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Though consumers haven't lost their appetite for rotisserie chicken, retailers are using their ovens to do a lot more than turn birds around.A wider variety of seasoned products, better packaging and smarter merchandising have rekindled interest in the category. At the same time, retailers are maximizing their investment in the ovens by offering a greater variety of meats.Over the last year, Supermarket

Though consumers haven't lost their appetite for rotisserie chicken, retailers are using their ovens to do a lot more than turn birds around.

A wider variety of seasoned products, better packaging and smarter merchandising have rekindled interest in the category. At the same time, retailers are maximizing their investment in the ovens by offering a greater variety of meats.

Over the last year, Supermarket Operations, a seven-store chain based in Natchez, Miss., has been rolling out a rotisserie program that includes turkey breasts, pork loins, chops and ribs, and sausage, as well as chicken.

The chain decided to take the plunge after researching options for expanding its prepared-foods business -- and watching Wal-Mart enter its markets with successful rotisserie programs. So far, it seems to be paying off.

"It's been very impactful, because it's given us a piece of the [takeout food] business," said Barry Loy, retail operations manager and a co-owner of the chain. "We felt that this was something we had to do."

Whole chickens -- priced at $4.99 -- have been the biggest sellers, but new items, such as $9.99 rib slabs, have proved popular in the group's Market stores, said Mike Halley, the company's deli/meat merchandiser. Sales of all rotisserie products, as well as side items that are often paired with the meats in package deals, are partly responsible for boosting deli department sales at individual stores from 15% to 30% since the rollout, he said.

Even retailers with established rotisserie chicken programs are looking for ways to enhance and expand their offerings. At Lund Food Holdings, a Minneapolis-based chain of 20 stores, the focus is on boosting the flagship chicken program as well as adding new types of slow-cooked meats.

Byron Hanson, deli category manager, said the chain has kept consumers interested in the category by offering a broader selection of seasoned whole chickens. In addition to lemon pepper, a popular variety for many retailers, the chain has been adding more upscale flavors such as tandoori and Caribbean spice blends, as well as signature seasonings developed in-house. The new mix allows the chain to build regular, themed rotisserie chicken price promotions around specific flavors, he said.

Meanwhile, Lunds and Byerly's have been slowly adding products like turkey breasts, barbecue ribs, pork loin and even prime rib to the rotisserie lineup. The bigger selection, which also benefits from different seasoning profiles, has helped pump up the company's extensive fresh-prepared-meals program, Hanson said.

For retailers with a limited selection of prepared meals, rotisserie programs are helping plug the gap. Boulineau's IGA, a single store in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., has accelerated the rollout of rotisserie meats to appeal to customers in this oceanfront resort town.

Seasoned and unseasoned whole chickens priced at $6.99 for a 2- to 3-pound bird, and half chickens at roughly $4.39 are the clear volume leaders. At the same time, turkey breast slices at $6.99 a pound and St. Louis-style baby back ribs at $7.99 a pound attract customers looking for a quick, healthier alternative to fast food, deli supervisor Charmaine Conklin said.

"There's some labor involved in the program, but it's been very successful," she said. "We're going to continue to try to find more things to do with our rotisserie program."

Meat suppliers are working closely with retailers to make their rotisserie programs more profitable. Shelley Hodnett, product marketing manager for the deli division of poultry supplier Perdue Farms, Columbia, Md., said the company is seizing the rekindled interest in rotisserie programs by expanding its seasoned-chicken product line.

"Bolder flavors in the Caribbean/Latin and South American tradition are an emerging trend, especially in markets in the Southeast and Northeast," Hodnett said. "But there's also growing interest in more upscale marinade flavors like white wine balsamic vinaigrette and rosemary garlic."

While making it easier for retailers to correctly season products on-site, Perdue also is responding to increased demand for slightly larger whole chickens. Hodnett said Perdue is working to boost the average size from 2 1/2 to 3 pounds to 3 to 3 1/2 pounds.

