MEAT DEPARTMENTS: PART OF THE SOLUTION

A useful experiment was undertaken at last week's Meat Marketing Conference, an experiment that vividly demonstrates how a meat department can be at the forefront of supermarket retailing's battle to win back consumer dollars now being captured by other classes of trade.As part of the meeting in Orlando, a Gooding's Supermarkets unit in nearby Hiawassee, Fla., was reset to demonstrate how a conventional

A useful experiment was undertaken at last week's Meat Marketing Conference, an experiment that vividly demonstrates how a meat department can be at the forefront of supermarket retailing's battle to win back consumer dollars now being captured by other classes of trade.

As part of the meeting in Orlando, a Gooding's Supermarkets unit in nearby Hiawassee, Fla., was reset to demonstrate how a conventional meat case can be converted to a customer-driven meal-solutions center. The demonstration was intended to show the kind of difference leading-edge products, equipment and merchandising can make in customer perception of a meat department.

Show attendees, taken to the store on fleets of buses, showed up in droves, indicating the importance the meat industry attaches to new ways of looking at the business. And no wonder. Customers are increasingly bypassing the supermarket in favor of finished-meal providers.

But last week, the meat department became the star in the effort to win back business, and here's how it happened: The day before the show opened, members of the conference's Store Project Subcommittee, and others, descended on the store and reset the department of about 140 feet into five categories. They are:

Prepared meals: Products that are fully prepared and cooked.

Kitchen ready: Products that have been seasoned, marinated or presliced, but not cooked. Fresh Frozen: Products culled from the frozens case, some cooked, some not. Traditional Smoked: Products such as ham and turkey.

Traditional Fresh: Products maintained in the traditional alignment by commodity.

The case reset was accompanied by signs, handouts and recipe fliers that helped store shoppers perceive that they were being shown much of the answer to the "what's for dinner tonight" question. That approach stands in contrast to the usual method of loading the case largely with the convenience of the retailer in mind. Let's face it, traditional display methods require customers to make inductive leaps about how meat products figure into a meal plan, which is something more and more shoppers just can't do.

In a panel discussion at the conference about the store demonstration, Jerry Blout, Gooding's vice president of perishables, told an audience that after everyone from the show had seen the case reset, product was marked down and in hours it sold out. That's an estimated 8,000 pounds of product. Jerry acknowledged that much of the selling was driven by price, but many shoppers were said to have responded quite favorably to the basic idea behind the experiment. (Full disclosure: I moderated the panel discussion at the workshop.)

Another panelist, Bill Pizzico, a consultant based in Blue Bell, Pa., who organized much of the in-store demonstration, won the bon mot award of the week by observing that presenting meat products in a way that caters to customers' need to acquire eat-at-home meats stood in direct contrast to Home Meal Replacement thinking: "We aren't in the business of replacing home meals, we are in the business of replacing restaurant meals. Let's call this Restaurant Meal Replacement, RMR, and get rid of HMR talk."

And that's just what needs to be done.