WASHINGTON, DC – Consumers have implemented a variety of money-saving measures at the meat case in recent years, but the grocery shopping world appears to be reaching a new balance, with net spending rising for the first time in three years. So states the sixth annual The Power of Meat study. Conducted by 210 Analytics, the study was commissioned jointly by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute with sponsorship by Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging Division.

The study, which details the findings of a national online poll of 1,201 consumers conducted in November 2010, was released Feb. 22 at the 2011 Annual Meat Conference in Dallas, Texas.

Although some shoppers still spent less on groceries than they did one year ago, the share of shoppers who have made changes to their meat and poultry purchases as a result of the economy declined for the second year in a row, down from 51% in 2009 to 36% today. The share of shoppers who cut their total food spending (restaurant and grocery spending combined) compared to 12 months prior is down by 17%.

As the economy continues struggling, higher prices and lower disposable incomes could again shake up the status quo in the way people buy groceries. But one thing hasn’t changed: the meat department continues to be a key differentiator for full-service supermarkets. Supermarkets maintained their market share as respondents’ primary store for meat and poultry purchases at 68%. When taking a look at shoppers who identify their primary store as a supermarket, most, 88%, also purchase meat there.

“Clearly, supermarkets are finding ways to maintain their customers’ business to a major extent in the midst of an extremely difficult business environment,” the study concluded.

Occasional deal seekers have now become dedicated bargain hunters, with three-quarters of shoppers claiming they research meat deals either before going to the store by means of a circular or specials posted online or in the store. Nine out of 10 shoppers compare prices when shopping in the meat department, making it clear that signage is key to maximizing the sales opportunity.

On the other hand, bulk purchases are less popular than in the past two years. “Spending less by buying less appears to be an effective measure,” the study stated. “Shoppers who say they are buying less spend nearly $14 less than the national weekly grocery bill average. For retailers, elimination of items rather than substitution is a dangerous development. Shoppers are also less interested in family packs and report that more substantial discounts are needed to prompt them to purchase in bulk.”

Price per lb. is the dominant factor in selecting meat and poultry, according to the study. Marketing and merchandising measures are especially influential on the kind of meat or poultry purchased, but also influence the quantity. In-store sales promotions are key drivers and as such, good signage is key to maximize the meat purchase. Coupons are of interest also, but shoppers commented that fresh meat coupons are hard to find.

Most purchases continue to come from the meat case as opposed to the service counter. The quality perception of case-ready meat reached its highest point in the six-year history of this survey. Simultaneously, the lowest share of shoppers since the start of the survey said they would think more highly of the quality of the meat if processed at a USDA-certified facility.

Leak-proof, or vacuum-sealed, packaging is catching on with shoppers with both an increased awareness of the concept and increased usage. Environmentally friendly packaging, on the other hand, is met with only mild interest that does not allow for any price premiums over conventional packaging.

One-third of shoppers said they are noticing labels — predominantly directly on the package, some three years after mandatory country-of-origin labeling went into effect. The percentage of shoppers willing to pay more for US-raised-and-processed meat and poultry is the same as before at about one-third of shoppers.

Shoppers prepare an average of four home-cooked meals containing a meat or poultry item per week. But while home-cooked meals made a strong comeback, shoppers don’t necessarily know how to cook meat and poultry. Less than half consider themselves very knowledgeable in areas such as cooking meat, poultry and seafood, and significant numbers admit they need to improve on things like picking sides that match the meat’s flavor profile, pairing the right wine with the meal, marinating and spicing meat and poultry, and even the USDA beef grading system.

Education methods popular among these shoppers include recipes surrounding the items featured in the weekly sales ad and online tips. Among smart phone users, interest in apps teaching them more about meat and poultry is high.

Chicken and beef continue to dominate the dinner plate, but this year the survey noted a rise in heat-and-eat meats while the consumption of fresh meat remained flat. This is another indication of market recovery, with a shift from saving to convenience for at least some shoppers. Marinated meats also gained in popularity. This comes along with a growing general interest in spicier and more flavorful foods, especially as ethnic foods are going mainstream.

Regarding healthy eating, respondents said they were most likely to cut back on portion sizes or second helpings, followed by choosing foods lower in sodium than their regular counterparts. Most said they are not willing to give up meat regularly compared to those who have implemented “meatless Mondays” (26% vs. 18%).

Healthy eating strategies relative to protein consumption differ widely by gender, age, income and other factors. Women are much more likely to limit their meat and poultry consumption, for example.

Shopper frugality is resulting in a lesser focus on eating healthfully. Fewer shoppers are checking the nutrition facts panel when purchasing fresh and processed meat and the number of shoppers who say they succeed in eating a healthy diet regularly is down compared to previous years. Regarding nutrition information, shoppers continue to check this information most frequently for processed meat, with 29% doing so every time and 37% sometimes.

“Healthy eating in 2011 primarily focuses on portion control and minimizing sodium intake. Additionally, shoppers scan for the fat content and calories, and are starting to focus a little more on what to include as opposed to what to avoid,” the study stated.

While shoppers’ attention remains on “light, low and no”, there seems to be somewhat of a shift in focus to items that shoppers want to include in their diets, such as protein, fiber and various vitamins. Although attributes they are trying to limit or avoid did not score as highly, each attribute grew in importance compared with 2010 ratings.

“While subtle, this shift could lead to growing interest among shoppers for manufacturers and retailers to tout the benefits of meat and poultry more clearly, such as protein, iron and low carbohydrates,” the study suggested.

The struggling economy has been a proving ground for organic and natural meat. Although the category did not experience significant growth, it did not decline either. One in five shoppers has purchased natural and/or organic meat or poultry in the past three months. With strong belief in the positive long-term health effects of organic meat and poultry, shoppers are unwilling to give up this choice even if they only purchase organic for certain kinds or cuts of meat.

Shoppers name an increasing variety of reasons for purchasing organic meat and poultry. The most significant reason is perceived long-term health benefits from the consumption of organic meat and poultry (44%) as well as a belief (37%) that the primary benefit is better health and treatment of the animal. One-third of shoppers also cited perceived better nutritional value, better taste and freshness as a key factor in organic meat and poultry purchases.

The survey probed ways retailers can improve the meat department to encourage meat and poultry purchases. As shoppers try to save money when purchasing groceries, including meat and poultry, one popular measure is minimizing impulse purchases. Many shoppers carefully research the upcoming trip, prepare lists and stick to the list as much as possible. Forty percent of shoppers — double the share of that in 2007 — said nothing retailers do will persuade them to purchase more, challenging retailers in their marketing and merchandising efforts. Others say better quality and variety would prompt increased purchases.

When respondents were asked what improvements could be made to shopping in the meat department, answers ranged from variety and freshness to cleanliness and signage. Many suggestions pertained to price, including comments about lowering prices, as well as better specials, more coupons, meal deals and bulk discounts.