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Changing meat preferences: health or price driven?

Today's consumers have been conditioned to equate "eating right" with "eating light." As a result, the hearty meat-and-potatoes meal--once as American as the apple pie that followed it--is becoming extinct in many households across the country, as lifestyles continue to change along with attitudes about health, diet and fitness.

This seems to paint a bleak picture for meat marketers, but the news isn't all that bad. A recent study on the "Consumer Climate for Meat Products" points out that lifestyle changes do play a key role in consumer meat purchasing patterns, but its chief findings are easy enough for meat people to digest. Commissioned jointly by the American Meat Institute and the National Live Stock and Meat Board, the survey was conducted by the research firm of Yankelovich, Skelly and White Inc., to expand on the data compiled during a similar study in 1981. The good news to come out of the new study is that "the reductions in meat consumption noted in 1981 appear to be leveling off, and that consumers are more likely to report consuming the same amount of meat, and less likely to report reducing consumption."

What's more, the researchers point out that the market climate--both social and economic--appears to be a more favorable one for the meat industry to get its message across to a "more rational, pragmatic consumer."

Retailers also seem optimistic that the meat department is beginning to "bounce back." Says one buyer, "People seem to be coming back to the meat case and it's an encouraging thing for the department. If people are buying more meat, they're probably buying more in the rest of the store as well."

The Yankelovich study separates the meat purchasing public into five categories to enable marketers to design promotional campaigns to suit distinct segments of the population. These include:

Meat Lovers, those who feel meat must be included in a "main meal."

Creative Cooks, those who like spending time on meal preparation, and enjoy meat, but also use other alternatives.

The Prive Driven, those who are attitudinally "pro-meat," but whose purchase decisions are governed by price.

Active Lifestyle, those who have a low level of commitment to meat, primarily seek convenience and eat away from home most frequently.

The Health-Oriented, those who have the highest level of concern regarding health issues, and avoid meat for health reasons.

While traditional households--with large nuclear families and an unemployed female member-seem to encourage heavy usage of meat, the study found that the new lifestyles, including working homemakers and single-person household, tend to support less frequent meat consumption. But their effects have yet to be fully measured.

When 500 chief food shoppers were interviewed by the Chicago based research firm of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates last year regarding the amount of meat they purchased in 1983 versus the year before, 12% reported overall meat purchases had increased, 27% reported they had decreased and 61% reported no change. More than half of the respondents indicated that their beef purchases remained unchanged, 13% had increased consumption and 36% had cut back on beef.

As for chicken, the popular alternative, 40% of consumers surveyed reported an increase, and nearly half had made no change from 1982. Pork purchases were reported as increasing for 30% of respondents, with 60% reporting no change in usage. (See accompanying tables.)

Whent he same consumers were asked what meat items they had actually purchased on their last shopping trip, nearly 60% cited beef, 35% said poultry, and 32% reported buying pork. Price Not a Factor For All

The Yankelovich findings show price to be a prime factor in meat purchasing decisions, but indicate that it's a concern primarily among heavy users. The study suggests that, although high prices can be a deterrent to even more frequent consumption among heavy meat eaters, they don't appear to be a primary obstacle among light users, who are generally more affluent and can afford meat.

When asked what meat item they thought "looked good," but was too expensive to consider, beef was cited by 48% of the consumers in the Shapiro survey. However, 27% of the interviewees said they had "no price problem" with any item in the meat department. When consumers were asked what they look for when shopping for fresh meat, high marks went to service, freshness, quality and leanness, price and selection. "Today's consumers are more demanding about selection, quality and size of meat products," agrees Dave Young, meat merchandiser at Marsh Supermarkets in Yorktown, Ind., who adds, "They are also la lot more conscious of specials and are buying larger quantities of featured items."

