Three years removed from the previous survey designed to provide a snapshot of the typical retail meat case, the fourth study of its kind reflects the impact of the recession on consumers and merchandising trends in supermarket and club store meat departments.

Earlier this week, the 2010 National Meat Case Study research team gave an exclusive, in-depth look at the latest survey results. Some of the details are covered below as a pre-cursor to a full report that will be published in the November issue of Meat&Poultry magazine.

Jerry Kelly, National Retail Account Manager for Sealed Air's Cryovac brand, led the discussion, beginning with some information about the data collection. In this and previous studies, auditors conducted their research during the first quarter of the year, to avoid any skewed results related to holiday sales. The team audited the major supermarket chains representing 51 markets throughout 31 states. A total of 133 stores were audited, including nine club stores.

As in years past, the audit team was comprised of graduate students from Texas Tech Univ.’s meat science and animal science programs who collected the data, which was then analyzed by First Stage Marketing. Partners on the project also included Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging, The Beef Checkoff Program and the National Pork Board.

While arguments can be made as to whether the US economy is in the midst of a recession or on its way out, Kelly says with certainty that when it comes to the meat case, “Things have changed,” since the 2007 survey. The team worked an average of four hours in each store, counting every SKU of the major proteins as well as sausage and value-added products; measuring linear feet of display space; and assessing overall merchandising practices, which includes point-of-purchase material and promotions. Efforts were made to conduct most of the audits between Thursday and Sunday when, according to Food Marketing Institute research, meat cases are typically at their fullest. “This way we get a very good example of what is supposed to be on display and how they are merchandising it,” Kelly says. The supermarket sample included audits of about 161,000 packages representing 288,000 pounds of product and a cumulative total of approximately 21,400 SKUs.

While the sample size of club stores (a total of nine) was much smaller than the supermarkets, Kelly pointed out that the percentage of chicken packages showed the biggest increase (10%) in the meat cases of the warehouse-type stores, at 28% compared to 2007. Beef, including whole muscle and ground beef, remained the solid leader among supermarkets and club stores, representing 40% of packages and 37% respectively.

Notably, the percentage of pork packages at supermarkets stayed relatively flat, at about 20%, while dropping substantially among the nine club stores from 46% in 2007 to 23% in 2010. Part of the explanation for the marked decrease has been attributed to the lower pork production numbers and slightly higher prices during the quarter the survey was conducted.

John Green, strategic marketing director, says sales reports among club store customers during the quarter were strong (especially for back ribs) and that the drop in pork packages may be attributed in part to the number of packages staying the same as in previous years while the survey included a larger sample size in 2010. “Our contacts at the club stores are very pleased with their pork sales so we aren’t yet concerned by this,” he says. It does indicate a possible opportunity for adding more varieties of cuts of pork, Green adds.

When it comes to percentage of pounds on display in the fresh meat case, beef, turkey, lamb and veal all remained relatively flat at both supermarkets and club stores. Likewise, at 36% of lbs., chicken at supermarkets remained unchanged in 2007 and 2010, but increased from 25% to 34% at club stores. Conversely, pork was relatively flat (21% ) at supermarkets, but dropped from 37% in 2007 to 26% at the club stores surveyed in 2010. Green points out that the data substantiates a trend that sees more pork buyers purchasing larger packages of products.

“There are a lot of whole loins and whole shoulders that are sold through club stores,” he says, not unlike buyers of 5-lb. packages of beef who use what they need and freeze the remainder for later. These are predominantly the consumers who “always serve meat and always want to have it on hand,” he says.

In terms of linear feet dedicated to fresh meat (including beef, pork, lamb, veal chicken, turkey and other) the amount of space declined from 66% in 2007 to 63% in 2010. This resulted in the linear feet of non-fresh meat (processed, sausage, ham, seafood, value-added and heat-and-serve) increasing from 34% to 37% in 2010. The percentage of supermarkets offering full-service meat cases showed a decline to 77%, after trending up from 67% in 2002 to a high of 79% in 2007.

Similar to 2007, the heat-and-serve category (excluding sausage) continues to be led by chicken (39% of packages), but pork gained ground from 19% in 2001 to 23% in 2010 as did beef (from 26% to 29%).

Some of the other NMCS details covered included a decline in the average number of packages per foot in the fresh meat case; substantial increase use of bilingual verbiage on ground beef packaging; country-of-origin labeling displayed on most (between 75% and 80%) packages; “minimally processed” was the most common production claim; and an expansion of nutritional labeling on packages.

A detailed report on the 2010 National Meat Case Study will be published in the November 2010 issue ofMeat&Poultry.