Choosing chicken

by Kimberlie Clyma
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There isn’t a poultry company around that wouldn’t love to get its hands on a crystal ball that could help predict what consumers are looking for when shopping the meat case. But, because crystal balls are hard to come by, processors and their retail customers have to rely on merchandising experts to pass on insight about the marketplace. Attendees of this summer’s Chicken Marketing Seminar, sponsored by the National Chicken Council, had the opportunity to hear some of this insight during the “Through the Customer’s Eyes: The Experience of Buying Chicken” presentation by Market Force Information.

Before conducting the research, Market Force went directly to producers and processors to find out what was most important to them. The consensus was they wanted to know what role chicken plays in consumer diets today; what drives chicken purchases at point-of-sale; and what is the potential marketing impact of organic chicken?

Market Force has a pool of more than 300,000 field associates around the country who perform mystery shopping, customer intercepts, auditing and merchandising studies for the Louisville, Colo.-based research company. From this group, there were 3,378 respondents to the chicken consumer survey – 76 percent were women; 62 percent have an annual income of more than $50,000 per year; 82 percent work full- or part-time; around 67 percent are married; and 50 percent have children living at home.

Eating habits

Research clearly showed chicken continues to be a staple in the diets of American consumers. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed have purchased chicken in the past 60 days and 53 percent eat it more than four times per week (47 percent say they eat chicken one to two times per week). The kind of chicken consumers purchase varies from fresh chicken from the meat department to cooked rotisserie, frozen, fried, salad or deli items containing chicken and pre-prepared appetizer or entrée containing chicken. Fresh chicken remains the most popular with 86 percent of respondents reporting they buy this variety.

While chicken continues to be on everyone’s shopping list, consumers aren’t as willing to try something new, according to the study. Only 21 percent said they had tried a new, fresh-chicken product in the previous 60 days. What drove them to make this new purchase? New recipes, store displays and coupons are what drive new sales.

When given choices about what new chicken products would interest them, consumers mostly chose (53 percent) individual packages that are vacuum sealed, allowing consumers to cook only the portion they need and to easily freeze the rest in smaller portion sizes. Smaller portions in each package and chicken recipes in the meat department also interested respondents.

Respondents also reported they either always (20 percent) or most of the time (41 percent) made shopping lists. Also, the consumers always (22 percent) or most of the time (33 percent) used coupons or promotions to help them create their shopping lists. Seventy-eight percent even claimed they would add a chicken item to their list because of a promotion or coupon.

Some surprises

Only 18 percent of the survey respondents said the brand of chicken they buy was “very important” and 35 percent said they don’t have a favorite brand at all. What drives their purchase at the point-of-sale are quality and appearance of the product. Other influencers were coupons or promotions, the date the chicken was processed and if the chicken was labeled “fresh” or “farm fresh.”

Labels are an important way for processors to communicate with consumers about their products, and yet consumers often report that they don’t understand the information they read on food labels. In this study, 53 percent said, “I understand what a few of the labels mean, but I do not understand some of the nuances. The chicken industry has begun to communicate with consumers but clearly has work to do.” Only 23 percent said they clearly understood labels and 23 percent said, “I find the labels very confusing and don’t understand the differences. Industry must have better communications with consumers on what the labels mean.”

One of the topics producers wanted this study to address was the impact of organic chicken on merchandising. According to this study, only 3 percent of the respondents will only buy organic chicken. Forty-three percent report that they will occasionally buy organic chicken. However, 41 percent said they didn’t think organic chicken was worth the extra cost and 13 percent don’t believe there are any nutritional benefits for organic chicken compared to conventionally produced chicken.

The study results clearly show consumers are continuing to purchase and consume chicken, but from a marketing and merchandising standpoint, processors and retailers can do more. September’s National Chicken Month might be the perfect time to start.

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