The bad news is, of course, the economy. The good news for the U.S. meat industry, however, is that the bad economy is driving shoppers to the meat department in traditional supermarkets.

According to the 2009 edition of "The Power of Meat," the annual report on trends in meat retailing jointly produced by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, supermarkets remain the top meat-purchasing location, staying well ahead of box stores and super-centers. "I think the big news is that the focus by consumers on the cost of food, which has helped the supercenters and other discounters, is not being felt, really, in the supermarket meat departments," Bill Greer, spokesman for FMI, told "Conventional supermarkets still appear to own the meat aisle. We found that even regular supercenter shoppers buy meat at the supermarket."

According to this year’s report, which is based on a survey of more than 1,000 shoppers, "[S]upermarkets still take up the majority share of trips at 66 percent. Full-service supermarkets continue to have excellent penetration among their shoppers in the meat department (88 percent). In contrast, four in 10 supercenter shoppers continue to skip the meat aisles there. Full-service supermarkets pick up the majority of this business and must find ways to expand the market basket beyond meat items to rebuild their lost market share. Value-packs are an excellent way of doing so with 58 percent of shoppers purchasing larger quantities of meat to freeze and use over time."

But while supermarkets may be more than holding their own against the supercenters in meat sales, shoppers are trading down to lower-priced costs as a way to pinch pennies. "While more people are preparing their own meals, the increased cost of meat and poultry has many shoppers looking for cheaper alternatives. As such, shoppers are reading grocery flyers to find the best price per pound (71 percent), buying cheaper cuts of meat and poultry (67 percent) and taking advantage of sales promotions (67 percent)," the study states. "Others are finding ways to stretch their meat dollar by cooking casseroles and pasta dishes as well as meatless meals. The increased focus on price, along with the ongoing quest for quality, makes it even more important for stores to find the right competitive strategy in the meat department. Cross-selling and promotions surrounding meat and poultry will be two ways to keep up sales."

Moreover, younger shoppers with young, growing families are more inclined to do all of their shopping, including making meat purchases, at supercenters.

But Greer told the long history of supermarket marketing of their meat departments especially pays off in tough economic times. "Shoppers are sticking with the meat department in supermarkets because there’s a perception of quality and assortment. There’s also a wider selection of value-added products," he said. "Supermarkets can do more focused marketing than supercenters. It’s a challenge for a supercenter to bring shoppers in for a special on, say, tires and then get them over to the meat department too."

Other findings in the 2009 edition of "The Power of Meat," the fourth time the study has been published, include the ongoing influence of promotions to lure shoppers, the surprising resilience of the natural/organic category even during the recession, and the increasing importance of health and wellness factors on meat-buying decisions.

Greer said this year’s report shows him how important it is for "each individual store to know its local customer base. If a store is located in an area where there are a lot of baby boomer-age shoppers, then health and wellness are issues of great important to these shoppers — smaller portions, too," he said. "The meat departments that will continue to succeed despite the economic climate are the ones that will make adjustments that meet the needs of their customers. You can’t take a broad-brush approach anymore. Every community is different."