Meat departments have come a long way since SN began tracking them 50 years ago. Self-service sections, brand-name products, prepared items and case-ready meats -- these are standard features in supermarkets from coast to coast.
It hasn't always been this way. Labor issues and consumer lifestyle changes helped bring about the evolution in meat merchandising. Product assortment today has never been greater.
Back in the 1950s, meat department workers were used to the sight of swinging beef, when carcasses arrived at the store cut in quarters and hung on rails. Then they switched to boxed beef. Packing houses did the butchering, then shipped vacuum-packed boxes containing beef broken down into rounds, chucks, ribs and loins to the retailers.
The end of in-store butchering reduced labor at some stores, changed the job of the in-store meatcutter and turned the nature of merchandising upside down. Many observers point to that as one of the most important developments to occur in the industry in the last half century. The new system was a positive development because it allowed retailers to order the right quantities of specific cuts they knew they could sell, without having to buy the entire carcass.
"It changed the focus then," said Bill Dowdall, president of Federal Market Co., a Buffalo, N.Y.-based chain of 13 meat markets.
In bringing boxed beef to market in the 1960s, Iowa Beef Processors succeeded where others failed, overcoming fierce resistance from meatcutter unions who were threatened by the prospect of losing jobs.
Then a young company, IBP in 1967 opened a boxed beef operation at the company's new Dakota City, Neb., plant -- the first large-scale beef processing plant in the nation, according to the company. It developed a successful system that made it possible to eliminate much fat, bones and trimmings, all part of the carcass but of little value to retailers.
"It wasn't accomplished until IBP got involved in the '60s," said industry veteran John Story, now a consultant based in Reddick, Fla.
Coming even earlier, the shift to self-service was another important development that moved the industry in a new direction. The shift changed the relationship consumers had with butchers and meatcutters. In some markets, retailers also had to educate their customers, who didn't warm up immediately to packaged meats.
It also forced retailers to master a new system of ordering product. Meat department officials at Strack & Van Til Supermarkets sensed self-service represented the future. The Highland, Ind.-based chain was one of the pioneers in its market area in establishing a self-service program.
"Self-service gave the customer the option of better choice," said Bob Stevens, a retired meat supervisor and buyer for the chain, which serves blue-collar communities in northwestern Indiana. "When you have rows of choices that you can pick up and look at, and decide what looks good and at what price, that's one of the big successes of self-service."
Around the time the beef industry was developing boxed beef, the poultry industry was perfecting prepackaged chicken. Holly Farms was one of the first companies to roll out a line of prepackaged chicken at Safeway stores in the Washington, D.C., area in 1964. Eight years later, the company made consumers aware of Holly Farms by introducing branded packaged chicken, said William Roenigk, senior vice president of the National Chicken Council, Washington.
Initially consumer acceptance was not a problem, since many shoppers were not aware the chicken in the stores was packaged somewhere else, Roenigk said. The retailer and processor had to work out the bugs involved in ordering the right parts to satisfy demand. In fact, poultry giant Tyson Foods doubled the size of its business when it acquired Holly Farms in 1989.
In 1992, chicken kicked beef out of the No. 1 spot, becoming America's most consumed protein for the first time.
Chicken gained favor with consumers who viewed it as a healthier choice than red meat. Beef peaked in 1976, when per-capita consumption exceeded 94 pounds. From then on, however, beef consumption rates dropped, while chicken consumption numbers grew at a steady pace. "Chicken beat the pig in 1980, and the cow in the 1990s," Roenigk said. Chicken narrowly beat pork for the first time in 1982 -- 49.1 pounds of pork consumed vs. 49.6 pounds of chicken consumed -- and the gap widened in a more significant way in 1985.
The beef industry today is following chicken's lead with a growing number of prepackaged products popping up at stores across the country. Leaders of the industry took notice when Wal-Mart rolled out a full line of case-ready beef in 1997 at selected stores. In 2001, the Bentonville, Ark., retailer completed the introduction at all supercenters.
The shift to boxed beef, along with the current case-ready trend, has reduced the amount of work for in-store butchers and meatcutters, especially at supermarkets that emphasize self-service. But while self-service gets rid of labor headaches for meat department managers, it gives those who emphasize service a way to differentiate themselves, Stevens said.
"The guys doing service today are the small operators, the small meat markets with a good reputation, and they're always going to be there," he said.