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Grilling Gone Wild

By offering a variety of inspiring grilling ideas, retailers can spark sales and build customer loyalty.
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With longer days and sunny skies, it is almost that time for pool parties and backyard barbecues. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer, when consumers ditch their ovens, fire up the grill and enjoy the warm weather.

While it is no surprise that consumers indulge in hamburgers and hot dogs at their summer barbecues, there are some other surprising trends that are hot this year. Throughout the summer, consumers are grilling a broad range of foods—including prime cuts, seafood and produce—with particular interest in affordability, quality, convenience and special claims, like antibiotic-free. By focusing on these trends, retailers have an opportunity to implement summer promotions, offer recipe inspiration and build customer loyalty by providing the various types of products their customers are looking to grill.

“Meat is often the centerpiece of a grilling occasion,” says Tammy Shaw, director of retail marketing at Cargill Protein. The company’s 2015 consumer segmentation study found that nearly one-third of people said they were driven to eat meat because they wanted to grill. “When it comes to the types of protein products consumers are looking for to complete these occasions, they want something that is relevant and exciting, quick and easy, low risk and delivers great taste,” Shaw says. While beef remains a staple for grilling occasions, consumers are seeking the variety of ground beef patties pre-mixed with various ingredients. Cargill, based in Wichita, Kan., has experienced explosive growth of its fresh mix-in patties, Shaw says, with a 25 percent volume increase over last year.

Agri Beef Co. has found consumers are feeling more confident when it comes to grilling, and they are looking for a variety of higher end products to woo their family and friends. “These cuts, which can be very intimidating for backyard grillers, are becoming much more approachable,” says Seth Mortensen, marketing manager at the Boise, Idaho-based company. “As consumers become more consistently successful and confidence levels increase, they are looking for premium products, like USDA Prime, American Wagyu Beef and Kurobuta Pork, to really impress their guests.”

Retailers have an opportunity to build on that confidence and educate their customers through purchase decisions. “Consumers look to their meat department staff for cooking advice,” Mortensen adds. “We provide educational materials, like our Beef 101 guides, as tools to help pass information along to the consumer. Good advice can increase consumer loyalty and build relationships that are critical for promoting new products and driving sales.”

Smithfield Foods also provides retailers with tool kits that include recipe photography and videos, digital ads and in-store elements to educate and inspire customers. The company is also launching its “Get Grilling America” summer promotion to boost sales. “We are focused on keeping fresh pork top-of-mind by inspiring consumers with the ease and versatility of fresh pork on the grill,” says Roy Johnson, senior brand manager for the Smithfield, Va.-based company. “We’re rewarding them with thousands of grilling and cash prizes just for submitting their summer grilling photos.”

Pricing and promotions are particularly important now, as consumers explore grilling options aside from meat. “Consumers remain incredibly price sensitive for the most part, and that drives protein sales,” says Brad Caudill, vice president of marketing at Harris Ranch Beef Co., based in Selma, Calif. “It’s safe to say that beef’s market share of the barbecue grill is down significantly. As a result, we have had to get creative with not only pricing but also consumer promotions, including couponing.”

A major draw to ground beef is its affordability, says Kent Harrison, vice president of marketing and premium programs at Tyson Fresh Meats, based in Dakota Dunes, S.D. “According to The Beef Checkoff, ground beef accounts for 51 percent of total beef sold in the summer time. Because of this, we’ll see strong demand for grinds for burger patties. We’ll also see demand for beef steaks pick up, along with pork loins and butts,” he says. 

Even with higher-quality products, consumers remain conscious of what they are spending. “The product doesn’t have to be very expensive. It’s come down a bit, but even with it coming off, they’re still looking for the quality,” says Tim Haas, CEO and founder of Premier Proteins, based in Kearney, Mo. “We’re starting to do more retail-ready items, like sausages and hot dogs, burgers, fresh ground beef—things like that because people are looking for higher quality products.”

Convenience is also a driving force behind beef and pork summer sales. As the weather heats up, consumers look for easy, ready-to-cook items so they can spend less time prepping and more time enjoying the grilling occasion. “We are seeing growing interest in products that offer crowd-pleasing alternatives to traditional grilling staples like burgers and hot dogs, such as heat-and-eat ribs and other pre-cooked BBQ products,” says Kristin Kroepfl, vice president of marketing at Rupari Food Services, based in South Holland, Ill. “As consumer tastes expand and as sauced BBQ has grown in popularity, so too has the demand for convenience, protein variety, hardwood smoke and authentic regional flavor profiles.”

