SAN ANTONIO — Retailers chosen for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Retail Beef Backer Awards this year — Harris Teeter, Southern Family Markets, Sendik's Food Markets and Supervalu — have all put new emphasis on training and customer service to help them sell beef.
Winner of the Award for Innovation, Supervalu, Minneapolis, supported the introduction of its new, national, branded line of beef, Stockman & Dakota, with revved-up attention to associate-customer interaction.
“All meat associates were instructed to initiate conversation with customers. They were told to approach the customer to make suggestions, and to help them decide on what to buy,” Kip Gruell, Supervalu's vice president, fresh meat and seafood, told SN.
“It's about breaking down barriers all the way up the supply line, starting with consumers, and then back down the line from there to give them what they want.”
Other Beef Backer winners underscored the importance of getting associates truly involved.
“Training and associate development are the things that put you out ahead,” said Carey Otwell, director, meat and seafood, at Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Family Markets, which operates 66 stores under four banners: Southern Family Markets, Piggly Wiggly, Bruno's and Food World.
The awardees in the competition sponsored by the Beef Checkoff program were chosen by an independent panel of judges and were honored here at the Cattle Industry Annual Convention and NCBA Trade Show recently.
Supervalu officials told SN about bringing premium brands under one brand name nationwide, and following through with unusually thorough store-level promotion of that brand.
“When we bought Albertsons, we had all Albertsons' different banners, and we wanted to go to market differently,” said Jason Resner, Supervalu's business development manager, beef, fresh foods and manufacturing.
“We wanted to bring all the banners together, build a marketing budget and push a brand name nationwide.”
The launch of Supervalu's new premium Angus line was almost a year in the making.
“We ran comprehensive training programs, educating everyone ahead of time, and we got all the presidents [of Supervalu's customer chains] on board.”
Prior to launch, educational materials were distributed across the country to all Supervalu-supplied stores, and a “Beef Spoken Here” summit was held at the company's headquarters.
Then, within a two-week period last spring, the line was rolled out to all 1,250 stores. Every associate was given Beef Spoken Here hats, aprons and badges.
The badges — worn by everybody in the store, from the meat department to the center aisles to floral — said, “Ask me how to speak beef.” A pocket card with three short talking points — “our beef is juicy,” “our steaks are aged” and “Stockman & Dakota beef is restaurant quality” — was given to each associate.
The idea was to keep things simple and consistent, so they could be executed at store level, bringing customers' attention to the new line.
Supervalu companies also changed their meat case set to display beef by cooking method: grilling, oven, pan-fried, slow-cooking, etc.
“Again, keeping it simple, we pulled back on our recipe program, migrating customers to cooking methods instead,” Gruell said. “It's all about picking the right [cooking] method for the particular cut of meat so there will be a good eating experience.”
After extensive consumer research, Supervalu officials were confident about what customers wanted, and customers are confirming that.
“They've told us they love the clean messaging, and that we simplified things for them,” Gruell pointed out.
Resner underscored Gruell's comment.
“We're moving to what customers want us to do: Transfer knowledge.”
It must have worked, because the company hit its projections with Angus penetration, and beef sales overall are up, the officials said.
Meanwhile, Southern Family Markets has stood out in its marketplace with super-aggressive pricing of its beef. Even there, comprehensive training of its meat cutters has been crucial in making such pricing possible, Otwell explained.
Even though the company has truckload sales frequently, and Otwell concedes cost is important, it isn't the key.
“It's not so much about cost as you'd think,” Otwell told SN. “It's really about having very good, well-trained meat cutters in each store. Since we buy primals and sub-primals, our meat cutters can cut some chuck roasts that we'll sell for $2 a pound. Then, they'll do some other cuts for maybe $3.49 a pound, offsetting the aggressive price on the roasts.”
Otwell said front page ads, featuring top-to-bottom 50%-off beef specials, have grabbed customers' attention.
“It's the way we advertise. People come to us for their meat, and we've taken market share away from others. Also, since we've been advertising beef like this, our distribution of store sales has gone up 3% to 4%. We're now at a little more than 18%.”
For Super Bowl weekend, Otwell was advertising bone-in, Angus, New York strip steak for $4.79 a pound, and ground beef for $1.69.
“Now, the newest thing is we're talking about selling steaks by the each.”
Originally, the company had focused on pork and poultry, but three years ago, when it decided to put the spotlight on beef, it did so with a well-marketed launch of a new branded Angus line.
“It was just at the time the economy was going south, but it gave us something to talk about and improved our quality image. It has done all right for us,” Otwell said. “We brought in NCBA with their beef training camp and we also put a tremendous amount of marketing and radio behind the line.”
The introduction of a new line of all-natural, grass-fed beef accompanied by an extensive training program put Sendik's Markets in line for its Beef Backer Award.
“We introduced Tall Grass Beef, and went through a very lengthy presentation to all our meat managers and gave all our associates brochures so they could read up on the line, and then we quizzed them,” said Kevin Kelly, meat and seafood director for the eight-unit, Whitefish Bay, Wis.-based independent.
The company emphasized that the beef was 100% grass-fed, had been given no animal by-products, no corn, no grain, no hormones and no antibiotics.
“We sampled the product a lot, too, and when we sample, we sample big,” Kelly said. “When we launched Tall Grass, we gave everyone a whole slider. We don't cook a burger and then cut it up into 20 little pieces for sampling. When we sample our no-nitrates-added Angus beef franks, we give customers a whole hot dog. People remember those things.”
People remember Sendik's, too, because there's always an associate nearby who can answer their questions. All its stores have full-service meat counters running an average of 32 feet and staffed from 7 in the morning until 9 at night by seven to 24 associates, depending on the store's level of traffic.
“[The associates] all know how to cook meat, and they can tell you what goes well with it,” Kelly said.
They often make suggestions, pointing out what Sendik's calls its top-shelf items. Those are the value-added items displayed on the top shelf of the meat case.
“We have New York strips stuffed with gorgonzola. In Wisconsin, we use flank steak for London broil and we stuff those with such things cream cheese and chopped artichokes.
Each of Sendik's meat departments has its own butcher and its own chef.
Kelly, with Sendik's for 30 years, told SN he particularly likes to work for the company because innovation is encouraged from store-level up.
“We're given freedom within our company to come up with our own ideas. We don't operate with a template. If one of our meat managers has a good idea about how he can sell more meat, we'll try it in that store. If it works, we'll roll it out.”