Meat merchandisers this year have been turning up the heat of competition for meal alternatives as they set up the department for the summer grilling season.In some areas of the country, bouts of unimpressive weather have been dampening sales of grilling cuts. But retailers told SN they are still finding success by bundling products, expanding service sections and devising new promotions to provide

Meat merchandisers this year have been turning up the heat of competition for meal alternatives as they set up the department for the summer grilling season.

In some areas of the country, bouts of unimpressive weather have been dampening sales of grilling cuts. But retailers told SN they are still finding success by bundling products, expanding service sections and devising new promotions to provide the convenience and excitement summer customers seek.

A prime example of bundling grill items is the "Three-Meal Deals" program running at the Bestway group of stores, .... according to Bob Simmons, meat department manager for the group's wholesaler, Associated Food Stores, Boise, Idaho.

"They've been doing Three Meal Deals, with combo rib steaks, pork chops and chicken breasts," Simmons told SN, adding that it has been very successful.

The program was first tested last fall, when retailers grouped various roasting products in a promotional package. "Then, we ran some ads during the winter that worked real well. And then we did some steak bundles in the first part of the summer," Simmons said.

The promotion has some complexities. One Meal Deal for Valentine's Day paired an 8-ounce New York steak and 6 ounces of shrimp, selling for $8.99. The problem was in the sizing of the beef component.

"The meat department people weren't thrilled with that," said Simmons. "Some of the younger guys can't portion-control as well as some of the older ones, and they had trouble with the 8-ounce steak."

And bundling different meats together also presents two other concerns: food safety and pricing.

When mixing species, the cutters must try to keep the products to one tray but at the same time isolate them, with each meat individually wrapped.

"You have to keep them separated, and you have to tray and film products separately so that there is no flesh contact between different species," Simmons explained.

"In some cases, we take the beef shoulder, and get cross rib steaks, cross rib roasts and boneless short ribs, and you can take all of those and put them in one tray."

Pricing is also a challenge, Simmons said, adding that there are no magical formulas to compute pricing for the bundled items. "You figure the base costs of the three items plus whatever profit you want to put into it, then average it across."

In a shot at capitalizing on meal occasions other than dinner, some of Associated's store groups have been providing bundled packages for breakfast.

"We've taken some bulk hash brown potatoes and wrapped them and put in a pound of link sausage, and merchandised it as a breakfast deal. It's been pretty successful," he said.

Another new meal concept Associated's stores are trying for the meat department is based on the challenge of competing with chicken takeout restaurants.

"We're just now trying out a 15-piece bucket of chicken, where we take fresh chicken, cut it, bread it, but don't cook it. So for $4.99 you get chicken that is ready to cook, in a 'KFC' type bucket. We're trying to get that home meal replacement sale."

Clemens Markets in Kulpsville, Pa., has gone for bundling in a big way, according to Al Kober, meat and seafood buyer.

"We put together hamburger patties with hotdogs on a round black tray," Kober said. "We did one package with eight hamburger patties [2 pounds] and eight slices [6 ounces] of American cheese, on a display tray with parsley. We're trying to go more with the meal idea."

Another package featured Italian sausage grillers paired with sliced onions and peppers.

"Another thing we're doing is combining on a round tray some split chicken breasts and some finger cut spareribs, with parsley on a black tray, and a sticker that says 'use for your barbecue'."

Another combo package featured kebabs and spareribs. "We're looking for combinations of items that will sort of create the meal concept," Kober said. "Everything is being directed toward convenience and meal concepts, toward giving the consumer the idea that they can buy one package that will satisfy a variety of people in the family."

Clemens put together a brochure to show managers how to assemble and merchandise the packages.

At Strack & Van Til Supermarkets in Highland, Ind., the summer grilling season so far has been mostly consumed with enlarging the service departments, said Robert Stevens, meat buyer and supervisor. "We're expanding service meats from 8 to 20 feet, and that's already doubled our sales within the first three weeks," he told SN.

"We're getting more into oven-ready meats, marinating chicken breasts and pork rib eyes -- we slice them, run them through the tenderizer once and then marinate."

Another tactic the chain is adopting this season is pricing more products "per each" rather than per pound, Stevens said.

"For example, we've gone to portion-controlled kebabs, which are normally $3.99 a pound. Now we do an 8-ounce kebab for $1.99, and just by portioning it to 8 ounces, we've doubled the sales on those. That is one of the things we've discovered as a good way to move that product."

He added that in many cases the biggest problem many consumers face in the meat department is how to figure out how much to buy, so that there is a portion for each person in the family.

Strack & Van Til is also shopping around for a branded beef program, though it may not be in place in time for this grilling season.

"We're looking at Sterling Silver USDA choice; we're just now getting into that," Stevens said. "We're aging it. It's going to be very distinct -- it's also going to cost a little more, but it'll be worthwhile."

Vons Cos., headquartered in Arcadia, Calif., is for the first time mating a branded beef program with a locally known food-service brand name for a summer promotion.

Consumers who eat at any of the local Claim Jumper restaurants this summer will get a coupon for a dollar per pound off on Certified Angus Beef at Pavilions' service counter, according to Vons spokesman Doug Hendrix. In return, Pavilions stores will offer a 25-cent coupon on Claim Jumpers brand of barbecue sauce.

