CASING THE JOINT

As retailers debate which enhancement options make for a better meat department, there is little argument that multideck cases are a must-have in the age of value-added and case-ready products now flooding the market."That's the backbone of the operation," said Arley Morrison, senior vice president of perishables for Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores. "They give us the additional space we need."For

As retailers debate which enhancement options make for a better meat department, there is little argument that multideck cases are a must-have in the age of value-added and case-ready products now flooding the market.

"That's the backbone of the operation," said Arley Morrison, senior vice president of perishables for Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores. "They give us the additional space we need."

For Minyard, these multideck cases allow the stocking of a greater variety of products. And, because the shelves aren't as deep, not as much product has to be cut to fill them, and product rotation is enhanced.

According to Morrison, the three-deck cases allow Minyard to separate different types of cuts within one brand, such as placing its Select brand steaks on the shelves and stocking the Select roasts in the bay. He said this is also done with its Choice brand, which itself is separated from the Select-brand case by the ground-meat section.

To further augment product segmentation, some retailers are even opting for five-deck cases, in addition to three-deck units, especially in stores where there are only self-service cases and no service counters.

For example, a Cub Food Store unit in Mankato, Minn. (owned by Mitchell, S.D.-based Randall Stores), uses 85 feet of 4-foot-high, three-deck cases for its fresh meats and uses 50 feet of 4-to 5-foot-high five-deck cases to hold smoked products.

The three-deck fresh meat cases are further broken down, with the first 24 to 36 feet dedicated to family packs, followed by the pork, beef and chicken products.

There are also three sections of the cases that are set aside for weekly specials. "All three of those areas of our cases are where the hottest sales occur," said Brent Johnson, meat department manager for Cub Food.

Johnson said the multideck cases improve product rotation and allow associates to better monitor sell-by dates. He said this allows for a five-day pull rule, so consumers shopping in weekly intervals aren't left unwholesome products.

"We sell nothing any closer [to a] five-day shelf life out in the case," said Johnson. "Occasionally, one or two items may get by us, but as a rule we're using a five-day pull."

The five-day pull rule has also been important because of the increasing number of recalls, which Johnson said have made the consumer very cognizant of expiration dates.

Another retailer that has completely moved away from service counters into the self-service format is National Markets, St. Louis. Presently, only one out of its 17 stores still runs a service counter, while the other 16 are supplied with case-ready products from Fleming Cos., its central distributor, based in Oklahoma City.

"My personal opinion is that I like the three-deck [case] as opposed to the coffin [case]," said Al Haislar, director of meat sales for National. "I think it just displays better and adds more variety. You can merchandise it better."

The retailer intends to stick with the multideck cases and upgrade any of its pre-exisitng older case models.

"I haven't seen any new ones that look any better than what we've got right now," said Haislar. "In a few stores, the coffin cases are probably going to go to the triple-deckers."

To further merchandise meat products, retailers are also instituting specialty cases into their department planograms. At Minyard's most recently opened unit in Fort Worth, Texas -- as well as in its newer Carnival format units -- a number of island counters have been added.

Here, two units are placed back to back, and in many cases have been brought to the front of the store for specialty items. One holds food at a medium temperature and another acts as a freezer.

"We're seeing that we're selling a lot of product in them," said Morrison. "If the store is big enough to handle that scenario of things, then we have them. If not, then we operate out of regular counters."

At the Cub store, small kiosks or low-profile service cases are used, said Johnson, which enhances the simple, straight-shop approach his customers prefer.

"This is a meat-and-potatoes, low-dollar-type area," he said. "The customers know where the values are. They don't like flash."

If there's anything he'd like to change, it would be the use of kiosks, he said.

"A lot of the kiosks are so seasonal that they end up getting battered around pretty bad," he said, noting he had problems storing the kiosks in the past. "And, a lot of them begin to look like junk yards in between seasons."

In addition to grabbing consumer attention with specialty cases, many retailers have attempted to use recipe cards and brochures. Retailers seem to agree that the problem lies in where to position them.

According to National's Haislar, the positioning problems vary by individual store location, with the urban locations experiencing heavier customer traffic than the suburban stores. But, he said, he has had some success with some of the pamphlet holders that attach to the cases.

In Cub's meat department, Johnson said, he hasn't had much success hanging the recipe brochures he receives from the pork, beef and poultry suppliers. He said it's hard to find a spot where they can escape being damaged, but still be sighted by consumers.

"Anytime you're hanging items like that, they have a tendency to be knocked down," he explained. "I wish there were something standardized, like a spinning rack, that we could just bring in and drop with recipe cards."

Minyard has found its own solution to the problem of distributing recipe cards. It puts recipes in a metal file compartment, located by the service counter. The filing system allows customers to select from 15 to 20 different varieties of recipes.

In addition to distributing recipe brochures, many chains hang signs in an attempt to flag shoppers. The signs range from floorstand types to smaller, individual signs that attach to the case. Most agree that hanging signs should be avoided.

"You can only use the smaller signs because of the way the shelves are slanted," said Morrison about the three-deck case design. "If you hang a big sign down, you're blocking product and you don't want to do that."

Minyard has certain companywide guidelines it follows when it comes to signage, said Morrison. Typically, the chain buys sign kits for the service counters and the multideck cases, "the most modern ones we can find," said Morrison. He said the signs are preprinted, including pricing information, and distributed to the stores.

Cub takes a different approach to signing its meat department, following along the lines of its "no-nonsense" design philosophy. Instead of having freestanding floor signs, "we're signing everything up above," said Johnson.

Aside from floor-design initiatives, retailers must also choose either to continue to cut and package their own meat products or to follow the trend of replacing their meatcutters with case-ready products.

For instance, National Markets only has meatcutters in one of its 17 units, said Haislar. The other 16 stores stock their three-deck cases with case-ready meat products.

The retailer plans to offer value-added to keep customers coming back. National recently rolled out an Angus beef program in place of its Choice brand program and is thinking of offering a case-ready pork line, said Haislar. So far, it hasn't included any organic products in its mix.

On the other hand, some retailers still agree that, to operate a successful meat department, they must cut their own products to continue satisfying the consumers' needs.

"We want to give the consumers what they want," said Morrison. "Way too often, we do things without the customer in mind."

What Minyard and a host of other retailers do is stick to the traditional method of merchandising fresh products. They veer away from case-ready products and continue to cut the product in-house and maintain a service counter, in order to offer the customer choices.

"We are trying to give the customer some personal service," explained Morrison. "The case-ready and vac-pack products are not where we are heading at this time. Our customers like fresh."

Cub marries fresh and ready-pack products. So far, Cub has maintained a staff of 16 meatcutters, but has also increased its selection of case-ready meats, such as prepacked pork, poultry and veal, as well as a number of organic offerings.

While service counts, Johnson said, he does see a slight advantage in carrying prepackaged products.

"Consumer safety-wise, it's a better thing," he said. "The fewer hands handling that product, the better. If it comes in and maintains temperature and it comes in fresh, you've got the best possible product out there for them."

He said he believes that because of safety issues and a shortage of meatcutters, prepackaged meat products will soon become the standard at most supermarkets. "It's going to be about two or three years before we see it, but I think we're going to see more and more of it."