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PHILADELPHIA -- Supermarkets in this area are cashing in on the burgeoning demand for value-added, ready-to-cook home-meal replacement items.This was clearly evident at several chains from store tours conducted during the Arlington, Va.-based American Meat Institute's annual convention here.The tour provided a snapshot of the way chains like Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa.; Glazier ShopRite

PHILADELPHIA -- Supermarkets in this area are cashing in on the burgeoning demand for value-added, ready-to-cook home-meal replacement items.

This was clearly evident at several chains from store tours conducted during the Arlington, Va.-based American Meat Institute's annual convention here.

The tour provided a snapshot of the way chains like Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa.; Glazier ShopRite Supermarkets based here; and Fresh Fields, Rockville, Md., are meeting the growing challenge of providing value-added fresh meat and poultry products for today's frenetic lifestyles.

Although the retailers took different approaches in presenting and merchandising their meal-solution selections, they offered a virtual cornucopia of innovative solutions at fresh meat cases, including upscale products.

At the Genuardi's unit in St. Davids, Pa., a 16-foot refrigerated case was stocked with a large variety of Easy Pleasers -- the chain's own descriptive term -- ranging from chicken Florentine at $4.99 a pound, through chicken Kiev at 99 cents a pound and stir-fried chicken at 99 cents a pound, to beef sirloin stir fry at $4.99 a pound.

The assortment also included chicken Parmesan, $5.99 a pound; seasoned boneless pork roast, $5.99 a pound; Cajun chicken cutlets, $4.99 a pound; Cajun turkey London broil, $4.99 a pound; and London broil peppered chicken cutlet, $4.99 a pound, which are all "ready to take home and cook," said Pam Gravinese, associate store manager.

Ready-to-cook fresh items "are constantly growing in popularity, including kabobs and stuffed pork chops at $3.99 per pound; boneless pork loin Florentine, $6.99 a pound; stuffed flank steak, $6.49 a pound; and store-made Italian-style meatballs at $3.99 a pound -- which fly out of here," said Rich Pagliei, the store's meat manager.

Catering to both upscale and middle-income households, the store's food court includes a hot-foods section that features "all-natural, fresh, hot and delicious whole lemon pepper, Italian, Jewish style and plain rotisserie chickens," priced at $4.99 to $8.99.

Genuardi's ready-to-cook fresh-meat and poultry items "have always been good [items] for us," said Gravinese, pointing out that rotisserie chicken and turkey breasts are among the most popular fresh-meals items.

Genuardi's Easy Pleasers ready-to-cook fresh beef, pork and poultry items are extremely fast movers, she said. The best-selling Easy Pleasers include deep premarinated and preseasoned fresh chicken, pork roast and turkey London broil, "which we can't keep in the case," said Pagliei.

Signs positioned at meat cases point out that the line includes items that are "tender, juicy deep-marinated meats tumbled for absorbing flavors, and that tumbling allows the flavor to be absorbed internally rather than merely on the surface like home marinades would."

Point-of-purchase materials also inform shoppers the items are ready-to-bake, broil or grill, and are stuffed, rolled and preseasoned using assorted marinade flavors from Cajun and honey mustard to mesquite and pepper.

"Through the gentle massaging act, a more tender, juicier product is created. A large selection of high-quality seasoned marinades assures you of the same flavor everyday," the message states.

Genuardi's enjoys rapid shelf turns of skewered marinated fresh vegetables and beef, pork, turkey and chicken kabobs displayed in the fresh-meat case. Priced at $2.99 a pound and introduced last May, "we can't keep the case full because shopper response has been so unbelievable," declared the meat manager.

At the ShopRite Marketplace of Cheltenham Square here, some 25 or so ready-to-cook items are merchandised in a 24-foot-long single-deck island refrigerated display cabinet.

The packaged items appeal to the store's demographics, which cut across urban and suburban shoppers who live in a mixture of low-income and upscale neighborhoods in and around the ShopRite's trading area, commented Gary Stiglitz, director of sales and merchandising for the three-store Glazier Supermarkets group.

The ready-to-cook display cabinet is placed at an angle at the start of the fresh-meat area, acting as a traffic stopper, said Stiglitz. The cabinet usually features an assortment of Wakefern's [the ShopRite co-op warehouse] value-added meat items, which are merchandised both in-store and in ad specials with item and price signs.

Some typical selections are apple-and-raisin-stuffed Cornish hens, $1.99 a pound; Cajun-seasoned turkey London broil, $2.99 a pound; whole Florentine turkey breast, $3.99 a pound; stuffed breast of veal, $1.49 a pound; stuffed center-cut pork chops, $4.19 a pound; and rolled flank steak, $5.99 a pound.

During September, a meat-department special featured fresh boneless chicken breast for $1.99 a pound, down from the regular $3.99. That week, the retailer also promoted marinated boneless chicken breast at $2.99 a pound, a $2 savings off the everyday price.

