SNAGS AND SOLUTIONS

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- From tackling the competition and mastering the game of home-meal replacement, to attracting good employees, a panel of retail meat managers at the Broiler Marketing Seminar, held here by the National Broiler Council, Washington, named what they perceive to be the top challenges to their business and presented some savvy ways of dealing with them.Moderated by John Bartelme, director

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- From tackling the competition and mastering the game of home-meal replacement, to attracting good employees, a panel of retail meat managers at the Broiler Marketing Seminar, held here by the National Broiler Council, Washington, named what they perceive to be the top challenges to their business and presented some savvy ways of dealing with them.

Moderated by John Bartelme, director of marketing at Foster Farms, Livingston, Calif., the panel included three meat directors: Fenton Corker, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.; Jay Kitzmiller, IGA Hartville Foods, Hartville, Ohio; and Joe Moore, O'Malia Food Markets, Carmel, Ind.; and Steve Dillard, vice president of education, planning and special projects for Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan.

In this first of a two-part series, SN will focus on the ideas of Corker and Dillard. Kitzmiller's and Moore's thoughts will appear next week.

The panel discussed a wide range of issues. For instance, Corker, director of meat and seafood sales at Ukrop's, said striving to meet consumer demands is a challenge that can be met by offering meat in a variety of formats; while Dillard of AWG, suggested that marketers focus on making the meat department's home-meal replacement options more appealing.

Corker said Ukrop's variety extends to raw product for customers who want to start from scratch, deboned for those who want to do less work, and value-added for "younger customers who don't want to spend time marinating or people who don't want to do anything but pick it up, eat it or put it on a salad."

He noted that it was also important for retailers to cover their other bases, like the children's market. While showing a slide of star-shaped nuggets of chicken breast, Corker mentioned that the sauces that go with the product were selling for $4.99 a quart. "If kids like them, parents will buy them, believe me."

Beyond working on variety, Corker said Ukrop's was transforming the structure of its meat department to accommodate the need for guidance prevalent among today's consumers. "We are in the process of eliminating meat cutters and going to central processors. We are sending the meat associates to culinary school to learn about spices and we need to get them out on the floor."

He said that Ukrop's offers 18 recipes that can be prepared in 15 minutes or less, which are sampled by sales associates in tasting centers on the store floor. "Until customers taste the product, they will not buy it," Corker added. "Product sampling is key."

Corker said that the chain is forming strategic alliances with vendors as a way to offer a wider selection of meal solutions and increase sales.

"We did a deal with Progresso soups as part of a meal with Ukrop's mandarin orange salad. We had an 800% increase in sales on Progresso that week and are still running 400% ahead."

Other examples of Ukrop's allying itself with outside partners include working with Nestle on a hot chocolate-chip cookie, and hosting a tasting sponsored by A.1. steak sauce and the Beef Council.

In a question and answer session after the panel discussion, Corker commented that Ukrop's value card is a great tool that allows the chain to do a lot of target marketing.

"We can identify the top poultry users and send them information. I can pull up my neighbor's chart and pretty much tell you what he had to eat every day of the week."

Corker said information provided by the card could be analyzed on the basis of an individual store or a specific customer. He added that Ukrop's would not divulge the names of participating shoppers, but he said it was willing to work with processors.

According to AWG's Dillard, "changing lifestyles and technology" are fashioning a revolution in the meat department.

Customers are constantly looking for better, faster and fresher in a society where "90% of houses have microwaves and some of the houses that are being designed have no conventional ovens," he said.

Retail's first challenge is to meet the 15-minute rule. "In the 1960s, it took two hours to make dinner; in the '70s, it took one hour; in the '80s, 30 minutes; and in the '90s, people want their main meal prepared in 15 minutes."

Identifying this trend, according to Dillard, is the easy part, but capturing a higher percentage of the market share for meal solutions that fit into it can be more difficult.

"Seventy-six percent of grocery stores offer prepared meals and 12% of people take advantage of them," Dillard noted, highlighting just how much retail's current market share could stand to grow.

"With HMR, it isn't whether you have it, but if you can get the customer to buy it," he commented during the question and answer session. He joked that instead of "meals to go," HMR in supermarkets has often been nicknamed "meals sitting around."

In a country where, by his calculations, there are 30,000 supermarkets and 400,000 food-service outlets, Dillard asked, "How do we get people to look at grocery stores for their prepared-meal solutions?"

The answer is by making retail meal solutions more convenient, he said. "The stumbling block to HMR is trying to get customers to know who you are. Customers don't think of you for meals because they have to walk through the store [to get to them]."

He said that AWG was in the process of designing separate entrances for some of its independents' stores to give customers direct access to the meal-solution section without making them walk through the rest of the store.

In terms of making the meal solutions themselves more convenient, he suggested meat departments offer dishes that "people can cook quickly and eat it all." According to Dillard, not only are these items "better from a standpoint of what consumers want, but also they are better profit earners."

He also noted that retailers should be staunch when it comes to quality because consumers are not willing to sacrifice flavor for convenience.

Expanding category management to include more customer-friendly products like boneless cuts, closer trim and easy-meal entrees, is another good way to drum up more business, according to Dillard.

Making use of the full range of options that case ready meats present -- such as fresh, marinated, ready to cook and small packs -- was another important challenge that Dillard pinpointed for retail.

Dillard also stressed the importance of effectively dealing with nutrition and safety concerns and suggested retailers make use of resources such as the FMI/Cornell food safety and sanitation certification program.

SN will cover the NBC panel's further insights in next week's issue.