In the crusade to bolster sagging sales, offering high quality, unique private-label products still appears to be a viable method for meat merchandisers who want to keep customers coming back.Retailers have acknowledged that meat department shoppers are the primary shoppers in the supermarket. If consumers are satisfied with the meat department and its products, retailers told SN, they are more likely

In the crusade to bolster sagging sales, offering high quality, unique private-label products still appears to be a viable method for meat merchandisers who want to keep customers coming back.

Retailers have acknowledged that meat department shoppers are the primary shoppers in the supermarket. If consumers are satisfied with the meat department and its products, retailers told SN, they are more likely to be converted into regular customers who shop the entire store.

The meat segment of the store is simply too large to overlook private-label options, retailers said, citing industry figures that establish meat as the second-largest dollar producing category in the overall store sales, following soft drinks.

At Andronico's Park & Shop, Albany, Calif., a line of Butcher's Choice items are offered in the service case.

"Bill Andronico felt that it was to our advantage to create our own items that would not taste like the ones from the folks down the street," said Darren Horton, director of meat. "He knew we could develop the flavors and quality that our customers expect."

"We offer the niche of private-label meat despite the high labor and lots of effort the program demands because it is the reason customers come to Andronico's," said Horton. "We could offer the same items our competitors do, but we would lose the standards that have set us apart."

Lund's Stores, Minneapolis, Minn., also offers private-label meats with the philosophy that it sets them apart from competitors.

"We are a unique grocery store chain, we do things differently and better," said Larry Long, director of meat. "We take a little more care for our customers."

Keeping private-label meat programs unique may prove a challenge, but there are solutions. One of the important elements is to ensure that the meat products are easily identifiable with any other private-label products the chain may have, according to Allan Levy president of the Levy Group, food brokers in Lodi, Calif.

"There is tremendous opportunity for private label in the meat department," he said. Another important factor for private label, as with the rest of the modern meat case, is to offer consumers the "something extra" that makes their lives easier, said Brian Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York.

"There have been dramatic changes in the meat department over the last three to five years," he told SN. "Retailers were content to offer simply steaks, now we're beginning to see the gourmet touch at the meat counter."

There is a greater number of portion controlled items and an effort on the part of retailers to do behind the scenes for the consumer what used to be done in the home, he continued.

"This effort is being done to make the meat department more competitive with the chilled prepared food offerings. The potential for expanding the meat department's role is great."

High quality private-label products are excellent weapons in the battle with food-service operators for consumer food dollars, he added.

"Chains that offer exclusive programs are better suited to satisfy the consumer than a Kentucky Fried Chicken or Boston Market," he said.

A private-label product that offers consistent quality and convenience, combined with the other amenities -- such as banking and video rental -- many supermarkets now offer, will make them the preferred destination, according to Levy.

That's one reason why quality is paramount when building private-label brand equity, retailers told Supermarket News.

"We are very careful with what we do with our name and its positioning," said Long. "We don't just put the Lund's name on anything. We want to hold onto [its] uniqueness.

"Some people build their private-label programs around items that are less expensive," said Long. "This is contrary to what we do. Quality is number one. It is an issue."

"We feel strongly that the quality of our products has to meet our consumer's expectations," agreed Horton. "We are not the lowest priced operator in town and when our customers get any piece of meat, they must be pleased with it. All thoughts about that meal must be pleasant. We have a commitment to freshness, trim and taste."

Market research says tenderness is a primary determinant of consumer satisfaction, and retailers agreed that the importance of tenderness cannot be overstressed. They told SN that while all grades have a certain degree of tenderness, the bottom line is that there is a lot of tough meat in the meat cases of American supermarkets.

Because of this, retailers developing private-label programs often set strict specifications about the age of the cattle used within the program and the location the cattle are raised.

"Our customers feel that all the meat within our case is private label," said Lund's Long. "This may be because of how we process and handle the meat in the case."

Lund's has been hand-selecting beef since 1937. The operator uses two packers and two distributors who hold product in coolers. All beef is dry aged and is 95% grain fed, Black Angus.

Currently Lund's oven-ready private-label items are only available in the service case -- however, this week items will be placed in a 16-foot linear section of the self-service case.

New signs will educate the consumer about the product and how to prepare it.

"When you put meat into a container with a window, it looks different than when it's in the service case and you have the counter personnel to explain the product," said Long. "You need to have detailed instructions so the dish comes out perfect."

The operator's oven-ready line includes products like marinated chicken breasts and pork tenderloins. Tumblers are in each unit's department to ensure proper application of marinades and rubs.

Top selling oven-ready items will be double faced between the service and self-service counters while the signage is being fine tuned.

Like Lund's, many retailers are turning to value-added items to invigorate private-label meat offerings.

Andronico's Park & Shop's Butcher's Choice line includes value added items such as filet minion kabobs, stuffed bell peppers, stuffed boneless pork loin and a variety of boneless breast of chicken.

"We do a tremendous amount of business in that section," said Horton.

All the marinades and stuffings are created by the chain's restaurant chefs in the store. Recipes and production techniques are strictly adhered to so that quality is consistent throughout the seven-unit chain.

Depending upon the size of the unit's department, the 18 to 30 Butcher's Choice items occupy eight to 10 feet within the service case.

Beef included in the program is corn fed, graded Prime and comes from midwestern operators. This sourcing insures a taste and confirmation of steaks that keep customer satisfaction levels high, said Horton.

Formats for private-label meat programs vary from operator to operator. Retailers report that they develop programs to meet the specific marketplace needs and fit into the total store concept.

Some operators, such as Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., offer private-label beef with a local spin, along similar lines as the locally-grown products offered in many produce departments.

Ralphs' California Beef concept, for example, is fueled by the belief of many southern Californians that California-produced items are inherently better.

Sales have increased almost 10% over a two-year period, according to industry reports.

Ralphs' California Beef products are backed with a double money-back guarantee and heavily promoted with television, radio and print advertisements in addition to in-store signs and point of purchase brochures.

The overall strategy for the program, according to a merchandising executive, was to develop a beef product that had demonstrable quality differentiation and then aggressively market that product to customers.

Taking private-label meats to a new level, Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., has gone into the fully-prepared frozen arena to build an identifiable private-label program in the meat department.

An upscale line of family-sized frozen entrees, side dishes and appetizers are packaged under the Safeway Select Gourmet Club label.

When SN visited recently, the line included 17 items ranging from strictly meat items to meat lasagna at $8.99 for a 5-pound box. All were merchandised in a frozen case in the meat department.

Safeway officials could not be reached for comment.