Among ShopRite's top ready-to-cook movers are turkey-breast chops retailed at $2.48 a pound, fabricated from a whole turkey breast off a 24- to 26-pound bird that is cut in half and then sliced down into chops.

A portion of breast bone left in each finished piece gives the product a pork chop-like appearance. "And when they're not in stock customers ask for them," noted meat manager Joseph Durkin.

The turkey chop "is an amazing item that's grown the turkey category and done so well we can't keep them in stock," said Joseph Colassi, general manager.

Maintaining ready-to-cook selections and fresh-meals options is crucial for supermarkets trying "to make life easier for double-working families," stressed Colassi.

Devoting a separate case to ready-to-cook items keeps customer interest at the high-water mark and the products at a high-traffic display area. "The out-front merchandising also boosts meat department sales by 1%," Colassi added.

And with dual-income families in the nation on the increase, "creating convenience for them makes life simpler, and we're constantly looking for new ideas," added the general manager.

"We dedicate enough space in the whole [meat] line so that the products don't get lost," said Durkin, noting that, in the case of the turkey chops, "the product is lower in fat and easy to cook like a pork chop, and in our area customers buy a lot of turkey."

Indeed, supermarkets increasingly are moving ready-to cook selections out of in-line sets to a freestanding cabinet for greater exposure and to trigger increased impulse purchases, said Bill Pizzico, president of Prizm Consulting Group, Blue Bell, Pa., the tour leader.

"More supermarket chains are taking ready-to-cook [product] out of the fresh [case] and putting it into its own case, which also leads to true category management. And while kitchen-ready can fail, and although the items in it may change and fluctuate, the category itself will be here," he said.

"The trick is finding the proper mix that makes it work," added Pizzico.

While island cases "have proven to be very successful in selling home-meal replacement, one of our other stores still merchandises ready-to-cook items from in-line cases due to store design," ShopRite's Stiglitz pointed out.

For example, the retailer features Mrs. G's Homemade Specialties, its own prepared-foods line -- located just inside the front door -- that uses Mrs. Glazier's personal recipes, which "cater to consumers that want fast food," said Colassi. Items include rotisseries and fried chicken, and Philadelphia hoagies and other specialty sandwiches.

At the Fresh Fields store in center-city Philadelphia, the wide variety of fresh ready-to-cook items sold from the service meat case counter sells out quickly and is restocked frequently, said meat manager Stephen Thompson.

Ready-to-cook products are displayed marinating in trays at eye level, and the category is in constant demand by the moderate to upscale, yet diverse customer base of professionals and single-parent families working or living near the store, and by households in the immediate neighborhood, said Thompson.

Fresh Fields, part of the Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market chain, targets its products overall to a health-conscious audience with emphasis on providing healthy, organic selections, and rotates its ready-to-cook offerings on a regular basis. Handout cards containing preparation hints and recipes are stacked on the service refrigerated showcase.

The chain mines its ready-to-cook sales by changing the item mix seasonally. In October, fewer kabobs are offered than in the summer, said Thompson. In October, about eight to 10 different kabobs are offered, compared with the almost 20 different marinated beef, pork, veal, turkey, chicken and lamb kabobs offered regularly over the summer.

On an everyday basis, Fresh Fields works around 12 different, basic marinades. "Some go better with poultry than meat, and the Dijon goes better with poultry, pork and turkey," said the meat manager.

The ready-to-cook assortment is priced between $5.99 and $7.99 a pound, with stuffed whole chickens and Cornish hens retailed at $2.99 a pound.

The large variety gives shoppers several options to choose from every day, including six different stuffed boneless chicken breasts and four types of stuffed flank steaks, at least one or two stuffed pork cutlets and bone-in pork chops, two types of stuffed whole chickens and Cornish game hens, Parmesan chicken and seasoned Italian pork roasts.

Marinades include rosemary mint, garlic and herb, honey Dijon, Caribbean barbecue, Jamaican jerk, fajita, Moroccan for lamb and beef, sun-dried tomato, ginger soy, teriyaki, Southwest Santa Fe, Thai peanut, and Theo's Steak House developed by Theo Weening, the chain's Mid-Atlantic region meat director.

At the Philadelphia unit, ready-to-cook popularity varies by season, with any type of kabob in the summer the hands-down best seller. Cornish hens, stuffed whole chickens, boneless stuffed chicken breast and stuffed flank steaks are the most sought after in the winter, said the retailer.

"We sell a lot of marinated boneless chicken cutlets at $5.99 a pound in the winter, when about eight marinating bowls used for kabobs in the summer are devoted to thin-sliced chicken breasts," Thompson said.

Thompson often falls back on skills acquired during several years spent as a Swiss-trained chef when assisting customers with cooking advice and menu suggestions. But he avoids the exotic. "If you get too fancy, people become intimidated," he said.

The concern for wholesomeness and diversity, and ease of preparation, drives the ready-to-cook category, said the meat manager, adding sales are also fueled by "people looking for something quick that can be popped into the oven." Most ready-to-cook volume is generated between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.