Tuesday, 27 October 2009

My Shameful Secret - I'm a Meat Eater

So the hoo-ha about meat eaters destroying the planet has surfaced again, this time via a Times interview with Lord Stern, noted scientist and author of the 2006 review of the cost of tackling climate change. The Times front page headline announced "Climate Chief: give up meat to save the planet", and in the body of the interview Stern reckoned that people's attitudes would evolve until meat eating became unacceptable.

So, is meat eating about to become a shameful secret, admitted, like listening to Country and Western music, only to one's most trusted friends,and undertaken behind closed doors. Will meat eaters, driven underground by public opinion suddenly feel the need to burst out of the closet, shout about their meat eating, and join "Meat Pride" marches through the streets of London? Will, heaven's above, the nanny state actually ban meat eating?

To be fair, on BBC's Today programme Lord Stern started by saying that the Times headline was "unfortunate", and that his message is about global leaders needing to take climate change seriously with meat eating being just one of many factors which need consideration. Too late. The headline writers have roared into action.

The voice of reason needs to speak up.

For starters, sheep and cattle are vital to preserving the character and biodiversity of the British countryside. They graze on moors, hills and coastlines, keeping land that cannot be cultivated for grains or vegetables from becoming brown stretches of dead bracken incapable of supporting plants or wildlife. The National Trust understand this, as does Natural England. Both have been active in reintroducing cattle to ungrazed stretches of the countryside, resulting in more rare plants and bird life. Perhaps they could speak up.

Meat, as the Food Standards Agency on its website and Times nutritionist Amanda Ursell both point out, contains essential nutrients in an easily absorbable form. The FSA says " Meat is a good source of protein and vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins".

There's also the very practical issue that if there are no cows then there are no milk and dairy products.

And farming is a voice which needs to shout very much louder, communicating their plan (assuming there is one) to minimise farming's environmental impact.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Tough Times for Butchers

It’s a hard time to be a butcher. TNS* figures for the 52 weeks to August show butchers sales down by 5.2%, which compares to an increase of 5.7% for meat sales through all shops. Whilst the turnover figures are bad, tonnage sales are horrific. Butchers are selling 20% less pork than last year, 18% less lamb, 12% less beef, and 15% less sausages. And year on year declines are getting worse. Tonnage sales in the last 12 weeks show a 24% drop in sausage sales, 18% drop in beef, 16% in lamb and 18% in pork.

Meat sales generally have been struggling, but butchers seem to be suffering especially badly. The comparable numbers for the total meat market in the last twelve weeks are sausages +2%, beef -2%, pork -1%, and lamb -16%.

Price is likely to one of the problems, with many people thinking that butchers are expensive. The price difference between the average butcher and the top 4 multiples is about £1 per kilo dearer on lamb, 54p per kilo on pork, and 26p a kilo on beef.

Another issue might be that you never know when buying from the butcher quite what the bill will be. And it’s a brave person who, confronted with more cost than expected, asks for the piece to be cut smaller. Contrast this with supermarkets where everything is price marked, you know exactly what the cost will be, and can be confident of sticking to your budget.

The meat trade needs strong butchers as they are a way to avoid total domination by supermarkets, and some butchers are a beacon of hope in a generally gloomy picture. The reasons seem to be firstly, a refusal to compromise on quality, secondly a willingness to embrace consumer trends such as selling locally produced fully traceable meat, and thirdly, being prepared to experiment with supermarket type tactics like prepriced joints and promotional offers, all of which helps keep their customers loyal in difficult economic times.

*TNS is Taylor Nelson Sofres.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

What Do Recent Results and Comments From the Big Four Supermarkets Tell Us About the Consumer?

Few know more about consumers than bosses of the big four supermarkets. Each day they scan data from the checkouts to see what is selling and what isn’t. Those with loyalty cards analyse how different types of consumer are spending their money. Tesco alone tracks the shopping behaviour of 16 million Clubcard holders. So, when the bosses speak its worth listening to how they see consumer trends.