"Consumers seem to want a rotisserie chicken not only for tonight's meal, but also for the next day and even later," she said. "They want to be able to stretch their dollar."

Lunds' Hanson said the chain recently began offering slightly larger rotisserie chickens. The increase has resulted in a slight price boost to $7.50 and a new package. The stores stopped using a domed plastic container in favor of a non-handled version that accommodates the larger product.

As supermarket rotisserie chicken sales have cooled in recent years after a period of strong, steady growth, pork suppliers have restarted a marketing push that had stalled earlier.

Jason Seely, director of sales for Smithfield Foods, Smithfield, Va., said the company is seeing renewed interest by retailers in adding a pork component to their rotisserie programs.

"We tried to introduce pork once, but no one wanted to touch it because chicken was so successful," he said. "Now that chicken's leveled off, they're looking for other opportunities.

Consumers still like chicken, but they're probably only going to buy it once a week," he said. "Adding pork will help bring them in again for a different rotisserie item."

Seely predicted the emergence of pork products could drive much of the growth in non-chicken rotisserie.

The company offers a wide assortment of unseasoned and seasoned, pre-cooked and uncooked products. Flavors run the gamut, from hickory apple to Cuban Mojo.

While adding to the variety is key to building a rotisserie program, creative merchandising also is important. Retailers are making a greater effort to marry rotisserie meats with side dishes to offer a complete meal.

Supermarket Operations' Halley said he's had success pairing rotisserie meats with side dishes at special package prices.

One promotion that's worked well is two whole chickens combined with a selection of sides for $18.99, Halley said.

Packaging that uses compartments for side dishes has helped Boulineau's IGA make it easier for customers to buy a complete meal, anchored by a rotisserie meat, Conklin said.

Well-executed supermarket rotisserie programs are likely to be a good source of growth for retailers who can appeal to consumers seeking a quick, tasty, relatively healthy entree, one industry observer noted.

"Retailers need to get away from thinking of rotisserie as just another deli category and instead focus on building it as a tool to compete with food service," said Gaurav Kapoor, a principal with New England Consulting Group, a Westport, Conn.-based food and consumer products consulting firm. "Restaurants are fighting back against fast food with curbside takeout programs, and grocers need to continue fighting for that business as well."

Leaders of the Pack

Packing a juicy, fully cooked piece of meat, right out of the oven, can be a messy job for retailers.

Aesthetics, sanitation, ease of use and store safety are among the issues that packaging must address. While sturdy paper or foil bags were the container of choice at the start of the rotisserie era, domed plastic trays with snaps and handles and resealable poly bags are among the latest packaging solutions to reach the market.

At Boulineau's IGA in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., rotisserie products are packed in domed, see-through plastic containers that help contain the fat and juices, deli supervisor Charmaine Conklin said.

"We wanted something that looks good in the display case and that consumers can take home and microwave," she said.

Not all retailers are making the switch. For Supermarket Operations, a seven-store chain in Natchez, Miss., the packaging decision boils down to eye appeal and cost. That all adds up to traditional bags, which are still the cheapest option, said Mike Halley, deli/meat merchandiser for the chain.

"Plus, bagged product looks less expensive and less high-end to the consumer than domed trays, and that's something we have to be aware of in our market," he said.

One of the latest packages to hit the market is the Hot N Handy Pouch from Lenexa, Kan.-based Robbie Manufacturing. The flexible, microwave-friendly plastic pouch employs anti-fog film that allows the consumer to clearly view the product. A zipper lock allows the package to be sealed after use, and a built-in handle makes it easy to carry the product.

Product manager Tara Downing said the packaging, which is being sold directly to retailers and through rotisserie meat suppliers, is attracting interest because it addresses many other packaging drawbacks.

"It solves a lot of problems," she said. "One chain was able to display and sell more product because of its smaller profile."