CHICKEN SALES ARE WINGING UPWARD AS PRICE DIPS CONTINUE

Retailers tell SN that they are seeing chicken fly off the shelves these days, thanks to increased production and lower prices."Chicken sales are up 25% over last year,"said Howard Miller, director of procurement at Central Market, the Austin, Texas, fresh-food market owned by H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio.At Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., chicken sales last year were up 12%, according to

Retailers tell SN that they are seeing chicken fly off the shelves these days, thanks to increased production and lower prices.

"Chicken sales are up 25% over last year,"said Howard Miller, director of procurement at Central Market, the Austin, Texas, fresh-food market owned by H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio.

At Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., chicken sales last year were up 12%, according to Al Kober, meat buyer and merchandiser. Kober also said that sales in all Clemens stores were averaging 2,500 pounds a week more in the first six weeks of 1997 than in the last six of 1996.

"The beginning of 1997 is looking good," he told SN. "It'll probably be another 10% over 1996."

Larry Ritzert, meat buyer and merchandiser at bigg's Hyper Shoppes, Milford, Ohio, noted that the chain's sales had increased "approximately 4% over last year."

The rising sales performance of the chicken category in supermarkets is concurrent with a steadily climbing rate of national chicken consumption. Average per capita chicken consumption is expected to reach 74.8 pounds this year, up from 71.7 pounds in 1996 and double the average amount consumed in the late 1960s, according to the National Broiler Council, Washington.

Chicken is served twice a week in 75% of households, according to Bill Roenigk, the NBC's senior vice president. The category's consumption has outpaced beef's since 1992.

Ritzert of bigg's said he thinks chicken's appeal is related to current consumer lifestyle trends. "Chicken is selling better because of convenience and health," said Ritzert.

It's easy to prepare, noted Miller at Central Market. And with "the emphasis on eating healthier, there are lots of new chicken recipes," he said.

Miller said boneless, skinless chicken breast is the top seller in the chicken category.

"We sell an average of 2,500 pounds of boneless skinless a week," compared with about 1,000 pounds of other chicken parts, he said.

Kober of Clemens noted that "boneless skinless is close to 30 percent of our chicken sales." And Ritzert of bigg's said that it represented 25 percent of his stores' sales.

Chicken production has been rising consistently for the past 25 years, said NBC's Roenigk. At 26.25 billion pounds in 1996, it outpaced beef production for the first time ever, by .77 billion pounds. Production was up 5.3 percent last year, and Roenigk estimated it could reach 5.5 percent in 1997.

According to Roenigk, the majority of chicken producers are stepping up production in response to retailers' increased needs.

And Clemens' Kober confirmed that the producers are "doing an efficient job of raising chickens."

Increased production has also led to lower prices for retailers. Ritzert noted that "as of February, the prices have been going down." Kober concurred that chicken prices were starting to drop. "Boneless chicken breast is a dollar less a pound than it was a year ago," he pointed out.

"If we produce it, we sell it," said Roenigk, even if "we have to cut the price."

The drop in 1997 chicken prices could be as much as 3 percent, Roenigk added. "We are talking about moving down into the lower-90 cents per pound, down from the mid-90s in 1996."

This decrease in prices has also helped to stimulate consumption. Roenigk estimated that approximately a third of the increased chicken consumption could be attributed to a drop in prices that has helped retailers move the product.

"With additional pounds of chicken on the market at more favorable prices, meat managers can run more specials," Roenigk explained.

He noted that continued low prices might even inspire retailers to market chicken in new ways, perhaps by offering it to the consumer "in a chicken salad or as a rotisserie."

At Clemens, rather than running just one feature, Kober said he offers an everyday low price. "We run 20 percent off Perdue and 25 percent off Clemens' all the time," he explained. He believed that this marketing approach gave "the customer the opportunity to buy whatever they want."

By the year 2000, chicken production is expected to reach over 30 billion pounds, according to Roenigk.

"Prices should stabilize . . . and consumption should keep in step with increased production," he said.