KANSAS CITY - Shopping for meat in the supermarket has evolved through the years, as department design has changed due to consumer needs and elevated consumer knowledge of product offerings. 

Today’s case layouts make it easy for customers to find what they need, and point-of-sale communication lets people know what quality attributes are attached to the items in that section.  

Jay Avey, meat and seafood director for Homeland, a supermarket chain based in Oklahoma City, shared the conception that a meat department starts like anywhere else—where you spend money budgeting.   

“Typically, the leadership of the company, finance, legal, real estate, architects and engineering will meet several times prior to determine the location in the store,” he said. “With the details of site space/requirements, building restrictions, location planning, and budget, the design and engineering teams can build the concept to what the leadership of a company is envisioning on paper.”  

Among the factors that are considered before a final plan is sent to design and engineering are what aspects of the department are effective at sales, customer service, profitability and keeping the store a leader in the meat business.   

“We’ll also look at what aspects define our brand and what is outdated or not effective,” Avey said. “Some confident risks are taken in each design that keeps you ahead. Sometimes those design risks don’t work, or simply go out of style as customers’ shopping demands change.”  

Todd Allen, director of meat and seafood for Raley’s Supermarkets, a chain of 126 stores headquartered in West Sacramento, Calif., noted the meat department is designed with the customer in mind.  

“In most Raley’s locations, self-serve or packaged product is first as you enter the department so that if you do not have any questions and know exactly what you want, you can easily grab what you need and be on your way,” he said. “You will find the full-service cases and ready-to-cook items at the back of the department. If you have questions or require service, our team members will take care of you there.” 

Proper layout  

Consumer expectation drives the decision-making process when it comes to layouts within the meat department for most stores.  

For example, Raley’s tends to put packaged value-added items next to full-service cases because that is often where customers go looking for meal solutions and ready-to-cook items.   

“Also, if we have a lot of consumer inquiries surrounding the location of certain items, that may also prompt a move,” Allen said. “We also group items together that consumers may find convenient, like putting plant-based burgers next to burgers made from beef.”    

Scott Short, category manager of meat and seafood or KeHE Distributors, a Naperville, Ill.-based wholesale food supplier to supermarkets, noted that as part of its partnership with retailers, the company assists with assortment, layout, and merchandising recommendations.  

“When creating a new schematic and deciding where to merchandise a product, I will place the higher-margin items on the shelving that sits at eye level,” he said. “This boosts the chances of selling these items and increases the overall margin performance of the department. These items also tend to have a higher dollar value, helping to grow total store sales and their average basket size.”  

For staple items, like boneless chicken breast, Short will place those items on the top shelf of a self-service meat case as customers will always find and buy these staple items no matter where they are placed within the set.  

“In addition, I will place higher end items on the lower shelves,” Short said. “Generally, a store will have their sale or ad items in the very bottom section of the meat case. By placing your higher-end and high dollar items such as fillet mignon, NY strip steak and ribeye, near these sale items, you give greater exposure to them. Almost every customer shopping in a meat department buys the featured ad items.”  

Apollo Heidelmark, meat, poultry and seafood manager of Weavers Way Co-op, a member-owned grocery co-op with stores in Northwest Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, said the stores’ layout is conceived mainly through food safety protocols and space.  

“Our design is simple,” he said. “Keeping alike products together vs. merchandising by labels or company. Cryovac or sealed items are placed on the higher levels and items we shrink wrap here in the store are at lower levels for food safety.”  

Items rarely move as changing the location can sometimes be detrimental, especially with older customers.  

“Usually, only small changes occur when a new product is added or during a holiday that requires particular attention,” Heidelmark said. “Plus, with today’s unprecedented challenges of social distancing and limiting people in stores, it’s better folks know where to find their favorite items and move quickly through departments, rather than stop and search or create additional risk by forcing them to seek assistance.”  

Homeland stores offer a service-oriented urban design in their meat departments to service their communities, which is defined by light, bright and a fresh feeling of colors with a new, updated décor package.  

“We offer full-service fresh meats and fresh seafood with new value-added cuts and meal solutions,” Avey said. “It’s a smaller footprint that is easy to shop, but still offers the important categories that caters to the community and has space for employee owners to interact and serve the customer.”  

Most retailers have started to pull away from installing large full-service meat and seafood cases which require a ton of labor to set up, maintain and incur a lot of shrink.   

“You now see more retailers installing much smaller, and sometimes even non-existent full-service meat and seafood cases,” Short said. “These smaller cases will generally showcase higher-end cuts of meat and seafood as well as a lot of pre-made or ready to cook items for convenience.” 

However, some customers still like to be able to talk to their local butcher and get their higher-end meats from an expert, so Short doesn’t see these types of cases going completely away at any point.  

“We also see a lot more of the newer retailers installing multi-deck full-service meat cases,” Short said. “This allows them to provide a large assortment of specialty items without having to produce and display as much product at a time. By doing this, they can offer twice the variety in a footprint that is half the size and additionally, lower their shrink dollars.”  

He’s also seen an increase in smaller, mobile display cases around the store and in meat departments.    

“These are designed for impulse buying and to increase incremental sales,” Short said. “They also give the retailers the option to showcase smaller displays of promotional and sale items that can be quickly changed out or moved and require bringing in lower amounts of inventory.” 

Light it up 

Historically, not much thought went into case lighting in the meat department. However, it was found over time that incorrect lighting negatively impacted the eye appeal of products and faded packaging.  

“Using the correct lighting not only extends the shelf life of the product, but improves the visual appeal at the same time,” Allen said. “It also creates the desired mood and atmosphere within the department. Additionally, in an effort to reduce our energy use, we build new stores and retrofit existing stores with high efficiency LED lighting.”  

According to Short, more retailers have become increasingly concerned with lowering energy costs/consumption and reducing their carbon footprint. As a result, he’s seen a big change in style and types of cases and lights being utilized in the department.  

“Cases need to be energy efficient and low maintenance,” he said. “This is also why we see a shift from open-air frozen cases to standing freezer doors in meat and seafood departments.”  

Meanwhile, he noted lightning in self-service meat cases is shifting away from either non-existent or fluorescent lighting, to LED as these light strips give the product in these cases a more natural and appealing look while also reducing the amount of heat put out and onto the product.    

“The amount of heat put out from traditional lighting has a direct effect on how long the product will look and stay fresh in a case,” Short said. “Older lighting fixtures put out a tremendous amount of heat which shortens the shelf life of the products as well as working against the cases refrigeration system.”  

Additionally, track and spotlighting is carefully placed to highlight or showcase certain areas and products where retailers want to attract attention.   

“Both of these give a meat department a much more high-end look and feel, while also reducing some of the cost of refrigeration and replacement of bulbs in cases,” Short said. “The initial cost of LED, track or spotlighting may be higher, but the money saved from energy efficiency, maintenance and repairs are worth the up-front spending.” 

Drawing attention 

Retailers are also spending more money on signage, POS and marketing materials within their stores, specifically in the meat and seafood department, calling out attributes and key selling points to the consumers to help guide them to what they are looking for and boost sales of specialty items.   

“More focus is put on highlighting and calling out statements like local, sustainably farmed, grass-fed, humanely raised, organic, and meal solutions than previously seen,” Short said. “Just 10 years ago, where this was only seen in higher-end retailers, you will now find these types of signage, statements, POS and marketing materials in almost every retailer.”