Virtually every product category in existence has been sliced and diced into extremely specific segments — all except the one category with products that actually can be sliced and diced.
Segmentation. It’s a concept familiar to marketers, and a trend that is now entering its third decade as bona fide consumer trend.
Make that a way of life.
Consider this: When was the last time any of us settled for purchasing a “generic” anything? Ask any teen-ager: “Generic” is shorthand for “cheap,” “shoddy,” “useless.”
I went to check out a sale at a franchise men’s clothing store the other day, and when I indicated I was interested in casual clothing, the salesperson immediately asked, “Business casual? Weekend casual? Or just . . . casual?”
That last word uttered with a sneer, as if to signal, “Hey — don’t be a generic loser.”
Everything of any value now has to be niche-marketed, “targeted” to a specific demographic subset with defined interests, heavily researched lifestyles and pre-determined shopping habits. That has its benefits, as products can be tailored to users’ specifications, but it does come with a significantly higher price tag.
With meat and poultry products, segmentation has been driven more by convenience than novelty. Most of what retailers consider “prepared meats” are simply category expansions of deli meats, snack items, and various re-imaginations of the pre-portioned, pre-seasoned, pre-cooked entrées that have been around for years.
Less numerous are truly novel products that deliver both convenient preparation and culinary value. Despite the rampant segmentation evident in pretty much every other consumer category, meat products as a group seem to be lagging behind.
Even high-end grocery retailers these days are playing the segmentation game only in a couple areas: High-quality/high-price products (such as hand-trimmed fillets), low(er)-fat analogues (such as poultry sausage varieties) and heat-’n-eat/ready-to-serve meal components.
Stroll through even a “generic” sporting goods store these days and you can choose from low-cut, high-top or mid-sized athletic shoes for any of more than half a dozen sports — plus several options for all of the above that are designed for improved performance on grass, turf or carpet.
There’s not remotely a similar range of choices in animal proteins.
Reducing consumer choices
So the question becomes, is the meat industry missing out on opportunities to capitalize on the trend toward micro-manufacturing products for smaller, more specialized slices of the marketplace?
Is there more room for new concepts, customized products and line extensions for meat and poultry?
The short answer, I believe, is yes.
There is a lot of opportunity to niche market to all kinds of consumers with a myriad of preferential tastes, but with the level of consolidation among foodservice and retail operators, it’s unlikely that conventional supermarkets or chain restaurants will serve as the innovators. They’re too busy doing category management research to reduce their SKUs, not expand the choices in the meat case or on the menuboard.
Most — if not nearly all — of the new product introductions will likely have to come from start-ups and entrepreneurs willing to target online sales.
Ten years ago, trying to live off e-commerce would have been a daunting objective for even the biggest of companies. Now, however, it’s a different story. Go to amazon.com and click on “Grocery and Gourmet Food” and the array of products that appears — all ready for immediate delivery — is astonishing. Everything from health foods to snack foods to complete meal deliveries, including low-fat, low-carb and vegetarian specialties.
And that’s just the beginning of category growth in ready-to-ship, ready-to-eat prepared foods packaged remotely and dropped off on your doorstep hours later.
Believe me. I live in the Seattle area, and the South Union Lake neighborhood where Amazon is based is a forest of construction cranes — and not just for office and warehouse space, but also for high-rise housing being built for the literally thousands of new employees the mega-retailer is actively hiring.
And trust me: None of them are tasked with selling books.
Once upon a time, the meat and poultry industry was seriously behind the curve on marketing and merchandising. Most of the bigger players were production-driven companies intent on maintaining margins by emphasizing high volume and high efficiency.
Heck, I’ve probably written several dozen feature stories over the years about companies large and small that touted their investments in labor-saving equipment, high-throughput processing systems and high-speed packaging lines that cost millions to install — just so they could fill up an endless stream of tractor trailers with commodity bacon, hot dogs and burger patties selling for a gross profit percentage you could count on the fingers of one hand.
And I had enough left over to write down the notes from interviews with company management.
In one sense, all that has changed in the last couple decades is the virtual elimination of mid-sized companies. The big boys still focus on volume-based efficiencies and compete in an extremely price-sensitive marketplace.
Innovation thus has to come from the small-scale, cottage-sized companies.
Problem is, there aren’t a whole lot of them left, either.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.