Consumer-friendly merchandising is revolutionizing the way beef is being retailed in Canada, as supermarkets across that country implement a program intended to make cuts of beef more easily understood by a public that is increasingly ignorant of how to select and prepare them.
The program is designed to address the widespread -- and by many indications worsening -- lack of cooking knowledge among many consumers when it comes to beef. Simply said, the system offers a new way of describing fresh cuts that incorporates the most appropriate cooking method into existing government-approved names of individual cuts. It arose after extensive consumer research showed the scope of the problem.
Under the new naming regimen, for example, a "strip loin steak" becomes a "strip loin grilling steak," adding a clear preparation suggestion to what is otherwise a traditional, anatomical system of naming beef cuts that bears little relation to current levels of consumer expertise.
The system's creators, a coalition of suppliers and marketers, including retailers, said its value is most acutely evident when one considers that while there are approximately 10 cuts of steak, just slapping the meat on the grill is not recommended for all of them.
Thus, in addition to the popular, but perhaps too-often used, cooking method of "grilling" for steaks, the new system also uses "marinating" and "simmering" when appropriate. The hoped-for result is better meals with beef, and better sales for all.
The voluntary program has been embraced by most of the country's supermarket retailers, including such major chains as A&P Canada, based in Etobicoke, Ontario; Canada Safeway Ltd., Calgary, Alberta; Sobey's, Stellarton, Nova Scotia; and National Grocers Co., Weston, Ontario, all of which have fully adopted the system, according to its creators.
"The new system is a major shift in the right direction," said Vince Gallant, division vice president of meat and seafood merchandising for Sobey's. By early June, the operator was rolling the naming system out to all of its approximately 120 stores.
Gallant said he expects the system to "increase awareness" of the critical relationship between the beef cut and the right cooking method. That, in turn, should help consumers avoid the tendency to choose beef just on eye appeal, he suggested, and instead encourage them to incorporate other factors into the decision, such as how they can match certain cuts to a particular cooking method they are most fond of or familiar with.
"[It's] designed to improve customer awareness and food-preparation consistency, which will result in increased customer satisfaction," Gallant explained.
The system identifies a total of seven cooking methods to incorporate into the names of approximately 28 cuts of beef. They are: Pot Roasts, Oven Roasts, Grilling Steaks, Marinating Steaks, Simmering Steaks, Stewing Beef and Quick Serve Beef.
The new names are expected to give consumers the confidence to experiment with new products. If it works as intended, it will allow them to expand their cooking repertoire, to take advantage of promotional prices for a broader range of cuts, and to substitute a variety of cuts for use with various cooking methods, the project's organizers said.
The new, more "user-friendly" names are just the start. Retailers are to play an essential role in the system, both by displaying materials related to the new system, such as affixing cooking instruction labels to individual packages; and by merchandising their beef by cooking method.
In order to make the transition as easy as possible for retailers, the Toronto-based Beef Information Centre, a key player in the development of the new system, is making available point-of-purchase signage to identify the different sections in the beef case, as well as cooking instruction labels that correspond to the new names.
Also doubtless helping the transition is the fact that the concept has been attracting extensive media coverage, said Carolyn McDonell, executive manager of the BIC, in an interview with SN. She added that the media attention has been such that there is so far no need for television or radio advertising to get the word out.
In addition, the BIC has completed a color brochure, titled "New Name Beef -- for Easier Shopping & Cooking," that explains the new system and includes pictures of all the various types of beef cuts, how they're categorized under the new system, and their cooking requirements.
The brochures are available to retailers for distribution through their meat departments.
The BIC hosted 10 half-day seminars from mid-March to mid-April of this year to introduce the new system to retailers. Attendance averaged about 40 to 45 retailers per seminar, said McDonell, and was most substantially attended by representatives of smaller operators, which indicates that the program is filtering down from the initial group of larger chains that came on board early on.
A&P Canada became the first to test the program, starting in May 1997 with a rollout to its 56 Dominion stores. More recently, the chain completed an expansion that encompassed its remaining 124 corporate stores, which operate under the banners of Ultra Food & Drug, Super-Fresh and A&P.
Apparently, officials at A&P did not need much convincing of the concept's viability before making a commitment.
"We didn't launch the program for the fun of it," said Paul Fortin, A&P Canada's vice president of meat merchandising. "We launched it because there was a real need."
Fortin said that A&P studied research from the BIC as well as other sources, and emerged with a full understanding that there was a real problem, and that consumer knowledge was at the source.
"Consumers needed help in selecting meat," he said. "They don't know the difference between various cuts. And they don't know how to cook most of what's offered."
Under the new system, Fortin said, he has already seen an increase in beef sales -- especially in the area of roasts and hip meats, which research showed to be less understood by consumers than some other meats. Although he declined to release specific sales figures, he said the company is "pleased" with the results so far of the new naming system.
Retail meat executives at other major Canadian chains have expressed similar confidence that the system is well aimed to correct the problem.
Joe Gariup, director of industry relations and meat operations with National Grocers Co., which operates stores under the Loblaws banner, said in a statement that he expects the program to increase consumer confidence in preparing beef, and so increase their ultimate satisfaction with beef.
Canada Safeway's Doug Paddock, director of meat and seafood operations, said that feedback from customers is making it clear that the cooking instructions that are now on every beef package in Safeway units have "given them the confidence to try unfamiliar cuts."
In addition to providing the cooking instructions, Safeway is also listing the BIC's toll-free number and Web site address on the labels.
"We want to give our customers every advantage in getting a great beef meal on the table," said Paddock, in a statement of support for the system.
The BIC began conducting consumer focus groups in September of 1996, to gauge the extent to which confusion about fresh cuts was hampering overall beef consumption and sales.
The results of that initial research led to the formation, in February of last year, of a beef industry task force group to "determine the usefulness of the existing system" and to "identify an alternative beef classification system" that would, among other things, be more readily understood by consumers.
That task force was comprised of representatives from the BIC, the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, the Consumers Association of Canada, Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the Canadian Meat Council -- in essence, representing the major players in the public and private sector involved in getting fresh beef to market and into consumers' hands.
The group's task included conducting personal interviews with 550 consumers across the country. The consumer survey confirmed what many had suspected -- that retailers were losing sales because shoppers were uncertain how to prepare most of the cuts of beef being offered. The culprit was indeed the existing anatomically based naming system, which was alien to many consumers.
"We learned that the system was very poorly understood, that consumers didn't relate to the cut's name -- including what part of the animal it came from and how to prepare it," said Glenn Brand, national retail merchandising manager for the BIC.
"Most consumers had very, very limited cut repertoires, being familiar with only two to six cuts in the meat department," Brand said. "And the familiarity dropped to only two to three cuts for younger consumers."
The research showed that only one in four consumers -- mostly those who were 50 years of age and older -- consider the anatomical name when purchasing beef.
Younger consumers -- as well as those from other countries, who may be unfamiliar with the various cuts offered in Canada -- are even less knowledgeable, and thus more restricted in what they purchase, because they don't know how to cook many of the cuts offered, the study indicated.
And those who do experiment with new cuts of beef often end up dissatisfied with the results because they've prepared them improperly, according to Brand.
In search of solutions, the task force group presented a choice of five different nomenclature systems to the participants in the study.
The "vast majority" of consumers in all age groups preferred a system that incorporates the cooking method into the current anatomical system, researchers concluded, because it retains the structure of the traditional system, addressing the desire of consumers over the age of 50, while still creating a new, user-friendly component for younger consumers.
The research also showed that almost 75% of the respondents preferred to have the meat counter laid out according to cooking method.