As grilling season winds down, retailers tweak product mixes and displays, and try new ways to keep meat sales up
Winter's just around the corner, and high-end steaks and ribs are giving way to roasts and stuffed pork chops.
After the high-ticket steak sales of summer, there's an expected drop in dollar sales, but retailers said that's not a worry.
First of all, the holiday selling season is coming, and meanwhile, they're selling roasts, braising meats, bone-in hams and oxtails in volumes that make up for faltering dollar sales at the end of summer.
“We don't see a big dip in meat sales this time of year. … We sell a lot of chucks and rounds,” said Kenan Judge, assistant vice president, meat operations, at 231-unit Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. “They don't sell at the same price per pound as steaks, but we sell a lot of them.”
As the days get shorter, Hy-Vee's customers are doing less grilling and more cooking in the kitchen, Judge said.
He, like other retailers, said pushing up volume meat sales this time of year, especially in such troubled economic times, is a must. To do that, retailers across the country are intensifying their efforts with aggressive pricing, hot one-day sales, value packs, special events, even demos.
In Oregon, John Gibson, meat manager at Lamb's Thriftway, started building pot roast sales before summer was over.
“The customer is rediscovering how to cook different types of meat,” Gibson said. “More and more customers are using crockpots, and we're trying to help them with recipes that work well for that type of slow cooking.”
In August, Gibson began a campaign to boost chuck and round sales with weekend sampling.
“We've had to build those sales slowly and constantly, but now we're doing a really good job with pot roasts,” he said.
Even in regions of the country where lots of people grill year-round, retailers are promoting round roasts, cutting chuck steaks and building bigger displays of hams with new resolve.
“People have been grilling year-round in South Carolina for a long time, but our customers also buy pot roasts, stew beef, and cube steaks,” Freddie Sullens, meat director for Charleston, S.C.-based Piggly Wiggly Carolina, told SN.
Even though there's not such a big seasonal change in product mix as there might be in other parts of the country, 103-unit Piggly Wiggly Carolina does reset its cases for winter.
“We transition in October, our Savannah stores in late October, but we don't entirely eliminate the grilling items. We just make room for braising steaks, mostly shoulder and chuck and some of the new cuts,” Sullens said. “We'll go from two rows of rib-eye steaks to one, and shrink up space a little for ground beef patties.”
Sales stay pretty steady.
“It evens out. The tonnage in chuck steaks, roasts, smoked ham portions, pork roasts makes up for [the dip in sales of grill-worthy steaks].”
But Sullens in the last two years has kept a little more space for grilling steaks even as cases are reset.
“Since we started carrying Certified Angus Beef, I think more of our customers are grilling. Those CAB New York strips and rib-eyes are worth getting the grill heated up for.”
Surprisingly, there's a lot of cold-weather grilling going on in Wisconsin, according to Kevin Kelly, meat/seafood director at Sendik's Food Markets, a nine-unit independent based in Whitefish Bay, Wis.
“Most of our customers do some grilling all year. They have decks, patios, driveways, and their gas grills are accessible. So steaks and sausage sell year-round for us,” Kelly told SN.
That's not to say he doesn't make some changes in the meat case as winter descends.
“Our total department sales remain constant through sales of beef roasts, pork roasts, our own brand nitrate-free fire glazed hams, roasting chickens and turkey breasts,” Kelly said. “Each of these items has a significant amount of weight to it, which transforms into healthy rings for us.”
Some of the beef roasts that move well tilt toward high-end, too.
“We take pride in the amount of whole beef tenderloins we sell in the Milwaukee metro area,” Kelly said. “We also look for ways to spark customer interest with one-day meat and seafood sales, holiday specials and crazy events, all of which help increase our base of future customers.”
Bringing in 2,100 live lobsters for a one-day sale to lure customers into the meat/seafood department early in the fall brought such a crowd that Kelly has vowed to up the ante to 6,000 lobsters next year. This time, customers' pre-orders had wiped out the supply before the stores even opened.
Billboards work well to push meat volume up, Kelly said. The company has 12 electronic billboards blinking strategically around the Milwaukee area.
