The fifth edition of "The Power of Meat," a joint study by theAmerican Meat Institute(AMI) and theFood Marketing Institute(FMI), finds that the recession is continuing to impact food purchasing and consumption behavior, including the meat department.

Study authors said that although meat consumption measured in tonnage was up significantly in 2009, the dollars are lagging behind as shoppers opt for cheaper cuts and prices dropped in 2009. Forty percent of shoppers say they have changed the way they purchase meat and poultry compared with before the recession, down from 51 percent in 2009. This is also significantly less than the 50 percent who are spending less on groceries overall, signifying the strength of meat and poultry in the total food consumption.

Yet, the impact of income cannot be underestimated as 62 percent of shoppers who saw a significant drop in household income have altered their meat shopping. More customers also are cooking at home versus eating out, leading to an increase in meat purchases at supermarkets and other retail outlets.

The report, which details the findings of a national online poll of 1,174 consumers conducted in November 2009, was released Monday, March 8, at the 2010 Annual Meat Conference. AMI and FMI published this consumer research, which was sponsored by Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging Division.

How shoppers save money in the meat case

Consumers take a wide variety of money-saving measures including bulk purchasing, buying on deal, trading down, substituting and eliminating groceries in general, and meat and poultry specifically. Pre-store research has become routine for many shoppers: 78 percent read grocery flyers to find the best price per pound, 73 percent buy cheaper cuts of meat and poultry and 74 percent take advantage of sales promotions. Others are finding ways to stretch their meat dollar by cooking casseroles and pasta dishes as well as meatless meals.

In-store signage top marketing measure

When customers were asked to rate six factors that influence their purchases, price ranked first with a score of 4.5 on a six-point scale, well ahead of appearance. Using circulars and newspaper advertisements, 66 percent of shoppers compare meat and poultry prices at different stores and 86 percent compare prices of different brands and cuts once in the store.

As a result, in-store signage and in-store promotions are enormously important sales drivers of meat and poultry. While nutrition information and recipes play a role in the purchasing decision, it is price that for many shoppers ultimately decides where they shop, what they buy, how much they buy and if the meat is natural/organic or conventional.

The share of shoppers to whom brand is unimportant is up to 74 percent for fresh meat and 62 percent for processed meat.

Meat consumption and meal preparation

In an average week, shoppers prepare four evening meals that include a meat item. These meals may range from frozen entrees to meals cooked from scratch. Chicken and beef continue to dominate the American dinner plate, with pork and fish a distant third and fourth. The vast majority of shoppers (78 percent) prepare fresh meat at least once a week and most even three times a week (53 percent).

Meat case versus the service counter

With 73 percent of all shoppers aware of case-ready meat, many believe the quality of pre-packaged meat and poultry is equal to or better than that cut and packaged in the store. This high level of trust in case-ready meat translates into a median of 90 percent of meat and poultry purchases originating from the self-service case. More than one-quarter of shoppers buy case-ready meat exclusively.

Reasons prompting shoppers to use the full-service counter include specialty cuts, special occasions and quantities not available in the meat case. Shoppers refer to family gatherings, holidays, barbeques and other special occasions for using the full-service counter.

Econo-sizing meets rightsizing?

Despite the economic factors, health and well-being are still highly valued in today’s society, and food plays a major role. Almost two-thirds of shoppers put some (45 percent) or a lot (25 percent) of effort into eating healthfully, but the rate of success is much lower. Despite best intentions to eat better, 42 percent say they succeed in doing so less than half of the time.

As part of shoppers’ healthy-eating strategies, they are the most likely to cut back on meat/poultry portion sizes or second helpings, followed by selecting low-sodium processed meats and eating fish or seafood more regularly. Some shoppers are cutting back on their meat intake both from a savings point of view and as a strategy to improve their diets. In terms of ingredients, shoppers’ focus is back to fat, sodium and calories.

Improving the meat department

While some shoppers state that quality and variety would prompt them to increase their meat purchases at their primary store, the most frequently mentioned suggestions in this year’s survey revolve around price. Shoppers are asking for sales promotions, meal deals, price cuts and once again underlined the importance of price in the meat department.

Organic and natural meat

A steady 18 percent of shoppers have purchased organic or natural meats in the past three months, with younger shoppers most likely to purchase organic meat and poultry. Natural and organic store formats continue to lose market share to supermarkets and farmer’s markets, and the conventional supermarket remains the main outlet for organic and natural meat at 50 percent.

The positive long-term health effects and nutritional value are the top two reasons cited by shoppers for purchasing organic meat and poultry. As shoppers associate either immediate or long-term health benefits with organic products, they may be more willing to give up goods they perceive as luxury, rather than foods they see as essential to their health.