Fresh Food

How Data Is Transforming the Meat Case

Consumer insights reveal new sales opportunities in meat and deli
Illustration: WGB Staff

Consumer insights have never been more important to grocers and suppliers, especially in perishable categories, where timely sales are critical for profitability. As such, retailers are increasingly relying on meat and deli shopper data to inform their decisions on everything from product offerings and shelf facings to pricing and personalization, while manufacturers are using data to better understand shoppers and develop the on-trend products they want to buy.

“Data is the future, and the future is now,” says Chuck Gitkin, chief marketing officer for Cargill Protein North America, Wichita, Kan. A few years ago, Cargill Protein created a consumer insights team to help analyze flavor trends, consumer behaviors and shelf-space knowledge to address consumer demand and retailer challenges with new product offerings in the meat and deli departments.

When one of Cargill Protein’s grocery retail customers wanted to change its approach to merchandising and customer communication in the meat department, Cargill surveyed its shoppers to learn what was working and what wasn’t.

What the survey revealed was that consumers need help navigating the meat department. “Meat is very high-interest but very low-knowledge,” Gitkin says. “Consumers don’t know the difference between select choice and prime, and they use the terms ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ interchangeably. We also found that people want to know that their beef is from the USA, and they want information about the cut and what you can do with it.”

Shoppers are frequently in a hurry as they make their way through the store. Data insights such as these can help grocers identify the selling points, messaging and educational tools that will resonate with customers most, and in the least amount of time.

To gain additional consumer insights in the meat department, Cargill Protein recently conducted a Future of Beef study focused on fresh beef, which surveyed 4,000 consumers in the U.S. and more than 2,000 in Canada. The survey explored consumer attitudes and perceptions, as well as satisfaction level in shopping for fresh beef.

“There continues to be demand for convenience options,” says Cory Lommel, Cargill Protein’s director of consumer insights, of the study’s findings. “People are busy and time-starved, especially younger people. The desire for convenience is impacting value-added, which we see as a growth driver.”

Data-driven insights are also informing the product development side of Cargill Protein’s business. For example, its new grab-and-go Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms Turkey Dippers represent the intersection of three of today’s hottest food trends.

“First, consumers are snacking more,” Gitkin says. “Second, there is a consumer renaissance with protein. They’re looking for more protein in their diets and, as a result, beef, poultry and eggs are really coming to life again, which is something that doesn’t often happen in a mature category. And the third trend is that consumers want real food.”

Opportunities to Increase Profitability 

With more data than ever before, grocers and suppliers may be experiencing information overload. Here are five areas where consumer insights may be used to spur additional sales in meat, deli, online and throughout the store.

A Surge in Protein Seekers: According to the Future of Beef study from Cargill Protein, 80% of consumers say “high protein” is very or extremely important when buying beef, poultry and fish. “We continue to see protein as something consumers desire,” Lommel says. “This trend doesn’t seem to have an end.” And yet Cargill Protein’s consumer insights reveal that many shoppers don’t know how much protein is in fresh meat.

“We see this as an opportunity for the fresh meat industry and our retail customers to celebrate protein more,” says Lommel. Cargill Protein recently redesigned its certified ground beef package to include a “prominent claim on protein,” he says.

Talk vs. Walk: Data insights can also offer grocers an informative reality check when it comes to what consumers claim is important to them versus. their purchasing habits. “In the meat category, data has definitely been a disrupter,” says Steve Hixon, strategic business services director for Midan Marketing, Chicago. “What people say they want and what they buy can be completely different things.”

For example, earlier this year, Midan released its Meat Consumer Segmentation 2.0 study, which found that 51% of meat shoppers say they look for meat with no antibiotics, but only 19% say that they regularly purchase it. Furthermore, while 50% of meat shoppers say they look for meat with no added hormones, only 24% say they regularly purchase meat having no hormones.

To understand the mind of the shopper at a particular banner and at individual stores—each with unique demographics—data and marketing specialists such as Midan engage with consumers in person around products in store. “You get a lot of great information about the product and the category when you interact live with the shopper,” Hixon says. This real-time data can then be compared with online research to provide retailers with a more complete shopper picture.

The Beef Buyer’s Basket: The beef buyer is a desirable customer. Putting complementary products from sauces to vegetables and wine in front of this shopper (both in-store and online) can be an important way to increase basket ring. “For 2019 year-to-date, beef has accounted for nearly 52% of meat department sales,” says Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence for Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

“It brings in more dollars than any other item at retail (2.1% of total), while nearly 6.3% of baskets include beef,” says Krebs, who cites IRI Panel Data (all outlets for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 6, 2019). “Further, the average basket with beef is more than twice that of the typical ring ($85.70 vs. $41.33, respectively). So bringing in beef shoppers generates greater sales across the entire store.” 

An NCBA/Beef Checkoff Market Basket study earlier this year examined what items shoppers purchase in conjunction with different types of beef, providing retailers with cross-merchandising ideas to further drive sales. “For example, steak buyers also purchase meat-related sauces and higher-end cheeses along with fresh produce, whereas ground-beef shoppers include spices, mixes, sliced cheeses and pastas in their carts,” Krebs says.

If cross-department items aren’t easily displayed together, Krebs recommends using signage that lets customers shopping the produce department know that ribeye steak or London broil is on sale this week, and likewise meat department signage that reminds them to pick up cheese for their ground beef.

Personalization: “It’s not about just one product in the meat department. You have to look at complementary purchases to understand the overall customer behavior in a category,” says Josh Whitton, VP of client leadership for Dunnhumby USA, Cincinnati, which works with retailers including Meijer, Raley’s, Weis Markets, PCC Community Markets and others to provide insights on what’s driving the market.

Dunnhumby harnesses data to better understand consumer shopping behavior, “what customers are really putting in their baskets” and, from a pricing perspective, what they are willing to pay, Whitton says.

These data-driven consumer insights can then inform the grocery retailer’s personalization efforts. If, for example, a customer regularly purchases cabernet sauvignon from the wine department, and he or she also buys premium meat, the grocer can personalize its communication to that customer to let the shopper know that cabernet and grass-fed beef are on special.

“We also work with retailers as brands do line extensions,” Whitton says. “When you understand what other products customers may want [whether that’s keto-grouped items, plant-based foods or something else], the retailer can provide personalized communications to customers to let them know that a particular product is available at that particular store.” Communication can be via text, email or print.

Where to Place Plant-Based: Change is coming to the meat department—and in some cases, it’s plant-based. “Data is also helpful in understanding forecasts and making accurate predictions,” says Patty McDonald, global solution marketing director for Symphony RetailAI in Dallas. “For meat retailing, we’re certainly seeing healthy eating have a big impact on the industry. Go into any grocery store, and you’ll see plant-based and meat substitutes popping up and influencing the demand for traditional meat items.

“There are so many nuances to keep up with that impact meat products,” she continues. “Data cannot only tell the story of an item’s performance but also how its sales impact the selling of other items (i.e., cannibalization and promotional sales).”

While grocers are increasingly responding to the plant-based trend with Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods products and more, the question for many is where to merchandise these items. “Some retailers are merchandising plant-based meat alternatives alongside actual meat, while others are putting these products in the produce section,” says Hixon of Midan Marketing, whose Meat Segmentation study showed growth in flexitarian consumers: those who want Beyond Meat one day, a burger made with ground beef and mushrooms another day, and a steak the next.

Using consumer insights to examine how customers shop, what they buy and when they buy can offer grocers useful information on merchandising these products where they will be most successful.


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