“[Using the billboards], we'll do a one-day sale that features just one item — tenderloins, salmon fillets, value packs, maybe — at a ridiculous price. That brings people in. If they're first-time customers, they'll be back.”
Some retailers said they keep a lot of “grilling” items in the meat case and make sure they tell people how to cook them in their kitchens.
“We display skewered kabobs, for instance. We tell them kabobs can be cooked in the broiler. The kabobs brighten up the meat case, too,” said Tanney Staffenson, advisor to five-unit Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore.
Particular items can be easily diverted into customers' ovens, with good results, if the customer gets some instruction from in-store, Hy-Vee's Judge pointed out.
“Our meat specialists do a good job of letting customers know that the bacon-wrapped items they buy for the grill can be cooked in the oven as well.” Judge said. “Our challenge going forward will be to help customers figure out how to prepare specific cuts of meat at home, whether that's in the oven or in the crockpot. We're adding chefs, and putting a major emphasis on training our service meat managers to provide customers with cooking tips.”
In Illinois, at Eurofresh Market's Tinley Park flagship store, dollar sales do fall as much as 5% as summer ends, meat manager James Richards said.
That's because all of a sudden high-end steak sales drop off, but Richards knows how to make up for that initial fall.
“We go ahead and merchandise oven-ready meat, and ground meat, smoked butts, corned beef,” he said. “The oven-ready items are really nice, too. They add color to the case. We'll use a little parsley as a garnish. We make our own meatballs and sauce, too. It looks beautiful.”
Bone-in hams pick up this time of year, too, and oxtails, and “we sell lots of them,” Richards said.
Then, when the holidays arrive, the high-end items pick up again.
Meanwhile, football season — a recognized boon to the deli business — is also a good thing for many fresh meat departments, industry sources told SN.
Indeed, football season gives Hy-Vee's meat departments a significant hike, Judge told SN.
“During football season, we see strong sales of meat items for weekend parties. Tailgating is popular, but the majority of fans are buying items to prepare and eat at home while they watch the game,” he said. “We are the official grocery partner of the Kansas City Chiefs, and with the Chiefs off to a great start this year, we're seeing tremendous meat sales for those game-day parties.”
Hy-Vee expects, too, that October, Pork Month, will rev up sales.
Sullens at Piggly Wiggly Carolina also banks on pork, especially in the fall.
“Pork is a huge sales driver in the South,” he said.
While most retailers at least have to strategize to keep sales from sliding at summer's end, and most do so by promoting roasts, stew meat and oxtails. and staging dramatic sales or in-store events, Pennington Quality Market, Pennington, N.J., doesn't have to do that. There, just before Labor Day, sales of everything blossom.
Located in an affluent area, sales go up as soon as people return to the area to get kids ready for school
If there's a sales lag of note it's in the summertime, Nick Wojciechowski, Pennington Quality Market meat department associate, told SN.
“People around here leave town in summer, go on vacation for months at a time,” Wojciechowski said. “We're glad to get them back when school starts. They do grill in September but then, right in the middle of October, they're not grilling anymore.”
So right now, the retailer's butchers are cutting fewer steaks, but they're quadrupling displays of stuffed chicken and pork items.
“Our fall stuffing is apple-walnut-cranberry, and we stuff chops and all kinds of roasts and chickens with it. We make it in batches of 80 pounds because we sell tons of it. By the pound, too, at $3.99.”
While stuffed oven roasts, and some pretty high-end items are selling, Pennington Quality Market is doing its share of selling round and chuck roasts, too.
“We go through 10 to 20 cases in a week. That's compared to one or two cases in summer,” Wojciechowski said.
When the holiday season arrives, the focus turns to high-end and exotic items.
“We'll be preparing crown roasts, rib roasts, tenderloins,” he said. “And we sell ducks and geese for the holidays. We even have turduckens we make ourselves.”
In some parts of the country that have particularly felt the tough economic times, retailers talked about a general shift in what people have been buying.
“We're selling more chucks, rounds and boneless Southern [commodity] chicken breasts than we have in the past,” Tanney Staffenson at Lamb's Thriftway told SN. “Oregon chicken is a big thing for us because it's local, but we're not selling as much of it, and, in the same vein, we see people moving from beef to chicken. Even people who have the money are cinching their belts.”