Although service was important to the Shapiro interviewees, only 28% said that they purchase some of their fresh meat at a butcher shop. Of those who do, the ratio of butcher shop purchases to supermarket purchases is 30% to 70%, indicating that the butcher shop is used primarily for fill-ins and special occasion shopping. The Price Is Right

According to the American Meat Institute, per capita consumption of beef--the kingpin of the meat department--was approximately 78.3 pounds last year, compared with 76.5 pounds in 1980 and 94.4 pounds back in 1976, which, incidentally, was beef's record year.

Retailers report that beef has been sparking renewed consumer interest in the last few months--and with good reason. Beef has been at its lowest price since April 1981, and pork at its lowest level since the spring of 1982. The declines are due, in large part, to last summer's drought in the Midwest which caused grain feed production to drop by approximately 50%. The high cost of feed prompted many ranchers to send their herds to slaughter earlier than usual, glutting the market with meat. However, industry analysts say prices of beef, pork and veal are all expected to begin rising by spring, and to continue going up throughout the year, possibly more than 10%. Poultry prices may also increase considerably, say the experts.

According to the Yankelovich study, fresh beef (other than ground) is served in 82% of U.S. households during a normal two week period. An additional 15% report serving fresh beef occasionally and 3% say they never serve it. The study puts average frequency of consumption at 3.4 times in two weeks, and points out that heavy fresh beef users (serving it twice a week) tend to be affluent. A high level of commitment to meat, a lack of concern regarding price, and low health concerns are said to support their frequent usage.

They study found ground beef--served in 89% of U.S. households during a two week period--to be the most widely used fresh meat type. Seven percent of respondents report serving it occasionally and 4% say they never serve it. Demographically speaking, ground beef's heavy users (those serving it twice a week or more) tend to be downscale and to have larger households.

Pork had its record year back in 1980 when per capita consumption was 68.3 pounds, according to the American Meat Institute. Despite declines for a couple of years, per capita consumption of pork is believed to be on the way back up again due to lower prices.

According to the Yankelovich study, 58% of primary shoppers served pork during a normal two week period, 27% are occasional users, and 15% never serve it. Pork's greatest strengths were found to be taste and economy. The researchers report that heavy users tend to have lower incomes and appear to "trade down" to pork as an alternative to fresh beef, other than ground. They also indicate that consumers--even heavy users--have serious health concerns about eating pork.

Poultry continues to increase in price--and in popularity. According to the American Meat Institute, per capita poultry consumption was approximately 65.3 pounds last year compared with 60.6 pounds in 1980, and 51.8 pounds in 1976, a 26% gain during the same period that beef was declining. Chicken was cited as the chief alternative to fresh beef by heavy beef users in the Yankelovich study. Says one chain vice president, "I feel that poultry may exceed beef at retail by the year 2000." Retailer Reactions

At Safeway Stores in Landover, Md., Meat Merchandiser Bruce Nuckolls reports that beef has recovered in sales at his stores and that pork and chicken sales have also increased. "Beef is number one in tonnage," he says. "Poultry is number two and pork comes in third." He adds that, up until recently, the meat department had accounted for 32% of total store sales, but i's now up to 35%.

Executive Vice President Bob Goodale at Harris-Teeter Supermarkets in Charlotte, N.C., says that, although total meat sales continue to be down, fresh beef is "ahead of a year ago by 15%." He explains that the chain saw some serious reductions in red meat sales in February and March of last year but that the picture began improving during November and December--at the expense of poultry.

"Price have a lot to do with it. Our top three were always beef, poultry and pork, in that order. But at the present time, it's beef, pork and poultry. It's price driven and feature activity driven," he points out, saying that fryers, which were once featured at 39 cents a pound, now often go for as high as 55 cents a pound.

At Florida's Publix Supermarkets, Lamar Blanton, vice president of meat operations says, "Beef is the best value that it's been in years. Consumers are buying more of it due to advertising and to price, but I would lay it mainly to price."

Al Marinelli, director of meat operations at New York's D'Agostino's Supermarkets, is also pleased that the red meat sales picture has improved lately, but never loses sight of the fact that it may be a temporary situation.

