Last updated on July 7th, 2016 at 04:50 pm
by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor
Shoppers now see fewer meat cutters at service cases in grocery stores and more flavor sealed products in the self-serve case. That is a trend likely to continue. The question attendees at a workshop during the recent NGA Show had is what will the meat case look like in 10 years.
The National Grocers Association (NGA) offered several workshops during its annual event that got down to the nitty-gritty in grocery stores. Three panelists talked about how their companies run the meat department and what the future may hold.
Emily Coborn, Coborn’s VP of fresh merchandising, talked about consumer trends, which are, in part, driving changes at the meat counter.
“We’re seeing more of a shift to the service case, because people are seeking more of the value-added product,” Coborn said. “A few years ago, we started seeing our guests gravitating toward smaller portions. We moved to portion pricing within our service department. You would expect to see lower tonnage and lower sales out of the service department, but we actually saw the opposite. That was a big win for us.”
Another trend doesn’t have to do with customers, but employees. Coborn’s faced a considerable challenge when it doubled its presence in North Dakota. It had served Fargo/Moorhead and Bismarck since 1988, but in 2012, Coborn’s announced plans to open five new grocery stores in the Bakken region. The area was in need of grocery stores due to rapid population growth during the shale oil boom.
Coborn’s, like many grocery companies, struggles to find meat cutters and its rapid expansion in the Bakken region only compounded the problem. Coborn’s had to serve its shoppers, and the meat case is a strong point of differentiation.
“That’s when we found it to be a necessity for us to move away from our traditional methods within the meat department,” she said. “We partnered with our suppliers to come up with a case-ready meat program. We call it Flavor Seal, because that’s truly what it’s doing. It’s sealing the flavor into the product.”
The first order of business after making the decision to go with Flavor Seal was selling meat department employees on the merits of the program. They took the product home to their families and tasted the difference, she said.
Once they bought in, Coborn’s had handouts employees could give to customers to help them understand the change. The packaged, vacuum-sealed-looking meat was a departure from what Coborn’s shoppers were used to seeing. They, too, had to be sold on the merits of the program. For one, it’s freezer ready and doesn’t have to be repacked when the consumer gets it home. Second, its shelf life is much longer—24 days—vs. four to six with a conventionally wrapped product. That means less damage to the product and less shrink for Coborn’s.
The retailer also offered refunds to shoppers who tried and didn’t like the new Flavor Seal products.
Coborn said she was “shocked” by how little pushback they received.
“I’m not trying to overstate it, but it went very smoothly,” she said. “We’re not taking anything away from our guests. We’re just giving them more options.”
While Coborn’s didn’t cut down on the number employees, some meat department employees shifted from a production mindset to more of a salesmanship mentality, she said. That was a money saver for the grocer and it didn’t cut down on customer service.
“Where we had several butchers in our meat department producing for that five-deck case, they’re able to move instead to more of a merchandiser, which is a several-dollar-per-hour decrease for us,” Coborn said. “We’re able to save on labor, and then, consequently, our butchers were able to focus their attention on production, especially production of value-added product. Meat distributions grew and our service counter distributions grew.”
Value-added products include marinated steaks, chicken cordon bleu, beef kabobs, stuffed eye of round roast and more.
Ryan Nilsson, meat department supervisor at Geissler’s, said an employee who’d been to culinary school had a major impact on the meat case. The grocer with stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts began offering stuffed pork tenderloins and other creative meat products. Though that employee tragically passed away, his assistant continues the program with offerings like sausage-stuffed mushrooms and pulled pork.
“We’re really focused on using that to attract Millennials, to give them a great-tasting meal with the flavors they want,” Nilsson said.
Queen’s Price Chopper Meat Director Keith Sisk also talked about catering to Millennial tastes—and skills.
“I think what you have to do now with the Millennials, who are fast-paced and don’t really know how to do a lot of cooking, is to try to find a vegetable pack to try to blend in the value-add on the roast and put on the cooking instructions they’re looking for and try to get this product in the cart,” he said.
Kansas City-based Price Chopper also has a Pick-5 program that has worked well.
“In the past two years, we see the shopping trend going to less expensive protein,” he said. “If we can get that buggy up to $25 on one purchase, they’re only paying $5 for a meal and it will feed two people.”
Last year, Price Chopper had a special that ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Every Friday, it offered shoppers 25 percent off any steak in the case.
“We moved a lot of steaks on Friday,” he said.
Price Chopper also has a “know your butcher” campaign. Television advertising features children (because if they want to go to Price Chopper, mom’s not going to say no, Sisk said) and introduces the chain’s meat cutters.
“The more you get them in front of people and they see them and talk to them, they get a face to them, they know their names, it’s easier to get the customer to talk to you, to ask for help, maybe get some special cuts,” he said. “We’re trying to get that one-on-one relationship.”
A(ny) meat cutter is hard to find
One of the challenges of owning the market share in Kansas City is having the market share of meat cutters, Sisk said. With 50 Price Choppers, there is a standing gentleman’s agreement to not poach meat cutters from each other’s stores. Each has on average five journeymen and one apprentice.
Price Chopper’s answer to the shortage of meat cutters is to groom current employees.
“Our job is to train, train, train, because I believe it’s the customer service side that’s going to keep the customer coming back,” Sisk said. “It seems to be a very small pond with not many fish in there, so you better try to do your best to replenish.”
At Geissler’s, every meat cutter who’s been hired in the last 10 years has stayed on in a part-time role.
“That has been very valuable to us, not only in having those extra hands available, but also to groom the younger meat cutters,” Nilsson said. “We’ve been lucky in that in the sense that our meat cutters don’t turn over. We lose them to retirement.”
When asked whether there will be any in-store butchers in 10 years, Sisk said he hopes so.
“Ten years isn’t long,” he said. “We’ll try to stay with the fresh program that we have and try to separate ourselves from the competition that has the pre-packed product.”
Nilsson said, “Unfortunately, I think there’s a day when meat cutters in the store will be difficult to keep. I don’t believe 10 years from now is the day that will change for us. I hope it’s much longer than that.”
Coborn said Flavor Seal will continue to be a key part of the meat department at its Coborn’s and Cash Wise stores, where the company operates service meat counters. In its recently acquired Marketplace Foods stores, Flavor Seal products will be available starting next year.
“I think 10 years out, for us, for the industry, it’s going to be a balance between the Flavor Seal and service meat cases,” she said. “We consider our meat department to be a differentiator. We’re worried that we won’t be able to find more meat cutters. When you look at what trades are being pursued, meat cutting just isn’t one of them. We want to develop that trade within our own ranks so that we can continue to have that be a point of differentiation. But I believe that it will be a balance of both programs.”