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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Marsh Supermarkets here has introduced a premium pork line under its new Marsh Signature label, developed in conjunction with a gene profiling firm and a hog packer in the retailer's market area, according to officials.Extensive input from Marsh customers participating in focus groups was part of the blueprint, too, they said."Without question, this is the finest line of premium

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Marsh Supermarkets here has introduced a premium pork line under its new Marsh Signature label, developed in conjunction with a gene profiling firm and a hog packer in the retailer's market area, according to officials.

Extensive input from Marsh customers participating in focus groups was part of the blueprint, too, they said.

"Without question, this is the finest line of premium pork we have ever sold in our stores, and I believe it superior to any pork available anywhere in our market area today," said Don E. Marsh, the company's chairman and chief executive officer.

The early success of the line confirmed not only what focus group participants professed -- that they'd pay from 15% to 25% more, or about 50 cents per pound, on average for the exact kind of pork they wanted -- but also that retailers can recapture their investment by providing a high-quality product.

"The Marsh Signature line boosted pork tonnage in our service meat department 20.89% during our test period, compared to the same period the year before, when we were selling just commodity pork there," said Marsh's Dewayne Wulff, vice president, meat merchandising, supermarket division.

Marsh is selling the new line only at its prime cut service meat department. The retailer continues to sell its two other private-label pork products, a honey gold and a traditional spiral sliced ham, at its stores' self-service areas.

The first step toward creating Marsh Signature began when, late last year, Franklin, Ky.-based PIC USA, a swine genetic improvement company, approached Marsh to discuss the possibility of producing an exclusive pork line, according to Miller Slaughter, PIC's consumer services director. Marsh was keen on starting with pork products, since the retailer was already selling premium beef -- USDA prime at its service meat department and USDA choice at its self-service department.

But before green-lighting the project, Marsh wanted to make sure it could satisfactorily address two key pork product-related issues, according to Slaughter.

First, since the retailer believes the quality of a supermarket's butcher shop is often the main reason customers regularly shop at one chain rather than another, Marsh wanted to do a better job of differentiating the pork in its meat case from the competition's. Second, Marsh wanted to improve and keep consistent the quality of its pork.

"With commodity pork, you get only what comes to you from the packer, and we wanted to control that factor, " Wulff noted. He added that, while pork is graded, the ratings do not carry the same significance as beef grades with respect to eating characteristics and quality.

To get answers, PIC enlisted the services of a private research company to speak to Marsh customers in the greater Indianapolis area about their pork wish lists. The focus groups were made up of area residents who ate "the other white meat" on an average or better than average basis of about three or four times a month. The final impression Marsh came away with was that the interviewees wanted "consistently great-tasting pork," Slaughter said.

One of the most significant revelations to emerge from the research concerned the pork's appearance, specifically the amount of fat and color variations, according to Slaughter. Customers judged pale-colored pork as being old and watery, and dark-colored pork as being too dry. The color variation proved to be a huge issue when the interviewees described how they'd pass on buying overwrapped pork chops when a light-colored chop was paired with a darker one. Those consumers' issues were valid, according to Slaughter, who noted that if close to 70% of all supermarket purchases are made impulsively, then how a pork product looks can easily influence what's for dinner.

"If pork is very pale, it means the pork isn't holding water, so there's a lot of drip loss," he said. "It also means the pork will lose more water when it's being cooked. If it doesn't look appetizing, even if it's the greatest tasting pork, customers won't buy it. It's got to look great."

PIC brought an industry chart to the proceedings, where customers hand-picked their color preference for a mid-range pink. But not only would Marsh's new signature pork look inviting -- so would the product's labels.

"The customers at the focus group literally created the name, the graphics that appear on the label and the key claims for the product," Slaughter said. "We had an artist on the premises."

Based on the results of this research, PIC took the first steps to create an identity-preserved system ensuring superior meat quality. This process generates a snapshot of characteristics required to produce the ideal pork, Wulff said.

"This assures the customer that the product they're getting is Marsh Signature," he stated. "The identity is preserved also by a series of sign-offs, from the farm to the trucker, the trucker to the packer, and the packer to the supermarket."

PIC identified the best genetic profile to meet Marsh consumers' preferences and found about a half-dozen hog producers who raise pigs bearing those identical characteristics. Similarly, the hogs are raised under strict quality-assurance standards established by the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council. Finding qualified hog farmers within the state was key in Marsh's desire to help the state's economy.

"I wanted to be able to say Marsh Signature pork was Indiana-raised and processed by an Indiana packer and thereby support our local producers," Wulff said. "On the cover of our brochure, we call our product 'premium Indiana pork."' Marsh stores in Ohio promote the new line as "Midwest pork."

Meanwhile, Marsh selected its long-time hog packer, Delphi, Ind.-based Indiana Packers Co., to buy hogs from the newly chosen hog producers for the new line. Slaughter noted that limiting the genetic makeup, the number of pig producers, and the number of packers who would typically buy from many producers was the best way to produce consistency.

Marsh initially set up Marsh Signature as a loin-driven line, with the packer harvesting the hogs and breaking them down into several primals, including the loin. Marsh buys the loin -- both bone-in and boneless -- and the packer places the other non-loin primals into a commodity meat inventory. Wulff underscored that since the loin is the premium portion of the pig, Marsh chose to build the line around it.

With sourcing addressed, Marsh began a four-month test-marketing period in four stores located in different income areas. The campaign employed signage, brochures and samplings prepared on-site, with most of the cooking done on a hot plate at the meat department. Other pork-cooking sites were the deli and hot-foods areas. Customers responded to surveys, giving the products a collective 4.85 on a scale of five. But even more astounding were the sales.

Calling the results "fantastic" and "astounding," Wulff added that the numbers surpassed even upper management's expectations, noting that some customers drove as many as 40 miles to the test stores to buy the new line. Customer approval even brought initially skeptical Marsh butchers around.

At the retailer's service meat department's four-foot display, customers can buy 14 cuts of Marsh Signature pork, including 1 1/2-inch thick cut pork chops. Patrons can also get the loin cut to order into roasts, boneless butterfly chops, boneless country style, rack of pork or baby back ribs.

"If a customer wants a three-inch-thick chop, we'll custom cut it," Wulff said.

With the official rollout for Marsh Signature Pork now complete in 54 out of 58 Marsh stores that have service meat, and an ongoing sampling program serving mostly boneless pork chops to reinforce brand recognition (sampling is currently done during high-traffic times, such as weekends), Wulff says the company isn't resting on its laurels.

"By mid-summer, we hope to offer cuts from additional primals under our Marsh Signature line," he said. "Those cuts may include butts and hams. We may also offer a Marsh Signature bacon line." Marsh does not plan to move its prime beef products under the Signature line because, Wulff explained, USDA prime is already the highest grade of beef available.

The only lack of consumer response to the new product has been taking Marsh up on its 100% money-back guarantee. "That offer tells our customers just how much confidence we have in our product," Wulff said.