NEW YORK -- The steady influx of case-ready, branded and fixed-weight items into the meat/poultry/seafood category over the past three years has turned it into the best-managed department in the store, according to an updated survey of category management practices.
The annual Category Management Benchmarking Study, conducted by Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., found that 34% of retailers polled stated that meat/poultry/seafood is their best-managed section. Other categories comprising the top five included carbonated soft drinks (31%), dairy (28%), salty snacks (24%) and produce (21%).
The emergence of meat/poultry/seafood at the forefront of category management success stories says much more about retail efforts than simply the products going into the cases, according to the research. It also acknowledges retailers' continuing efforts to address labor concerns in service departments and reflects their new focus on store-level execution.
"The section is so important to the store, and consumers' habits have changed so much," said Virginia Valkenburgh, vice president of research for Cannondale. "They don't know these cuts of meat, they don't know how to cook them, they don't buy them -- and I think retailers are becoming much more interested in making the department relevant to the consumer."
Traditionally, the department has enjoyed a smart reputation for execution, having to remain flexible by necessity given the availability of product. But it's only been recently that management has turned their attention to gaining insight into how the consumer shops the department. Robert Hilarides, a Cannondale partner, noted that there is less emphasis on species orientation and a growing focus on how consumers are going to use the product.
"It's really opened up some new doors for the department in dramatic ways," Hilarides told SN. "Two or three years ago, a majority of [meat] departmental walls were very thick. Those are breaking down today as retailers are more open to complimentary products that enhance the whole meal occasion, or kits or products that have meats and a starch. It's a reflection of consumer-oriented marketing instead of the old store-turf issue."
The role of manufacturers in helping retailers implement category management in the meat/poultry/seafood department can't be overlooked, either, the pair said. As retailers become more interested in marketing, they become more interested in listening.
"But they don't want all these consumer insights just dumped on them," Valkenburgh said. "What they want is consumer insights that have been translated at the retail level. The biggest retailer is rather humble about that. Wal-Mart is saying, 'Please tell us what you think and what it means for us."'
She added that, in supplying the new generation of fixed-weight products, manufacturers have become more like partners in helping to manage the section in a more proactive manner, using value-added products to actually help organize these sections.
"Manufacturer roles are growing in regard to how retailers sell the product, find the right assortment and the right placement so it's easy for the consumer to find," she said.
The study notes that fixed-weight products bring with them data that is more easily tracked, further enhancing department performance. As a result, retailers can invest more time and energy in sales execution using information-enhanced stockkeeping units with more complete UPCs, Hilarides said. Additionally, the department is getting an overall category boost from the front end with the advent of frequent shopper card programs.
"Now manufacturers can understand how just about all products are performing by looking at the card data rather than just relying on scanner, Nielsen or IRI data," he said. "It's allowing them to get some more insight into, say, what products are being bought together, what movement of one item is vs. another, what the penetration is of different fat levels of ground beef. There's a whole array of insight that has been generated from such programs that manufacturers are able to help enhance management across the meat case."