Retailers are discovering there's a big opportunity to sell more meat -- especially a wider variety of types and cuts -- by supplying customers with more information.
A research report released by the National Pork Board reveals that consumers linger at the meat case for an average of four minutes, deciding what to buy. That's compared to one minute in other parts of the store. The variety of species and cuts available is a major factor in slowing the decision-making process. Consumers are apt to have chicken breast and ground beef on their shopping lists, but beyond that, they need guidance, researchers said.
The final report was based on an intercept study the Des Moines, Iowa-based organization conducted in supermarkets this spring.
Most consumers (86%) plan to buy meat before they get to the store, but most don't know what cut they'll buy until they're standing at the case, the study shows. The time frame of four minutes to decide could be a plus, some retailers told SN.
"We love that confused look. That gives us the opportunity to step in and do what we do best. One-on-one, with the customer, talk to them about cuts, how to cook, how to prepare, suggest menu accompaniments. We can tell them what makes our product different from the other guy's. It's an opportunity to educate," said Jack Gridley, meat/seafood director at Dorothy Lane Markets, a three-unit, upscale independent in Dayton, Ohio.
But customer service is a hallmark at Dorothy Lane. The self-service meat department is right next to the service meat counter so associates can, and do, help customers at the grab-and-go case, Gridley said.
A lot of retailers must rely on ads and signs to educate customers, and a self-service case merchandised to deliver information that makes decision-making easier and quicker can boost customer loyalty, the NPB study points out.
"That's one of the reasons we put in the Beef Made Easy program [developed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association], and now we're working on Pork Made Easy," said Glenn Hedlund, director of perishables at 22-unit Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash. "Those programs [with signs and labels and organized displays] tell customers how to cook different items. It works. I've seen a spike in our middle-meat sales as a result of what we're doing. Whatever we in the industry can do to alleviate customers' confusion about the sea of red in the meat case will help."
NPB researchers, who actually observed shoppers at self-service meat cases prior to questioning them, found that a full 82% of shoppers spend time physically examining and comparing packages before making a decision. By contrast, only 15% of grocery aisle shoppers pursue such a detailed examination. Key selection considerations for meat purchases are price, appearance, quality and taste. In addition, a large percentage (73%) of customers who could recall seeing ads said they are influenced by meat advertising, the study revealed.
Of the total interviewed at the meat case, 87% said their purchase could be influenced by any merchandising/display activity, and 69% said they are influenced by special signs on the shelf.
Signage can be important in saving the customer time all the way around, said Bill Pizzico, president, The Prizm Group, a Blue Bell, Pa.-based consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
"Re-educating can start with the ad circular, and then signs at the case can reinforce the message," he said.
"You could influence the customer's mind-set with what we call marketing compatibility -- comparing one item with another," Pizzico said. "If chicken breasts and ground beef are a given, then tell them sausage or a boneless pork chop or a quick-fry steak are as fast and easy as a hamburger or a chicken breast."
The consultant suggested retailers can merchandise select products side by side, in a special section of things that can be prepared in 15 minutes or less.
That way, a retailer could save customers time in the kitchen as well as at the case, and end up selling more variety and making a better profit, he added.
A West Coast retailer said he's encouraged by the Pork Board study because it documents the importance of the meat department to the entire store and emphasizes how important it is to educate customers, which his company is already doing to a large degree.
"Because merchandising is particularly effective at the meat case, it's important that we continue to use our ads and in-store signage to educate our customers. We have four minutes to make a positive impression and help them choose the right product to fit their family's dinner needs," said Marty Stephanic, director of meat operations at 95-unit Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.
The study, completed earlier this spring, was the first to query meat shoppers at the point of purchase, NPB officials said. Most research is conducted with consumers when they're not actually shopping, but the NPB decided to catch them when "they're in the real world."
In stores in Phoenix, Cincinnati, and Atlanta, customers were observed as they shopped the meat case. They then participated in a 10-minute, on-the-spot interview conducted by the researchers. The customers indicated that the meat case is -- at the least -- a weekly destination. Of those interviewed, 83% go grocery shopping once a week or more, and of those, 86% usually or always shop the meat case.
Researchers concluded that selecting meat is more difficult than selecting other products in the store because there is more variation, both in cuts and species; it is higher-priced; and there is less consumer comfort and knowledge about the category. Pork and beef, other than ground beef, are apt to be impulse buys.
A total of 26% of those interviewed said they decided on the species at the meat case, and a total of 35% said they decided on the specific cut of meat once there.
Pork and beef vary significantly from cut to cut, and package to package, which necessitates further evaluation at the point of purchase, whereas chicken and ground beef vary little, the research report said.
Other key findings include:
Meat is a high-involvement purchase, and consumers re-evaluate the products on every trip.
Once consumers have begun to consider a meat purchase, their decisions are most influenced by meat promotions, merchandising and advertising circulars.
The NPB researchers summarized the study's implications as follows:
On average, consumers spend 3.5 hours a year shopping the meat case. By reducing this amount of time, retailers can improve customer loyalty and department profitability.
Given the high involvement and time-consuming nature of meat-purchasing decisions, providing customers assistance to ease the decision-making burden is critical.
Since consumers are interested in moving beyond the default choices of ground beef and chicken breasts, a more user-friendly meat case can increase sales of pork, veal, lamb and other beef cuts.
It's important to make sure product packaging and labeling are used as effectively as possible to reinforce the key messages of quality, consistency and product image.
Since most consumers (more than 90%) don't ask for help in purchasing meat, the self-service case should be as customer-friendly as possible.
The National Pork Board has responsibility for research, promotion and consumer information projects and for communicating with pork producers and the public.
Pork producers invest 45 cents for each $100 value of hogs sold through the national pork check-off program, which funded the study.