Local and specialty meats are proliferating, and home cooking is on the rise. Consumers are curious and confused, making supermarket meat departments not only a place to get their weekly supply of protein, but also a place to get a healthy dose of education and interaction.
According to “The Power of Meat 2010” study conducted by the Food Marketing Institute and the American Meat Institute, eight in 10 shoppers have access to a meat service counter at their primary store. Survey respondents remarked that they typically use the full-service counter for specialty cuts or for special occasions, or when a preferred cut, quantity or kind of meat or poultry is unavailable in the self-service case.
One respondent commented: “I used to think that the meat in the butcher counter was more expensive than meats in the regular refrigerated section, but they are the same price. The grocery store should educate shoppers that they can get meat to order and sliced just the way they like it at the same price.”
Minneapolis-based Supervalu cuts the majority of its meat in-store and one company official noted that while the full-service case may be seen by some customers as a specialty service, Supervalu does make efforts to get customers to use the full-service counter.
“People who are not versed on maybe our specific store, when they would first walk in, I would think that there is a perception that, yes, it is more expensive,” said Dave Smith, director of fresh meat merchandising for Supervalu.
“There's a lot of positives to that customer interaction, where they can handpick the [product] that they want and have the discussion with the associate behind the case.”
Smith told SN that Supervalu has put promotional plans in place over the years to inform the consumer that a price is valid in either area.
Jason Resner, business development manager for meat at Supervalu, added that the retailer is trying to make sure it has over-communicated that the price at the self-service case is usually the same as at the full-service counter.
“We want our meat associates to drive more customers over to that full-service case. For the lack of any better reason, to establish that relationship — kind of going back to 20-30 years ago to that corner butcher store with the butcher knowing everyone's names. And we want to be able to establish our stores as that corner butcher shop, even though it's at a larger scale than it would have been 20 years ago,” Resner told SN.
While case-ready programs and self-service cases have expanded to give customers convenience, the full-service counter has also become increasingly important due to the growing number of shoppers with questions and concerns about meat.
“In the recent past, the post of the unionized butcher and in-shop processing of whole carcass beef has become increasingly rare,” said Melissa Abbott, trends and culinary insights manager, Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
“Today, more cost-effective hourly workers unpack boxes of meat only to repackage them into plastic wrapped packages of ‘best by date’ meat, eliminating the once trusted relationship between consumer and butcher.”
But, at the same time, consumers today are becoming increasingly conscious about the source of their meat, prompting some to make visits to local farmers' markets, purchase grass-fed beef online, or go in on a half carcass with neighbors.
Those consumers are generally seeking sources that offer traceability and what they view as reliable information about how an animal was raised — regarding the use of hormones, antibiotics, feed lot vs. grass-fed, organic, etc., Abbott said. Those shoppers may be a minority now, but broadly speaking, consumers are becoming more aware of these issues, they're looking for accurate information and there is an opportunity for retailers to gain their trust or offer a sense of reliability.
Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets' meat merchandiser, Sven White, also sees a rising consumer interest in how meat is raised, with many of PCC's shoppers asking about natural and organic options in the meat department after the documentary “Food, Inc.” was released.
“The movie ‘Food Inc.,’ among other information sources, really has people asking questions about natural and organic meats. Our meat folks have the knowledge and training to answer their questions,” White said.
“For our meat staff, customer contact is a top priority so that we can help them with products they can't find, and offer special cuts and even recipes.”
Supervalu, which offers both full service and self-service in its meat departments, also has noticed customers needing more guidance.
“A lot of what we're seeing is that the customer has a lack of knowledge today,” Smith said. “So we think that it's extremely important for the entire staff within the meat department to be knowledgeable, to be able to help the consumer get through the decision process.
“Some of the studies that we've done, the meat case in general can be extremely intimidating or confusing to the customer today. So to have the associates well-trained and knowledgeable, it's extremely important.”
