"On Special" is a monthly look at evolving store categories with insights on how different grocers are capitalizing on top trends.
Grocers are building out their fresh meat offerings through full-service counters as shoppers continue to seek the classic butcher shop experience from their local supermarket.
As ramping up the in-store experience becomes a vital step for grocers post-pandemic, full-service meat counters has become a way to beef up their offerings and draw in customers with fresh cuts as well as human connections.
Fresh meat sales in December ticked up 2% compared to the same month last year, reaching $5.9 billion while processed meat sales dipped 4.4%, totaling $3 billion, according to Circana data cited by 210 Analytics.
As grocers face growing competition from mass retailers for meat department sales — the latter gained 2% in meat department sales from 2019 to 2023 while traditional grocery saw sales shrink 3% — meat counters are one way they can cut a larger slice of fresh meat sales.
Fareway Market, for example, has been capitalizing off the growing meat industry in recent years by opening Fareway Meat Market stores, each with a “second-to-none, full-service butcher counter,” according to a recent press release. Shoppers don’t have to go to a Meat Market location to get the full-service counter experience: Fareway’s regular grocery stores have a virtual meat counter so customers can “learn how to be best prepared for [their] next trip to Fareway,” the grocer’s website noted.
Fareway’s butchers, like many meat experts staffed behind other grocers’ full-service counters, are available to assist customers. Butchers and trained meat associates offer guidance on making premium selections, provide advice or inspiration and address special requests, FMI — The Food Industry Association’s 2023 Power of Meat report said.
Here’s a breakdown of the most popular items shoppers purchase from grocer’s full-service meat counters, and a look at the category’s sales over the past few years.
Consumers gravitate towards full-service counters rather than self-service cases mainly when they are seeking out advice or have questions for the butchers, such as the thickness of cuts or how much they should purchase. Aside from communicating with a grocer’s meat experts, a full-service counter provides a place for “premium” meat cuts to stand out, according to FMI’s findings.
Buying steaks and getting specific thicknesses are top draws for full-service meat counters
Fresh meat sales skyrocketed in 2020 to more than $55 billion, according to Circana data. While still increasing slightly for the last two years, meat sales saw slower growth just shy of 5% in 2022 and less than 1% in 2023.
Fresh meat dollar sales
A peek into the cutting room
One of Whole Foods Market’s most show-stopping locations resides in Manhattan where the retail destination has not only grab-and-go meals and opportunities for in-store dining and education but also a meat-cutting room on full display.
The window puts full-size cuts of meat as well as the grocer’s trained butchers in full view of customers to both inspire and educate. Shoppers have the opportunity to ask the butchers questions about selecting cuts, portion sizes, thickness, marinades and cooking guidance.
Carrying on a North American butcher legacy
Canadian grocer Freson Bros. views its meat department as not just a counter but as a part of its history. Alongside meat cuts like cross rib roasts, porterhouse steaks and bone-in sirloin steaks, Freson operates a dry age hanging beef program in every store.
The grocery chain offers custom orders of Alberta dry-aged carcass beef and sources from Alberta’s livestock for its beef, pork, chicken and turkey selections. Freson also exclusively offers sausages made in-store.
When faced with the choice between fresh meat and processed meat, customers seem much more likely to select fresh meat. While both categories saw year-over-year dips in volumes in 2023, processed meat saw a steeper decline of 3.2% compared to fresh meat, which dipped just 1.4%, according to Circana data cited by 210 Analytics.
With grocers eyeing ways to offer in-store experiences and shoppers gravitating toward fresh meats, establishing an eye-catching full-service meat counter could be in grocers’ best interests. FMI’s 2023 report noted that these full-service counters give food retailers a “perceptual advantage.”