The recipe cards are out there. The cooking classes are in session, the videos are playing and the samplers are sampling.
But still, consumers across the country hover tentatively over the fresh meat and seafood cases, unsure of what to do with many of the products staring back at them.
Or worse, some of them are not even standing there anymore, as evidenced by flat to declining sales.
Selling fresh meat and seafood to shoppers who don't have a clue continues to be an uphill battle, retailers said in interviews with SN.
"Consumer education is sorely needed in both the seafood and meat departments," commented Jay Roche, director of consumer education for Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Wellesley Hills, Mass.
"It's not unusual for a woman to approach one of our meat department employees and say, 'This is what I want to buy, but I don't know how to prepare it,' " said Joe Brandl, manager of meat and seafood at West Linn Thriftway, in Portland, Ore.
Many retailers are trying hard to help, to educate their consumers right at the store about their products, about how to prepare them and how to integrate them into meals.
Operators are attacking the problem with tools like:
Racks stuffed with recipe cards.
Cooking classes, often tied to specific groups of products on special right in the store.
Suggestive cross merchandising and sampling.
Better-trained employees who can, in turn, advise shoppers.
And targeted promotions to shore up all of the above.
They agree that education is the key to guiding consumers into new culinary pursuits. But many of them also share the frustration that their efforts may be to little effect.
Seafood is the bigger challenge, they added, since it's a category that consumers have traditionally eaten when dining out, and it has a broader range of cooking and preparation requirements.
Suppliers are doing their best as adjuncts in the effort; none of the retailers interviewed had laundry lists of additional aids that their vendors ought to be providing.
Meanwhile the challenge persists. Excerpts follow from retailers fighting the good fight against meat and seafood ignorance:
deli, bakery, seafood and floral merchandiser
Pay Less Supermarkets
Seafood is definitely an area that requires consumer education.
The tendency among consumers is to eat it when dining out, for a number of reasons. First of all, it's more expensive than most meat, so consumers are more conscious of the risk of properly preparing it. Secondly, it's not a category that most people know how to prepare.
One of the main things we do to help increase customer education involves employee training. We make sure our employees can answer such questions as how to handle and store seafood and how various items can be prepared.
For example, softer fish may be suitable for microwaving, while more dense seafood lends itself to steaking and grilling.
Although we also keep about 20 recipe cards in a rack on or near the counter, I can't really say they've impacted sales. I just don't have a big success story on them.
Another program that we offered for about half-a-dozen years, before discontinuing it about two years ago, involved cooking classes.
We concentrated mostly on seafood during these monthly classes, which were held in a full kitchen located in one of our stores. The classes, which usually contained about 18 attendees and cost $10 to $12 per person, were fairly well attended, and seemed well received.
We concentrated on full meals -- including entrees, side dishes, breads, wines -- and the attendees usually purchased the ingredients to replicate the meal afterward.
Nevertheless, the classes were really only a break-even venture, and the company, which is examining different programs, decided to discontinue them.
I don't know if we'll bring them back, but it's a possibility.
We've gotten good support from our suppliers. One of the most successful programs came from our supplier of farm-raised catfish, which helped us promote the "nugget" -- a 1-ounce to 2-ounce flap located on the underside of a catfish. The flap, which was usually discarded in the past, is now one of our biggest sellers in the seafood department.
director, customer service
Roche Bros. Supermarkets
Wellesley Hills, Mass.
Consumer education is sorely needed in both the seafood and the meat departments. In focus groups we've conducted for our meat category, we've found that a lot of consumers can't even identify most types and cuts of meat.
In light of this, it's our goal to help our customers expand beyond the few items with which they've become comfortable.
One of the ideas that came out of the focus groups, which we hope to test in two store locations this fall, is the creation of a complete meal package for our customers.
For example, we might feature a boneless pork roast on sale and cross merchandise it with potatoes and string beans. We would probably offer customers the option of purchasing a bag of potatoes and a package of string beans, or buying roasted potatoes and a string-bean dish from our deli.
Seafood is also an area in which consumers need education. It's something that people have traditionally eaten when dining out, but as nutritional concerns increase, more and more consumers are interested in preparing it at home.
As such, we feature several seafood items on sale each week and usually highlight one of them in a seafood recipe.
We also have racks with meat and seafood recipes in each of our stores and we're putting together in-store training manuals for seafood and meat, which will help employees better understand the two categories and answer customer questions.
manager, meat and seafood
West Linn Thriftway
It's true that today's consumers are not as skilled in the kitchen as those from earlier generations.
Things have been changing since the 1960s, when two-income households became more prevalent. I'm 30 years old, and it's definitely true of the people in my generation, as well as those of my parents' generation. When I grew up, it was my grandmother who was the cook in the household.
As such, it's not unusual for a woman to approach one of our meat department employees and say, "This is what I want to buy, but I don't know how to prepare it."