Supervalu also offers brochures on topics like best beef items to grill or freshest seafood of the day, in addition to recipes, cooking tips and other self-service materials for customers. Smith also said that Supervalu took service to the next level by providing store associates with an education or refresher course on high-level tips and cooking information that they should convey to the customer.
Sendik's Food Markets also offers full-service meat departments and views them as an important way to communicate with shoppers.
“It's a great job, being able to wait on the customers because a lot of the people, they need help; especially today, a lot of people don't know how to cook,” said Kevin Kelly, meat and seafood director for the Milwaukee-based retailer. “They see these wonderful ideas on television and with all the cooking shows, but when they go to apply what they just saw, sometimes they get lost and need a little guidance, so that's where we come in.”
Riesbeck's Food Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio, has been in the full-service meat business for 84 years, spokesman Leo Braido told SN. He said he also believes the increase in home cooking is changing the consumer.
“There really seems to be quite a resurgence in the interest in food at home,” Braido said.
“And really, meat's a center-of-the-plate item for folks, so the interest in meat, how you cook meat, cuts of meat and things like that [has increased].”
The retailer also for years has had a meat apprentice program, which trains associates who have an interest in learning meat-cutting skills. Braido added that Riesbeck's full-service meat department has become a point of differentiation for the retailer as self-service and packaged meat has infiltrated the marketplace across the country.
In fact, while eight in 10 respondents to the FMI/AMI Power of Meat survey said they have access to a full-service meat counter, a majority of them said they still make their meat purchases from the self-service case. An average of 65% of all meat purchases are selected from the self-service area, with a median of 90%.
Because so many consumers shop the self-service case, Resner noted that while it's important to have knowledgeable staff at the full-service meat counter, it's also important for the self-service case.
“It's important across the entire meat department,” he said. “Even [associates] who are working the self-service counter, that role really has shifted over the last few years to be more informative and helping educate the customers than it has in the past.”
Other retailers appear to have recognized this as well and are training their staff who restock and organize those cases to interact with customers as well.
“We're constantly filling or straightening up our self-service cases, so we're still engaging ourselves with the customers by saying, ‘Hello, how are you today? Is there anything I can help you find, or is there anything you're interested in?’” Kelly of Sendik's said.
“We try to have a policy in our stores for all departments, for all of our employees is that you always greet the customers. If they're within four feet from you, you acknowledge them with a ‘Hello, how are you? May I help you find something?’”
White of PCC agreed that these types of interactions help break the ice with customers and open doors to dialogue and building a relationship.
“Once the ice has been broken, the customer generally responds with a question with what they are looking for,” White said.
“We have built customer loyalty through our focus on consistent, exceptional customer service throughout our stores and in all departments.”
By having a meat counter staff that consistently engages with customers, the employees can gain greater satisfaction out of their jobs.
“What makes it nice is that you're not doing the same thing, not looking at a wall all day doing the same job — cutting this and cutting that. You're mingling with the customers and that breaks up the monotony of the day, too,” Kelly said.
“You get to know a lot about people and a lot of them have interesting stories to tell. We try to have a happy, engaged workforce. We have the ability to converse with the customers and we know a lot of them by first name.”
“Without a doubt, I think that with all the knowledge that our meat cutters and butchers have, it's kind of a joy for them to be able to share all that knowledge and understand that they want to build that relationship so that customer keeps coming back, which overall helps their satisfaction from a customer standpoint as well as the meat cutter's. They'll feel more comfortable talking to people that they recognize, and above all else drive more sales,” Resner said, adding that research Supervalu has conducted indicates that customers are looking for that dedicated meat cutter or butcher in a store. It's a key indicator of where they will choose to buy their proteins.
That building of a relationship can be key to customer loyalty.
“We think that the customer interaction piece is as important as it's ever been in our business today in the meat world, and it's a huge focus area for us as a company to increase that customer interaction,” Smith said.
“We think that with the lack of knowledge from the majority of customers today, if we can build a confidence level with them, we feel that that is a niche that we can have as a retailer.”