With the tight labor market, having well-trained employees  — like those capable of manning a grocery perimeter service case  — is a more difficult proposition for retailers than ever.

For many, it’s worth it, says Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence at the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

“We know that for retailers, if they can have informed staff, that’s very much appreciated by consumers,” she says. “Having people available who are knowledgeable, keep the case organized and clean and answers consumers’ questions are very much a driver for consumers saying ‘Am I loyal to a particular store? Do I like the shopping experience?’”

And when it comes to the fresh meat department, self-serve can be a daunting proposition for consumers, says Jason Jerome, the association’s senior director of retail engagement.

But the skilled labor isn’t always available to man service counters, leaving retailers in the position of looking for alternate way to bring education and service to self-serve.

That’s where Jerome says the association’s new Chuck Knows Beef app comes in. Available on multiple platforms, including smart speakers, Chuck Knows Beef provides consumers with recipes, information on different cuts and grades and a variety of other tools to help their instore shopping experience go more smoothly.

“People usually stick to the four or five cuts they know without venturing out,” he says. “There are a lot of different products out there, and Chuck’s there to help them. It’s an awesome tool.”

A few big retailers have gone completely to case-ready over the past 15 years or so, Jerome says. Typically, service cases have been the province of more high-end cuts of meat and more unique items, whereas things like stew and roasting products are more likely to be found in self-serve, he says.

Best of both worlds

There are two key factors retailers must consider when determining which perimeter department products to market service and which self-serve, says Neil Stern, a consultant with Chicago-based McMillan Doolittle.

One is the need for differentiation  — where do I make a stand?  —  and the other is service  —  specifically, where is service really needed?

Asking and answering those questions, increasingly, leads retailers down the self-serve path, Stern says.

“Self-serve is gaining in popularity for two reasons. The first is obviously a way to save labor at a time of rising wage rates and decreasing availability. The second is consumer driven  — they have more control and more speed.”

Self-service offers speed and control. But Stern says it can suffer from not being perceived as fresh.

He adds that a lot of cases in today’s grocery stores are dual purpose. “Over/under cases provide the best of both worlds  — the chance for customers to have both. And, it helps the ‘fresh’ perception.”


The role of branding

While many retailers are now moving away from doing their own instore butchery and grinding to reduce food safety risk, select others are expanding their counter service with more specialty features like dry-aging, says Dana Ehrlich, CEO of Woburn, Massachusetts-based Verde Farms, which specializes in 100% grass-fed, 100% free-range beef.

Both groups of retailers, however, are responding to a growing preference for branded products and stocking more premium branded case-ready options.

“We’re helping retailers respond to the modern shopper with these, as well as premium butcher counter product to be cut on premise,” Ehrlich says.

Grocery retailers, he adds, are also making their meat departments more experiential, implementing grilling stations and build-your-own meal options to keep fresh beef and other meats at the center of the plate.

“We work with retailers to provide exciting, convenient case-ready options for customers, as well as premium options for their specialty butchery counters,” Ehrlich says.

Case-ready also often equals “more packaging,” which runs counter to the trend toward environmental sustainability. But Verde Farms and other suppliers are working hard to bridge the gap between those diverging trends.

“Consumers are increasingly calling for packaging that is recyclable, made with more renewable materials, and with an overall lower environmental footprint,” he says. “This is a responsible path we value as a brand ourselves, and our latest packaging upgrades are 100% recyclable and manufactured with less plastic for a lower carbon footprint.”

More convenient and mess-reducing packaging is being innovated across the food industry as well, though it’s been slower to establish in the meat sector, Ehrlich says. “Fish and poultry brands like Bell & Evans have the led the way, and our latest trays follow suit with vacuum seals and freezer-ready convenience.”