NEWS & SOLUTIONS CONSUMER SURVEY

For the second year in a row, consumers polled by SN said overwhelmingly that the meat department is "very important" to them in determining which supermarket they shop.The survey, conducted earlier this year through telephone interviews with 1,000 consumers across the country, indicated that more consumers would name meat as a vital destination point in the supermarket than any other department --

For the second year in a row, consumers polled by SN said overwhelmingly that the meat department is "very important" to them in determining which supermarket they shop.

The survey, conducted earlier this year through telephone interviews with 1,000 consumers across the country, indicated that more consumers would name meat as a vital destination point in the supermarket than any other department -- including produce, which came in a close second.

This year's research, gathered by America's Research Group for SN, shows meat is still a strong draw for store traffic on a regular basis. [Other findings from the survey were published in the April 14 issue of SN.]

The department is shopped often, the survey showed, with 59.6% of consumers buying fresh meat or poultry once a week, and 19% spending there twice a week. About 3% reported never buying fresh meat or poultry, and 9.5% said they make a purchase in the department once a month.

However, the supermarket is not the only retail outlet where substantial numbers of consumers are spending their meat dollars. The poll showed that 40.4% sometimes buy meat elsewhere. More than 68% of those choose a butcher shop or meat market as that alternative, and another 22.5% turn to warehouse clubs for fresh meat on occasion. A small percentage -- 2.2% -- of the respondents go to supercenters for alternative purchases.

When the choice is to shop in the supermarket, consumers indicated that the meat department plays a leading role in their decision of which supermarket to visit.

Asked to rate the importance of each department in the choice of which store to shop, 78.8% said meat was very important, while 16.6% said it was somewhat important. By contrast, 68.1% said produce was very important, 27% said it was somewhat important.

In the consumer survey conducted in 1996, meat was also granted considerable clout; last year, 73.6% of respondents said meat was very important in their decision.

Once they are in the meat department, the consumers give freshness a lot of weight in deciding whether to make a purchase. Almost 89% said that freshness and/or the sell-by date is very important. It was right up there with price, which was called very important by 86.8% of the respondents. Variety was a bit less crucial, with 74.5% rating it very important.

And the department's performance was particularly strong when it came to perceived freshness. Close to 95% of consumers said the meat is typically fresh or very fresh, while only 5% said it was somewhat fresh and less than 1% said it was not fresh.

Fresh beef and pork labeled or promoted as "leaner" are apparently attracting some attention in stores. A fraction more than 35% said they buy such meat once a week, and about 7% buy it twice a week.

Another 27%, however, said they never buy products labeled "leaner." The reasons consumers give for that are that the items cost more (so said 35.9%), there is not enough of a difference (30%) or they just don't care about the fat content of the products they buy (26.7%).

No matter what products they have been buying, few consumers reported bad experiences with a purchase of fresh meat, poultry or seafood products from the supermarket last year.

Close to nine out of 10, 88.5%, could remember no negative experiences with fresh meat from the supermarket. Only 11.5% said they'd had a bad experience in the last year. That's a better performance than consumers reported in the 1996 survey, when 32.1% said they'd had a bad experience.

Of those who reported a bad experience this year, 33% said they now check dates on products more closely; 16.5% said they are buying meat from some other source; and 15.6% no longer buy the product that resulted in a negative experience. On the other hand, 28.7% said they considered the problem an isolated incident that has not affected the way they shop the meat or seafood case at all.

A majority of consumers are buying fresh beef quite often. About six in 10 said they buy beef once a week, and 15.7% are picking up beef at least twice a week. Another 11.3% reported buying beef once a month, and only 2% reported never buying beef.

Most of them -- 81.5% -- said that frequency of beef purchasing represented no change from a year ago; and 13.5% said they are buying beef more often than a year ago, while 5% reported buying beef less often.

About 52% reported that the quality of beef in the supermarket is "generally very good"; 43.4% rated the quality as "usually OK," while much smaller percentages of the respondents said the quality was "sometimes good," or "sometimes not good."

The breakdown of consumers interviewed for the survey was fairly even across the board, in terms of income levels, age, gender, family status and geographic regions. The survey's results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3%, according to America's Research Group, which is a consumer polling and analysis firm based in Charleston, S.C.

SURVEY HIGHLIGHTS

Why do consumers buy from the service case?

60%of consumers say a manned meat counter is

preferred because of personal service

23%say they'd expect service-case meat to be fresher

Why buy self-serve?

57.5% say it's quicker

23% say it offers a chance to examine the product

7% say they like special deals available from the self-service case

6% say they typically shop in the evening, presumably

when the butcher is not around

3.2% say they were likely to buy from a self-service

case because of brand-name products

How often do consumers buy ready-to-cook prepared meat items?

43% Never

27% At least 10% of meat bought is ready-to-cook

16% At least 25% is ready-to-cook

6% At least 50% is ready-to-cook

Do consumers find what they want in the meat case?

15% say they always find what they want

46% say they almost always do

34% say they sometimes can't find it

4% say they rarely do