It's no secret that supermarkets have to cater to their local customer base if they want to succeed. But strategies differ from region to region -- what works in the suburbs doesn't necessarily guarantee profits in the city. And one of the departments where this difference is most acutely felt is meat and poultry, retailers and industry observers told SN.
Ethnic meats -- a general term used to describe organ meats, offal and unique cuts -- are not traditionally found in great numbers in today's mainstream meat and poultry department. But retailers in certain ethnically diverse areas have discovered they must stock them if they expect to thrive in that market area.
In one example, a new urban unit opened last month by Carteret, N.J.-based Pathmark Stores might be a long, long way from the West Indian-Caribbean lands that local residents call their native home. But this store in a bustling neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens is capitalizing on a supermarket trend that uses the neighborhood's demographics to stock the store.
"We're just starting out, being open for such a short time, but we know that our Western-Caribbean sales are going to be important," said Leo Bocchino, meat manager at the new Pathmark. "And we plan on stocking accordingly."
The meat department here stretches its upright cases across the back wall of the store, sprawling end to end with frozen entrees, fresh cuts, ground beef and value-added selections. There is a service window and cutting counter located at the center of the department. An additional coffin case holding more meats is located in the middle of the floor, effectively separating the meat department from the rest of the store. Signage promotes various sales and prime cuts throughout, and prices are posted next to each product.
This store's eclectic meat offering includes such Western-Caribbean favorites as ox tail, goat meat, smoked ox, smoked neck bones and smoked turkey parts, costing anywhere from $1.29 to $1.99 per pound.
Pathmark plans on promoting these ethnic meats through a series of Grand Opening sales, as well as in-store signage and circulars, said Bocchino. The first promotional push began in late March with a special on ox tails for $1.69 per pound, he added.
As with most retailers who operate stores catering to a specific ethnic group, Bocchino said, this Pathmark understands the importance of maintaining a selection of meats that would be considered a bit unusual by the average consumer but that is practically run-of-the-mill for local shoppers.
"With the Western-Caribbean shoppers, they're big into anything smoked, so we'll always have a big selection of smoked meats, some more unusual than others," he said.
Pathmark is certainly not alone in targeting marketing and catering selection to local demographics. However, the trend is still emerging, and statistical analysis is sorely lacking in the changes in meat-department subcategories. According to Jens Kanutson, an economist with the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., ethnic foods are obviously following immigration patterns, but to what extent, no one can precisely say. Part of the problem is that many of the most recent arrivals have yet to settle to the point where their buying patterns can be reliably tracked.
"This is something the industry needs to address," said Kanutson. "Because all these different tastes will not simply be subsumed into American culture, and we'll continue to see ethnic foods as a separate and popular entity."
Kanutson added that the effect of a "constantly changing consumer base" is being felt in many markets, and that ethnic meat sales in particular are something to keep an eye on in the future.
In Chicago, Treasure Island stores operate throughout the culturally diverse city, and their stockkeeping units often reflect the nuances of local neighborhoods. According to Gary Piper, head meatcutter for the five-store retailer, his department is a destination, and includes a 60-foot self-service case as well as a 30-foot service counter. Much of the department's inventory is comprised primarily of kosher meats and some unusual cuts, due to the area's large Jewish population
"We have a lot of Jewish customers, so we stock a lot of lamb, which is a big seller within the community," said Piper. "But we definitely don't limit ourselves to simply targeting one group of shoppers."
Piper noted a more recent phenomenon, in which upwardly mobile professionals are moving back into urban areas, leading to a new benefit for ethnic-style meats -- the cross-over potential as conventional consumers begin seeking out meats and products that are put on the shelves as staples for specific cultural consumers. These consumers find the ethnic meat case a trendy place to shop as of late, and Treasure Island is increasingly selling high-margin cuts of ostrich, rabbit and lamb to everyday shoppers on a consistent basis.
"They think it's cool and different to eat these unusual meats, and they try something new each time," said Piper, who added that the higher cost of these meats doesn't keep those consumers from purchasing them.
Supermarkets operating in culturally diverse neighborhoods may carry meats that cater to their ethnic clientele, but the typical, suburban retailer can also stock the same cuts, space permitting, and enjoy similar sales, said Piper, adding that some of his customers make special trips to his store because they cannot find a specific product in their own local supermarkets.
"We see a lot of people come in who just want something different," said Piper. "They just want to be able to say 'Hey, I tried this' or 'I tried that,' and they experiment with different meats."
Though they can be sold at a premium price, sourcing them can cost the retailer, Piper noted, due, in part, to the rarity of both the meats and their specialty suppliers. And, some of the ethnic selections don't turn over well, forcing the retailer to raise the price even further, he added.
Even with the expense sometimes associated with maintaining an ethnic meat case, smaller retailers can offer their shoppers the same ethnic selections as major chains simply by catering to the needs of the people, according to Frank Martinez, meat supervisor for Food City Stores, El Paso, Texas.
"Naturally, we have a very high Mexican-American population here in El Paso, and we make sure we stock what it is they want," said Martinez. "Chuck meat, lots of chuck meat."
Martinez, who said Food City Stores has been appealing to its Mexican-American consumers to buy more of "the leaner meats," such as boneless top sirloin, admits that the ethnic cuts it sells usually end up on the barbecue, one reason why beef is its biggest seller.
"Most of the ethnic meat we sell goes on the grill, which is practically an ethnic tradition itself in this part of the country," said Martinez.
Food City Stores boasts a 48-foot-long meat case dedicated solely to beef, a 24-foot case for pork, and another 48-foot case of chicken, all located along the north side of the store. According to Martinez, ethnic meats are constantly promoted through monthly sales, such as chuck steak for $1.39 per pound, down from its usual $1.97.
"The meats we sell become even more ethnic through the cooking process," said Martinez. "Traditionally, beef is garnished with a lot of spices and lemon juice and put on the grill down here. That's the typical approach, and our customers buy what works best for that."
Martinez also pointed out that, in addition to barbecues, many ethnic meat sales go toward the creation of fajitas in El Paso, another traditional Mexican-American preparation that boosts sales of ground beef and ethnic-style chuck meat.
The cross-over nature of some ethnic meats, as seen by Piper in Chicago, is not an aspect of Food City Stores sales, said Martinez. With such a heavy Mexican-American population, the cross-over theory is rarely even tested, though he did see the push toward leaner meat purchases as a potential scenario for such a test amongst the current population.
"There's not much diversity with our shoppers, but there's no place more ethnic, that's for sure," said Martinez. "And they eat lots of beef."