THE CASE FOR CASE-READY

Case-ready technology is ready for supermarket meat departments, but are supermarkets ready for the changes case-ready demands of operational styles?That's the key question industry seers considered at an SN roundtable seated in Nashville. Industry participants were four retailers and Cryovac, the packaging supplier. The event was conducted by SN Senior Section Editor Stephen Dowdell and SN Associate

Case-ready technology is ready for supermarket meat departments, but are supermarkets ready for the changes case-ready demands of operational styles?

That's the key question industry seers considered at an SN roundtable seated in Nashville. Industry participants were four retailers and Cryovac, the packaging supplier. The event was conducted by SN Senior Section Editor Stephen Dowdell and SN Associate Editor Liza B. Zimmerman. Take a look at Page 37 of this issue for more on the roundtable, and at next week's SN for a continuation.

Meantime, here's a distillation of observations made at the wide-ranging discussion of what case-ready is, and its potential:

Definition: These experts arrived at a simple definition of case-ready: It's product fabricated and put into sales-ready packaging somewhere other than on store premises. Affixing labels at the store doesn't disqualify.

Customer perception: Participants also arrived at a customer-eye definition of case-ready. And, paradoxically, it is that there should be none: If the result of case-ready is transparent to customers so they can't tell if a product is processed in the store or not, that's optimum.

Differentiation: Perhaps the subtlest issue is that of competitive differentiation. What if all supermarkets went case-ready? Would supermarkets lose the ability to use their meat departments for competitive battles?

Roundtable participants worried about that, fearing that meat department sales could devolve to being driven by price alone, not unlike those of packaged goods. Others pointed out that competition would simply move to a different plane and be waged on the basis of something else, say, on providing consumer information.

Also, the power of case-ready could be harnessed to deliver an array of value-added items many stores couldn't produce, offering at least a short-term competitive advantage. And, many supermarkets unable to compete in the home-meal replacement arena could find an answer in case-ready, and might end up catering to an entirely new customer base.

Economics: Any discussion of case-ready ultimately comes down to the economics. It's presumed that as soon as technological and customer questions pertaining to case-ready are satisfactorily answered (and, in the main, they have been), case-ready will reign if only because it allows the removal of high-cost labor from the store -- skilled labor that's increasingly difficult to hire in any event.

Is that so? Some roundtable participants said that might not happen immediately. In many regions, skilled labor remains readily available and isn't too costly. Moreover, there may be a transition period during which a chain would have to bear the added product cost of case-ready, but not be able to reduce in-store labor costs because the percentage of case-ready product available would remain below critical mass. And the issue of organized labor looms in many markets.

Generally, though, participants agreed that efficiencies offered by case-ready, together with its substantial intangible advantages -- such as product safety -- will ultimately drive case-ready ahead. Clearly, that's the case for case-ready.

Indeed, some Canadian supermarkets have successfully shifted to a complete case-ready presentation.

By the way, some of the points here were drawn from next week's roundtable segment. Don't miss it.