising departments to create meal deals," Stephanie said. "You can sell thousands of deals when they are bundled."
Stephanie also noted that retailers may need to re-evaluate the way they look at their own meal-solutions programs to better market their merchandise. He urged them to "focus on the sales of those products and not [on] a profit percentage." He also added that new products should be introduced every 30 days and that retailers might even consider replacing items that don't sell in the top 50 percent, because consumers need change.
The importance of using large displays that are at least 12 feet long and promoting meal solutions every week were also stressed by Stephanie. Another essential point, he maintained, was that HMR should never be sold at a reduced price since there is no precedent for it in food service, and discounting would only damage the supermarket's image and its sales.
Norma Gilliam, director of public relations for the Hubert Company, Harrison, Ohio, who writes educational materials for the supermarket industry, recounted meal-solution developments in meat as presented at past meat-marketing conferences. She noted that the increasing importance of meals solutions was forecast by a "meat department of future display" at the 1992 meat-marketing conference that began to focus on "sections defined by [consumer] needs, not species."
The product and merchandising developments inherent in these meal solutions were taken a step further this year through the Lifestyles marketing display in the meat department of a Nashville-area Kroger store visited by conference attendees.
New case-ready and value-added HMR items like marinated pork loin and barbecue spare ribs -- classified and displayed under target marketing programs such as Cookin' Lite and Meals in Minutes -- offered meal-solution ideas for visiting retailers.
With the aid of such innovative meal-solutions developments, Gilliam suggested, "Consumers will no longer see cases of red and raw meat and be intimidated because they don't know how to prepare it."
Balderson and the four panelists concluded that it was an exciting time for meat-department meal solutions. Poindexter noted that if consumers don't know what they want at 4 p.m., then the meal-solution suggestion from the meat department has the potential to be just that: a solution.
Gilliam seconded the motion that "the quicker you can get them thinking about meals, the better." The panelists also agreed with Balderson's prediction that "meal solutions are going to break down walls" between departments, and ultimately offer a role not just to the meat department but to food sections throughout the store.