NEW YORK -- Consumers' confusion, more than anything else, is cutting into beef sales in the supermarket meat case and retailers can help remedy that situation, according to an industry expert who participated in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Beef Summit held here at the Millennium Broadway Hotel, November 1 and 2.
Curtis Wang, a principal in Kuczmarksi & Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm, contends that consumers simply don't find beef convenient. They don't know how to cook different cuts of beef and therefore they'll skip over them to go to a pork chop or a boneless chicken breast because they have cooked them successfully before.
Wang was one of the speakers on a roster of industry representatives and NCBA officials who addressed nearly 200 Summit attendees. They outlined possible solutions to the challenges facing the beef industry from ranch to retail store in the next few years.
"We have to make beef easy to choose and easy to use or consumers. There are more than 30 cuts of beef in the typical supermarket meat case and consumers say they're familiar with only about 15. Not only that, but they're only using four or five of those cuts. They've told us they don't know how to cook the others," Wang said.
"People don't have time to read cookbooks. They need help," he said, pointing out that a consumer could have prepared a cut of beef the wrong way and have had a bad experience -- which could keep them from coming back.
And pointing to retailers' ways of merchandising the meat case, Wang said most are not doing anything to make it easy for the consumer.
"Even when [consumers] know the cut of beef they want to buy, 32% of them said they frequently have trouble finding it in the case. When they can't find it, they buy another meat or none at all."
In an interview after the NCBA meeting, Wang said that while there is much work to be done throughout the industry, retailers themselves can help turn around the decline in beef's share of meat sales in their own meat cases. He said forward-thinking operators are reorganizing the case to by cooking method, rather than by cut of meat. In fact, the Chicago-based NCBA offers a meat-case simplification program, that includes planograms, signage, and color-coded materials that coordinate case sections and packages [see "Pathmark Set On Chainwide Makeover of Meat Cases," SN, June 21, 1999].
Wang suggested supplementing that re-set effort with recipes and nutritional information handouts at point of sale. Adding value to beef at the store level, such as cubing and marinating it for kabobs and adding seasoning to roasts, can add a convenience for consumers, too, he said.
"I think the major issue is to make it easier for the consumer and one way of doing that is to add value in one way or another. It could be cooking or partially cooking the product. That could be the counterpart of the rotisserie chicken. Something the customer can take home and finish in the oven or just reheat."
In his presentation at the Beef Summit, Wang also said building consumers' confidence in a brand of meat can bring customers back to the meat case. A store brand, or private label, can be as good a guarantee as any other brand as long as it consistently delivers on the promises it makes, he pointed out. But he particularly stressed the need for "making beef easy to choose and easy to use."
He referred to statistics that show that, while beef's share of total meat sales has declined from 55% in 1975 to just about 40% in 1998, the number of servings of beef served in restaurants has actually grown from 6.3 billion to 7.1 billion during the same time period.
This apparent anomaly is attributed to the fact that consumers are eating more beef when they dine out, and highlights the quandry facing retailers: Beef is troublesome to shop for, and there is confusion as to how consumers can properly prepare it at home, Wang said. If beef is prepared so it's appealing and flavorful and served to consumers, they are eating it -- more frequently than ever. Wang also cited statistics that show nine out of 10 households serve beef and that the average consumer eats beef 136 times a year.
"The first premise is that consumers love beef. The challenge is for us in the industry is to address the opportunities that that presents. Consumers are just not finding it convenient to prepare at home, and they're also confused about safety and quality issues," Wang said.
They're confused about the nutritional qualities of beef versus chicken, for example and they've been scared by news stories about E. coli and mad cow disease, he said.
There is an opportunity for retailers to educate the consumer on both nutritional qualities and safety via hand-out educational materials, many of which are available from NCBA and other industry sources, he said.
"About 58% of consumers associate beef with fat, and a similar percentage associate chicken with health. The reality though is that when you compare calories and grams of fat, the differences between the numbers are smaller than you might think," Wang said. He showed a chart that indicates three ounces of beef contains 183 calories and 8.4 grams of fat, compared with three ounces of chicken, which contains 162 calories and 6.3 grams of fat. But what's particularly important, he said, is that beef has more protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B-12, than a comparable serving of chicken.
"We should be telling consumers those things. If we do that and also put taste in the equation, beef should be beating up on chicken."