Consumers’ love of cooking at home and outside also drives demand for conveniently packaged meat, says John Gladney, marketing manager at Swaggerty’s Farm. The Kodak, Tenn.-based company packages its products in case-ready tray packs to communicate and seal freshness. “Swaggerty’s Farm breakfast and dinner sausage products are perfect for grillers who want a premium, local, butcher-fresh pork sausage. We are capitalizing on grilling trends by quickly solving the ‘what’s for breakfast’ or ‘what’s for dinner’ question for our retail shoppers,” Gladney says.

Swaggerty’s Farm is not the only one bringing breakfast to the grill. Man Cave Craft Meats offers a line of breakfast sausages, including Bacon, Egg, Cheddar & Hash Brown and Maple Syrup varieties. “Believe it or not, breakfast will be a fun new grilling trend, especially in parts of the country that can get too hot for afternoon grilling,” says Josh Wark, director of marketing at the Golden Valley, Minn.-based company. 

There has also been continued sales growth in meat items with special claims. In January, Nielsen Fresh reported that sales of meat with special claims were up across the fresh meat category. Cargill’s proprietary consumer data backs this up. “A 2015 study showed that ‘where raised claims’ drive the highest purchase intent for fresh beef,” says Shaw. 

Consumers want to be connected to the food they eat, says Drew Calvert, vice president of marketing, new products at Niman Ranch, based in Northglenn, Colo. “Customers are asking: ‘Where did the steak, pork chop or fearless frank come from? How was it raised? Is it antibiotic- or hormone-free?’ Consumers are searching for transparency and Niman Ranch is a brand people know to trust because of the heritage breeds, third-party humane certification, and commitment to our animals and the farmers who raise them,” he says.

Transparency is particularly important to skeptical Millennials, says Tim Strauss, owner of Strauss Brands, based in Franklin, Wis. “We want Strauss customers to feel good about their meal, no matter what their budget or protein of choice. That is why it is so important to communicate with consumers how the livestock was raised and by whom.”

When consumers are not focused on meat, they are exploring alternative grilling options, especially during the weeks between the summer holidays. Produce is an increasingly popular alternative, especially as health trends continue to grow. “More people are reducing their portions of meat and doubling up on the vegetables,” says Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations at Peri & Sons, based in Yerington, Nev. “Grilling is one of the healthiest cooking methods around because, unlike frying or sautéing, food doesn’t require the addition of oil, butter or other fats.”

Vegetable kebabs have long been a barbecue basic, but today, consumers are even throwing potatoes on the grill. Black and Gold Farms is promoting potatoes as a hearty compliment to any meat dish. “This summer, we will once again be showcasing how red potatoes can be prepared in a unique style—and that’s by taking the grill, and turning it into a smoker,” says Leah Brakke, director of new business development at the Grand Forks, N.D.-based company. “Grilling red potatoes is not top-of-mind for shoppers, so it all starts with providing inspiration and ideas.”

Health-conscious consumers are also looking for light, lean proteins to pair with their grilled vegetables. “As grillers shift to more vegetable sections, they are looking for proteins that pair well and cook as quickly,” says Jessica Henry, director of marketing at Clear Springs. The Buhl, Idaho-based company is promoting its Cedar Plank Grilled Rainbow Trout recipe this summer to inspire consumers to get some seafood on their grills. 

Similarly, Beaver Street Fisheries, based in Jacksonville, Fla., has found that shrimp is a popular grilling item in the summertime. “Healthy, clean eating also comes into play when deciding what to throw on the grill,” says Bluzette Carline, director of marketing. “Shrimp is one of the most popular seafood items purchased by consumers and we feel, possibly, that is due to its versatility. With so many ways to incorporate shrimp into a meal, it can appeal to many types of seafood lovers.”

Perhaps the most surprising grilling alternative is watermelon. Consumers are looking for unique flavors and textures, and watermelon is no exception, says Juliemar Rosado, director of retail operations and international marketing at National Watermelon Promotion Board, based in Winter Springs, Fla. “Grilled watermelon has been embraced for a few years now, finding its way into mainstream restaurants’ menus. Due to the sweet and juicy nature of watermelon, it’s most unexpected and exciting, and continues to gain momentum,” she says.

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