He says, "Beef sales as a percent of total meat sales slowly began coming back in the past three months. Before that, chicken had taken over. I was looking at an old price list recently and noted that, pound-for-pound, beff is about 25 cents cheaper now. This could help, but not for long. With soybeans and corn feed being so high, I feel we're going to see a lot of meat prices rise after the spring."

Marinelli says that chicken was his top meat mover until about six months ago, but that beef has now surpassed it. "Chicken had been 37% of tonnage and beef, only 22%," he says. "Now, beef accounts for 35% and chicken comes in second at 29%. Chickens are getting higher and higher in price," adds Marinelli. "People can now buy T-bone steaks for less than two chicken breasts." Marinelli says that lamb and veal share the number three spot at this stores, each accounting for 6%-10% of meat department tonnage. Pork comes next, accounting for 5% to 6%.

At Marsh, Young reports that beef sales at his chain "are picking up some, but very minimally," and that poultry, the number two tonnage mover, is increasing in sales. It must be noted, though, that he is in a very competitive market and has been featuring chicken at 39 cents a pound.

Young is fairly typical in reporting that pork holds the number three position in his meat cases. "Pork got reasonably high this past spring and through the fall but has not dropped. However, it held ground for us, even during its highest prices."

Other meat department components that were part of the Yankelovich consumer study included whole hams, bacon, bologna and other luncheon meats, and hot dogs. The study found that ham is served largely as a "special occasion" meal for cost and health reasons, and that 48% of primary shoppers serve it during a two-week period. Heavy ham users are very affluent, according to teh survey data, which suggests that they may be purchasing precooked hams more, while moderate and light users appear to be "cooking from scratch."

Heavy hot dog users were found to be "price-driven" consumers in lower-income brackets, including single-parent households headed by working women. The study found that the chief deterrents to hot dog consumption are concerns about additives, preservatives and salt.

Concerns about additives and preservatives are also key factors dissuading consumers from using bacon, but the study points out that cooking time and price are also major deterrents. Still, nearly two-thirds of U.S. households are bacon users. Heavy users, who account for 30% of users, were found to serve bacon five or more times per two-week period.

Bologna and other luncheon meats remain popular due to their perceived economy and convenience as well as their appeal to children, note the researchers, who point out that luncheon meats are considered an excellent value among less affluent families. The greatest deterrent to use of tehse products was found to be concern about health and nutritional value. Health Concerns--Taken to Heart?

The health issue is a "mixed bag," according to the Yankelovich study, which found that, while "everyone cites health concerns as impacting food purchase decisions," many consumers fail to "practice what they preach." The researchers contend that health considerations are responsible for reduced meat consumption among only a relatively small proportion of consumers--or those in the "Health Oriented" category. For those who fall under the "Active Lifestyle" heading, concerns about health were found to merely add to reduced consumption, with the driving force stemming from their busy lifestyles. "Creative Cooks" were found to express health concerns, but to not usually let these interfere with their enjoyment of meat.

Although the general public has been bombarded for years with reports about the possible heart disease and cancer connections of animal fats in the diet, it is now being exposed to conflicting articles and reports by some members of the scientific community who question the diet-disease theory. Consumers are also reading a lot more these days about the nutritional value of red meats--which are high in protein, minerals such as iron and zinc, and B-vitamins.

Gene Matheney, Harris-Teeter's director of meat merchandising, feels that this "good press" that red meat has been getting lately regarding health and nutrition may have something to do with the recent beef gains his chain is enjoying. "Consumers have been reading how beef is no longer considered unhealthy and that red meats are no longer the cholesterol culprits they have thought to be 10 years ago," he says. "They now seem to be taking that information to heart."

Howerver, Goodale feels that the move back to beef is strictly price driven. "When the price is high, it's smart to say beef isn't good for you," he contends.