That's one of the reasons we display meat and seafood recipes on our counters. We usually cut out recipes from our local newspaper and display them in a frame and then make photocopies for our customers to take home.
In addition to the recipes, we also cross merchandise various sauces with a lot of the fish we sell, and try to make sure our employees can suggest at least one meal-preparation idea for each of the fish we carry.
Our suppliers provide great point-of-sale materials to help with the cross merchandising. The materials might suggest a sauce, as well as a wine, to go with a particular type of fish.
Employees can also be a big help, but it's a challenge to train them, since we carry about 100 types of fish and employee turnover can be high.
We've also educated our customers -- and sold product -- through a number of successful seafood promotions.
For example, we recently sold about 1,200 pounds of lobster during a two-day promotion in one of our stores. The promotion featured lobster at $5.99 a pound -- $4 off the regular price -- along with a recipe card, which explained the proper technique for cooking and cleaning, a bag of seasoning to put in the water, and a bib. We even set up a tank outside and gave customers the option of purchasing the lobster live or having us cook it. About 75% opted to purchase it live and prepare it at home.
We had similar success -- and a similar response -- to another two-day promotion held at the same store. We sold about 1,600 pounds of halibut, which we paired with a jar of honey mustard sauce and a recipe card with information on cooking and cleaning. We set up a tent outside and offered to cook the fish for our customers. Once again, about 75% elected to take the fish home.
meat and seafood merchandiser
We rely mostly on recipe cards to help educate our meat and seafood customers. We offer about 15 different recipes at any given time, but rotate the cards -- which are displayed in counter racks -- every three to four months.
I started offering the cards because I was getting so many inquiries -- from customers, as well as employees -- about how to properly prepare and handle seafood.
Seafood seems to be the biggest area of concern. That fact is reflected in the number of seafood recipe cards we carry -- about 70% of the total.
I try to keep the recipes fairly simple, because nobody wants to run around the store looking for 15 items to make a dish.
I don't know if the cards directly impact sales. I think seasonality is the biggest driving force, but I do think the cards enhance sales.
Regardless, customer comments concerning the cards are great. We're always hearing what customers think about the various recipes and how much they appreciate the variety.
In addition to the recipe cards, we also put labels with cooking instructions on our value-added products, which include such items as stuffed shrimp, meat loaf and stuffed sole.
In the early 1990s, we introduced cooking videos into our departments, but we discontinued the program after a few months. They were only a few minutes long, but nobody wanted to take the time to watch them.
We also have several seafood manuals on hand in each of the stores, so employees can look up handling, cooking and nutritional information on various types of fish. The manuals are a big help, since employee turnover is always an issue.
West Point Market
It's important to offer customers adequate information on seafood preparation, because it's an expensive purchase and there's a variety of cooking times and preparation needs for each species.
In addition, we serve an upscale client base, so it's just as easy for our customers to eat fish when dining out.
Nevertheless, we are seeing an increase in seafood sales. I think part of the increase is due to the freshness of the seafood in our seafood department, which is completely separate from our meat department. We're very conscious about making sure our product is fresh, which is important, because a lot of people buy marginally fresh seafood and then decide they don't like the product, when, in fact, it's the lack of freshness that's the problem.
We also introduced seafood recipe cards about a year ago, and I think they've impacted sales. I know the customer response has been great.
We also make sure our staff is well-trained and able to assist customers with information on cooking options and overall meal preparation.
We also built wine racks under the seafood cases in our new department, which has really helped us cross merchandise the two categories. We sell about five to 10 cases of wine a week, which represents mostly additional sales to our wine department, which is located nearby and features about 3,500 labels.
Customers are always asking about wine, so we try to make sure our seafood staff can recommend a wine or refer the customer to one of our three wine stewards.
Our suppliers are among the best. They provide great point-of-sale materials and have even paid for training trips for our employees.
director, consumer affairs
We have a number of programs that help educate our customers in the art of cooking. They include our cooking school -- which became the country's first supermarket cooking school when we started it 20 years ago -- as well as a quarterly recipe magazine and 30-minute television program.
Our school, which now has locations in four of our 16 stores, becomes more and more popular with each passing year, with attendance averaging about 25,000 a year. Classes are offered every day except Sunday, and include daytime and evening hours.
As you might imagine, we cover a broad culinary range in our schools, with classes covering all types of ethnic and seasonal foods. Our instructors are usually chefs, restaurateurs, cookbook authors, home economists and the like.
The classes provide a great forum for our customers to ask questions and steer the conversation to the areas in which they are most interested, whether it be nutritional information, food safety or complementary dishes or wines. In addition, attendees are given recipes of the dishes covered to take home.
We also produce a 30-minute cooking show called "Everybody Cooks," which airs four times a year on our local, CBS-affiliate station; and we publish a recipe magazine four times a year that includes about 30 mostly seasonal recipes and has a circulation of about 200,000.
In addition to all this, we've also implemented an extensive seafood training program to help educate our department employees.