MEAT MOVES

PORTLAND, Ore. (FNS) -- The move to upscale private-label products throughout the store has entered supermarkets' meat departments. Major players, including Safeway, Albertson's and Kroger, are changing their labeling and packaging, and stressing the quality of their fresh and processed meats."Packaging of corporate brands has improved dramatically -- in some cases, it is better than the [national]

PORTLAND, Ore. (FNS) -- The move to upscale private-label products throughout the store has entered supermarkets' meat departments. Major players, including Safeway, Albertson's and Kroger, are changing their labeling and packaging, and stressing the quality of their fresh and processed meats.

"Packaging of corporate brands has improved dramatically -- in some cases, it is better than the [national] brands," said Russ Wolfe, senior vice president of perishables at Topco Associates, the Skokie, Ill.-based cooperative. For example, industry observers note that Safeway Select's frozen and processed meats now feature more upscale packaging.

Although Sentry Supermarkets' Signature beef program has been in place for about two years, the retailer's recent move toward meat-preparation labels, along with new colors and graphics on packaging, has fueled additional sales increases, according to Sentry executives here.

The new Signature Beef packages "stand out better and are more modern," according to Everett Gardner, meat supervisor for the 31-store chain, which switched beef packages from "generic" gold and black to a red-and-black design that includes subtle cattle graphics.

"There are so many stickers in meat now: lean, broiled, etc., that this label shows it is a branded beef product. Customers notice it more," Gardner said.

The updating of the label was aided by Sentry's move to a different advertising agency, which "seemed to have a better understanding of how grocers go to market," said Doug Walter, marketing director for the independent retailer.

New cooking and preparation instructions on beef products, from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Chicago, have also boosted the Signature Beef program.

The new labels, which explain how to cook a pot roast, for example, peel off to reveal safe-handling instructions. "So many people don't know how to cook roast and other products," Gardner said. "Any time you put information on how to cook, prepare and store the product, it adds value."

Sentry officials have also made their beef products easier to find: their new Beef Made Easy program separates beef by cooking method, with the support of an advertising campaign and extensive case signage. Meats are divided and color-coded by their best cooking method: braising, roasting, grilling, marinating, broiling, stir-frying and stewing. The sections are delineated by a color for each cooking method, which matches colored strips on the back of the case, and, in the near future, labels on packages. The NCBA developed the program, and Sentry simply pays to replenish color-coded strips and signage.

The success of Sentry's beef program has also led to a private-label pork program, set to debut in June. "We want to carry our success with [Signature] beef to the pork program, and offer the consumer consistent quality every time," Walter said. "We eventually want to brand as much of the perishables as we can."

The fresh pork will "probably" be case-ready -- which Gardner said helps avoid cross contamination. That aside, Sentry will still probably provide pork links and other products made fresh, in the store.

Sentry's expansion makes sense: sales in the meat department rose 6% in the first quarter of 2000 over the same time last year, after a downward shift in some other departments. Both Walter and Gardner attribute that directly to private label's ability to put a premium on the store's name.

"Consumers wanted a select beef program, and we [delivered]. We felt like we offered the consumer a more consistent product and the price is competitive with other products on the market," Gardner said.

The success of Sentry's program is indicative of the power behind a properly executed private-label initiative, where store-brand meat sales can grow at a faster rate than national brands, in multiple departments. For example, while overall luncheon-meat sales were flat for the year ended March 11, private-label pound volume rose 3.4%, according to ACNielsen. Private-label dinner-sausage volume jumped 38.6%, compared with a 5.6% increase overall.

Of course, Sentry is not the only retailer raking additional profits from increasing the private-label presence. Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa., has such confidence in its Up Country line of private-label products throughout the store that it is switching more of its meats over to the brand. By June, Genuardi's will add its ground beef and 20 varieties of sausage to the Up Country beef, poultry and pork items.

"There have been some outstanding increases throughout the department. Up Country has brought uniformity to the brand and consumers have recognized it as a value," said Jim Wilkinson, director of meat and seafood for the retailer.

Up Country has also been well accepted because the products "appear to be cut and packaged in the back room," according to Wilkinson.

Like other retailers', Genuardi's packaging has also taken on a more "premium" appearance in recent years. "It moved from more of a down-on-the-farm/homey look to a more contemporary look," Wilkinson said. Packages are a different color for each type of meat: beef packages are gold, for example, and poultry packs are yellow and black.

IGA in Chicago has also upscaled its processed-meat packages, in an effort to make them more visible. For example, hot-dog packages, which were red and white, are now multicolored with graphics.

In addition, the logo used for Tablerite (IGA's longtime store brand for processed meats), which was very visible in large letters at the top of each package, has been moved to the bottom or right corner of all containers.

"We like that name and didn't want to lose it, but we put it on the package like a stamp of approval. We are selling IGA, not Tablerite," said Pat Sylvester, vice president of IGA sales at Chicago-based Federated Group, which is revamping all the retailer's private-label packages.

IGA also recently introduced Tablerite chicken breasts in 3-pound bags and chicken drumsticks in 3-pound bags. "This is IGA's first entry into frozen IQF [store-branded] poultry. If it is successful, we will see if we can add more to it," Sylvester said.

IGA picked up the products after distributor Supervalu noticed healthy sales of the chicken at other chains, and Sylvester said he believes it is a "great convenience item for consumers." The gold, red and dark brown packages include a chicken stroganoff recipe on the back panel. "Wherever we can, when there is enough printing area, customers just love a recipe idea," Sylvester added.

Another private-label packaging trend is a move from printed packages to clear film, which shows more of the product and conveys a "fresh" look, said industry observers. The idea is to convey a stronger message to consumers by showing more product, rather than covering it up with graphics and words. And, a clear overwrap more closely mimics in-store packaging, they said.