D'Agostino's Marinelli concurs. "A customer who doesn't want beef due to health considerations, shouldn't buy it--no matter what the price. However, when it's put on special--many people go back to beef." He adds, "We need to educate consumers that a piece of lean beef can be no higher in cholesterol than poultry--which they usually eat the skin of, and cook with butter."

A New England chain buyer recalls a situation which sums up his feelings about consumers and the meat/health issue: "A lady once walked up to our meat counter--with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth--and insisted upon a piece of meat with no fat on it at all!" Spreading the Good News

The meat industry must obviously try to spread the positive meat message to consumers. The Yankelovich study outlined two marketing strategies it could take: One is to actively pursue the light user groups while "holding" the current heavy franchise. The other is to focus efforts on increasing usage among heavy users, while avoiding further erosion among light users. At this time, the promotional efforts of the meat industry seem to be going in the first direction.

"It's both a concern and an opportunity for us that the people who have the most disposable income, the highest educational level, and the white collar jobs are the ones who have the lowest commitment to meat," says John Francis of the National Live Stock and Meat Board, admitting, "There's no question that it's easier to maintain a market than it is to win it back."

But "win it back" the meat industry is attempting to do, and its strategy is definitely targeted at those in the "Active Lifestyle" segment. A case in point is the beef industry's promotional campaign which evolved from "Somehow, Nothing Satisfies Like Beef" a few years back to the current theme of "Beef Gives Strength."

"The 'satisfaction' program was directed at heavy and moderate users of beef," says Jim Olsen of the Beef Industry Council. "As a result of consumer research, lighter users and more active lifestyles became more important to us and we're starting to target more of our efforts their way. Our TV ads, for instance, nw feature hurdlers, tennis players and soccer players."

In another attempt to change the emphasis from "fat to fit," the meat industry celebrated National Meat Week Jan. 22 to 28, and meat companies and livestock producers across the country proclaimed meat "a food for fitness," in an effort to emphasize its contribution to a nutritious diet. National activities included television and radio discussions by nutritionists on the diet benefits of meat; regional press briefings; cooking demonstrations; speeches to community groups; and in-store paticipation by retailers, who were offered color posters illustrating the nutritional contributions of meat, and ad slicks.

One strong retailer participant in the program was Cincinnati-based Kroger Supermarkets. "We thought of it as a good way to inform the public," says O.C. Cook, vice president of meat merchandising, who explains that in-store signage and "Meat Week" print ads supported the promotional effort. "We've seen some improvement in red meat sales--both beef and pork. Some of it is due to price, of course, but some is due to the more favorable publicity that's been coming out lately. National Meat Week stressed the positive things about protein in red meat--that the diet should include some red meat." Beefed Up P-O-P

In other efforts to accentuate the positive, the meat industry has been going strong with point-of-purchase programs. The well-known Pork Council program is now in its second year, and the Beef Industry Council has also begun promoting its own p-o-p kit to retailers for the "Beef Gives Strength" Retail Merchandising Promotion during February and March. Trade ads advise retailers who want to sell 16% more beef to "try sign language."

The 16% goal stems from the results of the organization's 1983 Beef Point-of-Purchase Study conducted in September in 11 cities by an independent research firm. In each market the researchers tracked one-week sales in identical pairs of high-volume stores in the same chain that had the same demographic profile, the same store design, quality and volume. In each city and chain, one store used no p-o-p displays at the meat counter, and the other used the Beef Council's fall promotion materials. According to Jim Olsen, the average tonnage increase in stores that used the p-o-p materials was 16%. He explains that the p-o-p kit is available free to retailers, and that the organization will install the display materials free of charge at stores doing $4 million and up in sales volume.

Many retailers have also developed consumer meat educational materials of their own that are distributed right at the meat counter, or in other areas of the store. At Harris-Teeter, for example, a recipe program called "Helpin' Out in the Kitchen" features recipes calling for meat items that are on special each weeek, as well as "Daily Menu Ideas," which are on display in the meat department.

