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Retail circulars lead to supermarket sales

by Larry Aylward
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It’s a supermarket print circular advertisement that probably made mouths drool and had folks filing into the meat department at Vons supermarket in Oakhurst, Calif. Vons offered the luscious ad this past January. It featured Foster Farms chicken breasts, spare ribs, T-bone steak and hamburger. All items appeared cooked to perfection — grill marks never looked better — and were presented in tantalizing four-color photography.

Vons’ circular was dramatically different than one presented recently by Sabor Latino Supermarket in Canyon Country, Calif., which featured four-color photographs of raw boneless beef chuck shoulder steak and raw chicken leg meat. Did the Sabor Latino circular have the same impact as the Vons circular? It depends on whom you ask.

One thing is for sure: Supermarket circulars that feature meat and poultry products aren’t one in the same. Their subject matter is dictated by several variables, especially demographics.

For example, Oakhurst, the city where Vons is located, is a middle-class community in central California near Yosemite National Park. Oakhurst’s population is mostly white, a segment of the population that prefers to see cooked meat and poultry products in circulars.

Santa Clarita, the city where Sabor Latino is located, has a large Hispanic population, a segment that prefers to see raw meat and poultry in circulars.

Greg Parnell, the owner of Southeast Media, a Houston-based interactive marketing firm that creates circulars for supermarkets, points out that different demographic segments have different perceptions when it comes to how they perceive meat and poultry products as fresh.

“Some people will say that photographs of raw meat aren’t appealing to them,” Parnell says. “They don’t want to see a raw chicken breast; they want to see it cooking on a grill or on a sandwich or styled in some way that it looks like the end product. But a Hispanic consumer might look at the same photograph of raw meat and say the product looks fresh.”

The growing Hispanic population in the US has influenced the way meat and poultry products are portrayed in circulars. In Texas and other parts of the country where there’s a large and growing Hispanic base, supermarkets’ circular ads typically depict raw meat products.

“These people are part of a generation that still cooks the majority of their meals at home, and they’re used to seeing the meat in a raw state,” Parnell says. “They’re not as detached from the food preparation process as more affluent people are.”

Circular staples

Cooked or raw, meat and poultry products are staple items for supermarket circulars.

“They’re two of the most important items that consumers are looking for,” Parnell says. “And if a store can establish a reputation for freshness [of those products], the consumer will go there [to buy those products].”

The meat and poultry products portrayed in circulars are also dictated by demographics. For instance, first-generation Hispanics, who shop the meat market two or three times a week to purchase fresh meat, usually don’t shop for short ribs.

“Many of our supermarket customers are catering to these consumers by expanding their meat departments and offering cuts of meat that are unique to the culture,” Parnell says.

That might include a whole head of pig.

“You would never have seen that in white, suburban America, but it’s very popular to have those kinds of items in a predominantly Hispanic area,” Parnell says.

Laurie Mesch, a production manager for VIP Advertising in Hauppauge, NY, which creates circulars for chain and independent retailers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, says the most popular meat and poultry items featured in the agency’s circulars are whole chickens, boneless chicken breast, sirloin steak, hamburger and chicken wings. The products are pictured in both raw and cooked states, depending on a circular’s region.

It’s not uncommon for one of VIP’s customers to request a photograph of a raw whole lamb to be portrayed in an ad. Or there might be photos of raw pig feet, oxtails and even cow hooves.

Big changes

As graphic design has progressed, so have circular ads. The best circular ads may appear sleek, like a finely designed magazine.

“Obviously, the biggest change has been in the use of four-color photography,” Parnell says.

It’s a huge change, considering that a cut of beef or poultry — raw or cooked — appears much more enticing in color.

“If you go back 20 years, there was a lot of black and white photography … it was just a piece of meat and its price,” Parnell says.

Thanks to photo editing software like Photoshop, colors can be adjusted to make meat and poultry items appear as enticing as possible.

Speaking of Photoshop, another big change in the production of circular ads was the advent of desktop publishing.

Mesch remembers not along ago in the 1980s when circulars were created by hand on layout tables. Now everything is created electronically.

The technology upgrade aided graphic designers of circulars, says Mesch, noting that they have more font options, use of colors and overall options for different designs.

“And it’s so easy to manipulate something [like a photograph] in an instant,” she adds.

The challenge for Southeast Media is to keep ads looking fresh while maintaining the retailers’ brand and identity.

“We don’t want our customers’ ads to look like everybody else’s ads,” Parnell says.

Southeast Media also conducts studies on behalf of its clients to determine how consumers use circular ads, what they like in the ads and what price points attract them. However, some retailers use their meat departments as points of differentiation.

“Meat is the dominant food in any meal,” Parnell says. “Most grocery stores have very established relationships with one or more meat providers, and they buy week to week from the one that they feel has the best offering for that particular week.

“Then when it comes to merchandising these products, they go through what’s available, what the price points are and what customers really want.”

There will always be a featured meat or poultry item on page one of a circular ad and usually two or three meat features, Parnell says.

“Usually, these are lost leaders,” he adds. “If retailers are paying $4.50 a lb. for something, they might be selling it for $3.99 a lb. The purpose is to be the most aggressive to attract the consumer in so that they will buy other things and not shop elsewhere.”

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