NEW YORK -- Is service making a comeback in supermarket meat and seafood departments?After years of pursuing a mostly self-service format, a number of retailers contacted by SN say they're looking at a different future -- one that offers consumers a number of service-oriented features.Although introducing service for the first time -- or increasing the space allotted to it -- may seem the most obvious

NEW YORK -- Is service making a comeback in supermarket meat and seafood departments?

After years of pursuing a mostly self-service format, a number of retailers contacted by SN say they're looking at a different future -- one that offers consumers a number of service-oriented features.

Although introducing service for the first time -- or increasing the space allotted to it -- may seem the most obvious way to pursue this new direction, many retailers are finding other options to increase their service quotient.

One of the most common is in their staffing choices. In this case, knowledge is much more than power -- it's the key to increased sales.

According to retailers contacted by SN, a knowledgeable, culinary-savvy employee behind a service meat or seafood counter can make all the difference between mediocre sales and true success.

"The advantage is in people skills," according to Al Kober, meat and seafood merchandising manager at Clemens Markets, a 16-store independent in Kulpsville, Pa., that recently incorporated the hiring of culinary-savvy employees into its annual budget.

"In today's retail environment, it's not enough to offer good-quality products at good prices," said Kober, who recently hired his first such employee and is currently advertising for the next. "Customers want to come to a store that has a knowledgeable person behind the counter who can help them in meal planning and preparation."

Retailers have realized that today's consumers need a helping hand when it comes to deciphering the multitude of options in the meat and seafood departments. Kober and others believe that experienced meat professionals can provide customers with guidance on what to purchase, how to handle and prepare it, and what side dishes and wines would best serve as accompaniments.

The supermarkets that deliver such services are rewarded generously -- with increased sales, customer loyalty and the chance to differentiate themselves from their competition.

Doug Hanson, meat and seafood merchandiser at Rosauers Supermarkets, a 13-store independent in Spokane, Wash., said that he attributes about 75% of his company's service meat sales to the educational interaction between his employees and customers.

"Most of today's consumers don't know how to cook meat," he said, noting that Rosauers' meat and seafood departments are about 40% service. "They need someone behind the counter to reassure them about what they're buying and how they should prepare it."

Paul Gingerich, purchasing director of meat and seafood for Wild Oats Community Markets, a 58-store, full-service chain in Boulder, Colo., said that he sees a definite trend back toward full-service meat. "I think that customers find that buzzer, with nobody behind it, a very intimidating tool."

Clemens is a clear example of a chain moving toward a more service-oriented future.

"In the past, we would use anybody to stand behind the counter and give customers what they had already decided to buy," said Kober. "Now, we're looking to educate consumers -- that's where the extra sales come in."

Under Clemens' new strategy, Kober plans to hire one culinary-type professional to oversee each of the company's service seafood departments, which currently number 12, but will reach 14 after two remodels are finished later this month.

As for the company's service meat departments -- which currently number six, but will reach eight with the new remodels -- Kober is considering a training program that would help department managers attain culinary skills that could be passed on to customers.

Rosauers knows first-hand how valuable knowledgeable employees can be. About seven or eight years ago, the company, which had been staffing its meat and seafood departments with what Hanson described as "less-experienced" employees, noticed that sales were "at least 10% higher" in the few locations where journeymen meatcutters staffed the counters.

Today, there's a journeyman meatcutter in every service department about 80% of the time -- covering all but a few low-traffic hours, according to Hanson.

"Customers feel much more confident when there's a journeyman meatcutter behind the counter, and we get a lot more business as a result," said Hanson, who estimates that sales in his company's meat and seafood departments have grown an average of about 35% since committing to the presence of a more knowledgeable staff. He cited two stores in particular that have generated more than 50% more in sales.

"A young kid behind the counter may be nice and energetic, but if he has to keep shaking his head because he doesn't have any answers, he's not going to gain a customer's confidence," said Hanson.

Confident in his company's commitment to hiring knowledgeable employees, Hanson said he is currently concentrating on increasing department service by focusing on variety.

"Service is not just taking care of people from behind the counter," he said. "It's also taking care of them by giving them what they want, which may mean offering more variety."

Since introducing a value-added, oven-ready program about three years ago, Rosauers has steadily increased the number of varieties offered to reach its current menu of about a dozen. This is triple the program's original size, according to Hanson.

Servicing customers by focusing on value-added products is also the path that Wild Oats -- which has traditionally offered a strong service format -- seems to be taking.

"We've increased our value-added offerings dramatically over the past year," said Gingerich, who added that some locations have gone from offering a few items to offering a dozen or more.

In addition to increasing the offerings, Gingerich said, during the past year the company has encouraged its department managers to create more visually appealing displays to showcase the product.

"We see value-added as a way to regain some of the market share that meat departments are losing to food service," said Gingerich.

Carr's, a 15-store chain owned by Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska, has seen a "double-digit" increase in the number of requests that customers are making in its four service meat and 10 service seafood departments for such "services" as deshelling shrimp, cutting fish into fillets, steaks and roasts and marinating various meats and seafood, according to Guy Forbes, the company's meat director.

In addition, Forbes has also seen an increase in customers inquiring about food-safety issues.

"It's certainly on everyone's mind," he said. "Five years ago, you didn't hear any such questions, but today's consumers want to know how they can be sure ground beef is cooked thoroughly, whether or not they can refreeze a product, what temperature is needed to cook chicken properly and the like.

"They're much more educated than they were a few years ago, and they're expecting answers and higher levels of service," he said.

One way that Carr Gottstein is meeting consumer expectations is by concentrating on its behind-the-counter staff. Chefs staff the meat departments of the chain's two busiest stores, and Forbes said that he concentrates on hiring people skilled in the culinary arts for the other locations. Such employees, according to Forbes, are able to answer all types of questions -- including those concerning food safety and meal preparation.

Another way that Carr Gottstein is serving its customers is by providing a strong selection of oven-ready products, according to Forbes, who noted that such items are particularly appealing to "working parents who have to provide a home-cooked meal, but don't have time to prepare it."

The demand for such products, however, seems to follow strong demographic lines, according to Forbes, as well as other retailers.

Carr Gottstein offers 15 to 20 oven-ready items in high-traffic units, but carries only three or four items in the remaining stores. Customers who buy such products tend to be professionals who don't always have the time to cook, he explained.

"They want the same quality they get when eating out, but they don't have the time to prepare the meal themselves," he said.

Gingerich of Wild Oats agreed that demographics play a strong role in the response to various service offerings. He noted that his company's value-added sections also seem to perform "more successfully" in urban, as opposed to suburban, stores.

"Location is definitely important," added Kober of Clemens, noting that higher-income areas tend to better support service-oriented features, such as the offering of value-added products.

"[Such products] are not for everyone, but I think it's the direction to take in an upscale market in order to be competitive," he said.

R.J. Harvey, meat and seafood buyer at Ingles Markets, a 207-store chain based in Black Mountain, N.C., concurred that it often takes a more upscale customer base to support various service-oriented features.

"Customers are definitely going to pay a little bit more for service, so income is a factor," said Harvey, adding that profit margins and labor costs seemed to cancel each other out.

Hanson of Rosauers admitted that the labor costs associated with service can be higher, but said that "if you do it properly and hang with it, you'll get it back in sales."