Recipes are also offered at the Columbus, Ohio-based Big Bear stores which have service meat counters, according to Consumer Consultant Jo ellen Helmlinger. She says these are offered on spinner racks at the counters and feature recipes which tend to be "on the leaner side and have a new look to them," but which are not labeled "light" or "lowcal." Microwave recipes, she adds, are labeled accordingly.

Free "Informed Shoppers' Bulletins" are distributed monthly at Massachusetts-based Purity Supreme stores and cover meat topics such as "Beef It Up," "Let's Talk Turkey," "Stretch Your Beef Dollar," and "Pork Pointers." The chain also has two sets of recipes in the meat department for consumers to help themselves to, according to Pauline Burke, director of meat and deli.

She explains that one consists of regular recipes for each meat category including beef, veal, lamb, pork and poultry, while the other, the "Eat-Wise" program contains a calorie-, sodium-and fat-alert that offers shoppers alternative ways to prepare dishes to reduce the calories, the fat and the sodium. Alice Grover, the chain's director of consumer relations, also gives cooking demonstrations and instructions on meat identification via an in-store video program which can be watched by consumers on a 19-inch screen.

Kroger's Cook says meat demos--mainly with fresh pork products--are also conducted at his stores, and adds that other educational efforts include the distribution of pamphlets and a nutrition labeling program. According to Carol Williams of the chain's advertising department, the nutrition program has been in effect for about three years and provides shoppers with information for 51 different meat items. Besides including advice on what quality to buy, the labels give calorie, protein, fat, cholesterol, sodium, vitamin and mineral information.

The Nutri-Scan program in progress at First National Supermarkets is billed as a "shopping guide to calories, fat and sodium." Although it started out as a sign program in the meat, and other departments, the signage is no longer up, and the chain is simply distributing the Nutri-Scan booklet at this time, according to Susan Barlow, director of the Consumer Center in Maple Heights, Ohio. She adds that a recipe program offering four recipes a week is also in progress at the chain's Pick-n-Pay stores in the Ohio division.

While most chains report favorable customer response to these educational aids, this is not the case at Corpus Christi, Tex.-based H.E. Butt, where customer relations Manager Fred Sapp reports that shoppers "are not particularly interested or concerned about health matters or nutritional information." He also adds that, although the chain offers recipes both in-store and in newspaper ads, they are "just fairly received."

Weekly meat features have always been the backbone of the grocers' advertising. Says Jerry Sgobassi, corporate vice president of meat at California's Lucky Stores, "Every week is 'Meat Week' with us. We advertise beef 52 weks a year and always include it in our ad no matter what our other meat features are."

The same is true at Shaw's Supermarkets in East Bridgewater, Mass. "At Shaw's we never stop promoting meat, and we never run a program that doesn't include beef," reports R. Gagne, meat buyer.

Publix's Blanton explains that the chain has one or two advertised meat promotions every quarter. Themes such as "Roundup Days" are used, and value is promoted heavily, he says.

D'Agostino's Marinelli feels strongly about keeping meat ads honest. "My theory is: Don't play with the mind of the consumer. One of our competitors, for instance, has been featuring 'Steak Day' on Wednesday only, and higher prices on the other days of the week. The price posted in the window looks cheaps at first glance, but in small print, it reads, 'Wednesday only.' I feel that the more you play games with consumers, the smarter they'll get, and they may begin to turn their backs on meat--and go with more poultry or fish--instead."

Will consumers continue to make meatier purchases come springtime, and higher prices? It's anybody's guess, of course, but Kroger's Cook sounds somewhat hopeful when he says, "People seem to be emjoying meat once again. Perhaps we can keep them eating it." That's certainly the goal of the meat industry, which will, doubtless, continue to go "whole hog" in its promotional and educational efforts to turn lighter users into meat eaters.
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Author:Linsen, Mary Ann
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Feb 1, 1984
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