The last twelve weeks saw Morrisons grow fastest at + 7.4%, hotly followed by ASDA at +7.2%. Sainsbury grew by 5.4%, and Tesco by 3.1%. However Tesco reckons that in recent weeks it has grown faster than the others due to offering double points on its Clubcard. (A point dismissed by Sainsbury as a “throwaway remark” not backed by figures.)

Where all four supermarket bosses are agreed is that food inflation has receded, growth rates are slowing, the battle for market share will intensify, and the focus will be on building customer loyalty.

There is agreement too that consumers are loosening their purse strings, albeit slightly. Both Tesco and Sainsbury reported higher sales of organic food and premium produce like Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference range and Tesco’s Finest. They said sales of ready meals are up after a long period of decline. Sainsbury said that sales of welfare friendly Freedom Foods have grown by 130%. At the other end of the scale, both said their lower price ranges were doing well, with Tesco very pleased with sales of their discount range, and Sainsbury’s Basics range having grown by 30%.

There is less concensus among the bosses about consumer confidence over the next few months. Terry Leahy of Tesco has called the bottom of the recession “We are past the low point and things are getting better in the UK. People feel their finances are under control”.

Justin King of Sainsbury is more gloomy. He sees increased VAT, increased taxes, interest rate rises and continued fear of unemployment as likely to put a damper on consumer spending, and that the current rate of promotions, which account for a third of sales compared with around a quarter historically, will need to continue. Andy bond of ASDA agrees - “Many of our customers are still cautious”, and will continue to search for the everyday low prices offered by ASDA.

King and Bond may be closer to the truth than Leahy. The National Consumer Confidence Index, published monthly by TNS (the market research company) does indeed confirm that consumers are a bit more positive about the economy. The improvement is marginal though. Whilst 72% of those interviewed think their household income next year will stay about the same as now, 71% think there will be less jobs available over the next 6 months, and 72% feel bad about the economy generally. Only 34% think the economy will be better in 6 months.

Its encouraging to see even tiny tips of green shoots. But there is no sign yet of a wholesale abandonment of thrift from the majority of consumers.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Why is ASDA Putting Webcams into Food Factories?

Andy Bond of ASDA was in the media yesterday talking about his new strategy, which he calls “Democratic consumerism”. The idea is to let consumers see for themselves via webcams where ASDA’s food comes from. Already there is a camera in a carrot factory, and in a milking parlour somewhere in Scotland.

According to Bond, the move taps into a growing trend. More and more consumers want to be reassured about the practices behind the food they eat, and Bond is saying that cows and carrots are just the start - “The ambition is to reach a point where customers can trace the journey of each ASDA product, from farm to fork or warehouse to wardrobe”.

It is true that consumers want to know more about the products they buy, but there is more to the move than that. It signals a recognition that price promotions and a value message alone are not enough to keep customers loyal to a store. After all anybody can cut prices – and they all do. TNS (Taylor Nelson Sofres the research company) has found that the amount of store turnover from promotions has gone up from 28% in 2007 to 32% in 2009. More worryingly for retailers, the economic squeeze has meant consumers doing much more shopping around to get the best deals, and it seems that this is not so much a chore as a rewarding adventure. As one shopper in a piece of IGD (Institute of Grocery Distribution) research put it “I quite like shopping for less using promotions. It’s a challenge, and I feel quite chuffed having saved some money.”

Which leaves each retailer searching for reasons over and above price based offers to secure loyal customers. Tesco offers extra points on their Clubcard. Sainsbury combines value and quality by advertising their own label products – apparently just as good as the branded equivalent but at least 20% cheaper. Morrisons talks about fresh food available from their “Market Street”. And now ASDA is being reassuring on where their food comes from.

The general feeling among those who study the grocery industry is that ASDA’s initiative will give them an edge over competition. But they and their suppliers have some thinking to do. In this search to understand the origins of their food, will consumers expect webcams in abattoirs, and on farms which rear animals intensively. How will ASDA deal with difficult issues such as lameness in dairy cows? Or will they be selective in what they show, and expose a worthy idea as mere PR fluff.