In a series of recent focus groups conducted in Chicago and the Washington, D.C., area by Shugoll Research and Midan Marketing, many shoppers complained that supermarket meat departments were both boring and confusing. Basically, most meat and poultry items range in color from red to pink, and a typical case-ready or self-service area can often look like a long aisle of products that are all the same color, Danette Amstein, principal of Midan Marketing, and Merill Shugoll, president of Shugoll Research, explained during their presentation at the Annual Meat Conference in February, produced by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute.
For meat departments, this is a lost opportunity. Many shoppers need basic cooking advice, and many others are always on the lookout for new ideas to use in the kitchen or on the grill. When a department offers few visual cues other than shelf-tags and signage to guide these shoppers, the inexperienced are more likely to be confused and the cooks are less likely to be creative.
Boulder, Colo.-based Sunflower Farmers Market  has long employed three key merchandising tactics to keep its meat departments visually stimulating and easy to shop. First, meats are grouped by the way they are most often prepared. Second, different-colored meat trays are used to pack proteins based on species. And, finally, color blocking is employed whenever possible, both in self-service areas and in each store's full-service meat case.
In the self-service areas, Sunflower's meat departments start by segregating “the ground meats, the grilling meats, the braising meats, the roasting meats and the stewing meats. That gives customers a visual when they're looking for whatever type of meal they're going to prepare. Pretty much everything is in one section, so they can eyeball the varieties that we have,” explained Randy Ong, Sunflower's director of meat and seafood.
“We're also very particular about how we segregate the case as far as the color of the tray, which I think is very important to the consumer's eye. Sometimes, when the meat is all on one color tray, you might blend in from beef to pork, and you really don't see the clear-cut separation by species, whereas with the color breaks in meat trays, you see a clear break from beef that's in black, to the pork that's in blue, to the chicken that's in yellow. You can determine, at a glance, that there are different sections within the self-service meat case.”
Similar color breaks are employed in service-case areas. With seafood, the idea can be as simple as a vertical display of a red fish, followed by a vertical display of a white fish, followed by another red species. With value-added meat and poultry, Sunflower also segregates by preparation type, and color blocking is more nuanced, but it remains a focus.
“We keep all of the kebabs together, beef kebabs, chicken kebabs. Then we go to the marinated chicken breasts, which are grilling items. [Then] stuffed pork chops and stuffed chicken breasts, which are baking items. Then our sausages, which can be grilled or baked.
“We still try to look at color. We try not to keep all the teriyaki kebabs together. We have different seasonings we use on our kebabs, so again, we try to apply those color breaks to make it a great presentation to the consumer's eye as well.”
Given the natural space limitations of refrigerated cases, Ong noted that meat departments often don't enjoy the opportunity to build large seasonal displays like grocery or produce departments.
Still, when cross-merchandising makes sense, he has his departments take advantage. Prior to grilling holidays, for example, cheese is merchandised next to hamburger patties, while the bakery department may place small displays of hot-dog and hamburger buns nearby. and charcoal is merchandised underneath the cases.
Ong said that his personal merchandising philosophy was developed partly by advice he received from mentors that brought him up through the retailing business, and partly through learning by experience how his customers like to shop.
He and his merchandising team and category manager work together to decide what items Sunflower's meat and seafood departments should carry, what price points they should meet and what value statements the stores want to make to its customers. These factors all determine how planograms are developed.
Visually, “it all starts with the customer and ends with the customer,” Ong said. “So, the way we segregate the case is for the customers' viewing, to make it look good. But also, when they are trying to prepare a meal, if they are doing a barbecue, and all of the grilling meats are in one section, they get a visual of everything that is available [for that type of cooking] without having to walk down the case.
“It makes sense to the consumer as they shop the department. They can see everything they want to see at a glance.”
The concerns are somewhat different for the meat department at PCC Natural Markets  in Seattle. Many of the nine-unit co-op's members and other customers are primarily concerned with the specifics of how animals were raised. The store offers several options for each species, such as certified-organic grass-fed beef, as well as all-natural beef. Or, for poultry, customers can select certified-organic chicken and turkey, or the less expensive free-range varieties. Most of PCC's meats are raised regionally or locally as well.
“What we try to do is really make [the different varieties] clear to the customer, and give them the opportunity to choose what they want to buy,” explained Russ Ruby, PCC's director of merchandising.
Merchandising by species helps PCC's clarify price differences, and in some cases, attribute differences, for its customers. Grass-fed beef, for example, will be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, and will typically be leaner than all-natural beef.
Ruby noted that the multiple product claims for each item — raised without antibiotics, certified-organic, locally raised, vegetarian-diet, cage-free, free-range, etc. — could potentially generate an overwhelming amount of signage at the case level, or an overwhelming amount of on-pack labeling. Instead, PCC uses a sign kit on its service counters, along with brochures and information packets that tell the story of each supplier and their farming practices, along with their relationship with PCC.
Service counter staff are also available to answer questions, while on-pack labeling includes basic designations such as grass-fed or certified-organic.
In terms of eye-appeal, Ruby said that PCC's departments aren't as large as those in a conventional supermarket, so it's easier to avoid visual monotony. Smaller, vertically-merchandised cases help as well.
“We do our best to go vertical by species, so we'll have a ribbon of organic grass-fed beef, a ribbon of natural beef, a ribbon of grass-fed local [beef], a ribbon of pork, a ribbon of lamb, and go top-to bottom on a five-shelf set as opposed to the long coffin cases,” he said.
“That helps visually. It's not as overwhelming.”
The stores also set unusually tight protocols on product rotation.
“If we grind it today, it's gone tomorrow,” Ruby said, whether the item is sold or sent to the store's prepared food department. “We focus on high turns in a lower amount of linear footage.”