For some retailers, the meat case is becoming a miniature branded meal case.
While for the past several years there has been growth in prepared foods sold primarily through the deli department, new lines of refrigerated entrees are giving meat departments something else to merchandise.
Although the long-term success of these newly created sections is unknown, at least a handful of retailers are giving it a try.
Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., now devotes 12 feet of shelf space, a 4-foot section in its triple-decker cases, to branded refrigerated meals, said Ray Alfred, meat buyer for the 52-store chain.
The sections have been in place for about two months and feature some locally sourced items in varieties including Swiss steak, chili verde and lamb leg, as well as a recently launched national branded line called Table for Two, said Alfred.
Alfred said because the sections haven't been in place too long it's difficult to comment on the overall success. And he did note that it has been a challenge to maintain the code dates of the different items.
But apparently, some shoppers have already grown dependent on the section. "When we run out of an item, customers call us," he said.
And rather than seeing it as a replacement for traditional meat department items, Alfred suggested it was a convenience item that would offer another choice for busy consumers.
"It is something that is added to the meat department. It is something that we need," said Alfred.
Tom Thumb Food & Drug,
Dallas, a division of Houston-based Randalls Food Markets, is now carrying an 11-item line introduced by Glendale, Calif.-based Nestle Refrigerated Food Co.'s Stouffer's brand in October called Take Home. It is part of a four-city test market that also includes Seattle, Miami and Denver.
Tom Thumb announced it was carrying the product in a full-page ad Nov. 9 in the Dallas Morning News.
"It has done very well," said John Roussell, meat buyer for the 53-store chain.
"It's maybe one of those items whose time has come, because it is very convenient and doesn't require thawing. It seems to be well received."
It is merchandised in the fresh meat counter, near items such as packaged egg rolls and heat-and-serve type products, said Roussell. He said the space devoted to the Stouffer's items had previously accommodated a smaller line of refrigerated entrees sold by a regional company. He also moved some imitation crab meat packages to the seafood department to carve out a bigger area.
Tom Thumb now allocates 4 feet for it, 2 feet on two shelves, said Roussell.
Stouffer's executives declined to comment on marketing plans or the rollout of Take Home because it is still being test marketed.
The entrees, which offer two 11- to 12-ounce servings, include meat, poultry or seafood, are priced between $4.99 and $5.49 and can be heated in about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Table for Two, a product of the Johnsonville Sausage Co., Sheboygan Falls, Wis., a specialty sausage maker, introduced its line to markets along the East and West coasts in July and began rolling it out nationally in October.
"We are doing very well in our [specialty meat] business, but to continue growth into the year 2000 we realized it would be necessary to expand to other categories," said Kim Barden, commenting on the company's decision to create a prepared meals line.
Each package contains two 12-ounce servings. Seven meals are available: All include meat, poultry or seafood. The suggested retail price is $6.99. To prepare, the plastic pouches are placed in boiling water for 3 minutes.
Triple A Markets, Acton, Mass., has just taken on the Table for Two line and is giving it 3 feet of space in the meat cases at its two stores. It was easy to do, noted Wally Parker, assistant meat manager, because there was some extra room in the cases, so nothing had to be cut back.
"It is selling very good," said Parker.
Parker said fresh prepared food, sold through the deli, has been a growing category among his company's competitors for several years.
But, he said, "we are only two stores, we don't have facilities to make our own entrees."
He said that these entrees are meat-based so are best merchandised in the meat case, rather than through the dairy or deli.