"Usually, supermarkets and restaurants are competitors, and this is a case where we both thought we could work together," Hendrix told SN. "After July, we will examine it to determine whether we will have similar type promotions in the fall."

Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind., is also emphasizing its service meat departments this summer. "It gives us a chance to showcase that department," said Phil Plummer, director of meat and seafood.

"We tumble a lot of products. That provides a wide range of flavor profiles for consumers, and fits their lifestyle criteria -- it's quick, easy, there's no mess, they can put it right from the package onto the grill.

"We've had three service meat cases in 11 stores, and we're really looking to expand them. When you look at the supercenters like Meijer, they all have them," he added.

New this year at Martin's is a program of merchandising pork items for the grill. "We started playing with the idea with a fresh leg of pork, but first we're trying to educate the consumer that it eats well, has great flavor, they can just pick it up and they' don't have to mess with it. "We just started working on it for the grill. We ran one big ad feature on it, promoting it all through the meat cases. Pork legs include top round roast, bottom round roast, eye round roast, pork tip roast -- there are a lot of different products to work with."

Other items promoted for the grill were Greek pork roast or pork teriyaki, he added. To help promote pork, as well as chicken, the stores have placed rotisseries on top of meat cases, and Plummer said the aroma has definitely heightened shoppers' interest.

"In our department we have a grill and a rotisserie, and when the meat is done we slice it and put it on a tray. Especially with the flavored roasts, when they smell it, it draws people in.

"We do a lot of demoing anyway, and we show people how to cook the products in the store on electric grills."

One thing that has been threatening to put a damper on grilling sales, however, is the weather, Plummer said.

"[Sales of grilling items] have been off and on, and it's all weather-related -- if sunshine breaks, we just get hammered. For Memorial Day, the weather was bad so business was slow, but the weekend after was great."

Mother Nature has been a foil to summer grilling sales for Farm Fresh in Norfolk, Va., said Dale Faunce, vice president of meat marketing. "As far as cookout stuff, it's been winter here ever since January -- every weekend for six months raining and chilly," he said. "That absolutely has affected what people are buying."

But Faunce says there's an additional explanation. "Something is dragging meat sales, and to some degree I think mad cow disease has something to do with it. Every time I go to focus groups, people are talking about it -- and I'm looking at both formats, the couple of stores where we do upscale stuff, and other stores where we don't have seafood in the stores as a competitor."

Faunce explained that in stores that have seafood departments, a boon in seafood sales has been chipping away at meat sales.

"Seafood has just been exploding. Sales are running way ahead of last year's numbers, at least for this quarter -- I've never seen anything quite like it."

Plummer said that at Martin's, seafood is making a bigger splash than meat. He cited a successful Alaskan seafood promotion for July Fourth as an example. In addition, Martin's stores are known for their Alaskan crab boils and Maine lobster bakes, which provide entire hassle-free meals for families during the summer, according to Plummer.

"We put it together with either 2 pounds of Alaskan snow crab clusters, or two Maine lobsters, with mussels, clams, potatoes and corn, in a cheesecloth bag. We feature it for $19.99. It's really taken off and become a signature item."

To support the demand, Martin's has doubled the seafood section, and put in a lobster tank, Plummer added.

A new promotion at Farm Fresh features a line of marinated meats for grilling that includes beef, pork and chicken. And, like Strack & Van Til, the chain has started pricing "per each."

"We've been pushing kebabs and we moved to single-serving pricing at $1.99 each," Faunce said. "It works well because people don't relate to price per pound. We're selling them out of the full-service cases. We have a sign advertising them and we have a formula we use to make sure that pieces we use add up to the minimum we state on the sign, so it meets that 10-ounce requirement."

In some ways, though, Farm Fresh has been having a traditional season, with some beef grilling items performing to standard.

"We're in a tourist area, so pretty much all of our ads run to cookouts somehow. Steaks continue to lead the way, they're doing pretty well. We're hitting ground beef harder than ever before. Consumers are more and more accepting to leaner ground beefs and sales on those continue to grow at the expense of higher cuts."

Some retailers said a grill setup outside the stores is a big drawing card for promotions.

"We get a great big wood smoker, put that outside, and go from store to store with it," said Tom Grisbaum, meat manager of the Cub Foods division in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It definitely picks up sales in the summer."

At Larry's Markets in Seattle, grills also figure big in grilling season promotions -- but as a premium for consumers.

"We have a barbecue promotion with Pro Chef, an upper-end barbecue grill," said Larry Andrews, vice president of sales and marketing. "Customers can enter a contest to win a Pro Chef. Besides that, we're staying with all the promotions we usually do, and we make a lot of grilling tips available to customers."

Cub's best-selling cut for the grill this summer is sirloin steak, and country style ribs are the second-best sellers, said Grisbaum. The ribs did so well that one store went through 100 cases, tripling sales in one weekend.

Although Cub doesn't do any bundling of items per se, it came pretty close with a recent successful promotion of shish kebab. A cooperative effort of the produce and meat managers, the kebabs sold for $1.99 each.

Chicken is not a reliable grill season seller, according to Grisbaum. "Poultry is up and down -- when you run a hot ad it goes. We had fryers for 79 cents a pound this week, and between three stores we went through 600 cases."