While other multiple retailers have never fought shy of promoting their meat offering on the PR or advertising front, the Co-operative has kept a low profile until recently, with its head well under the parapet. A year ago, it decided it had a story to tell on protein. "We have a definite strategy when it comes to welfare and provenance, so we decided to let people know about it," says
Lynne Forbes, category development manager. Last year the Co-operative introduced a new strapline 'Good
Forbes' job involves her taking a brief on new product development and turning these into real-life products. "I work with merchandisers to take an idea from conception to creation and to ensure that new products are available on the shelves, as well as being competitively priced so they sell well," she says.
Slowly but surely, the Co-operative, which has a £170m turnover on fresh protein and fish, has been garnering a reputation for being pro-British and a supporter of ethical meat production. "We do what we can to support British agriculture," says Paul Reid, category trading manager for protein. "A year ago, we decided to source all our fresh pork from the UK."
Reid's job is to deliver the protein category trading budgets and manage the protein buyers. "All the pork sausages - even those in the lower tier - are now British," he says.
Both Reid and Alisdair Davidson, the fresh pork, bacon and sausage buyer for the group, have been instrumental in seeing this through, as well as dropping the Geo Adams label in favour of 100% Co-op branding on fresh pork. The first eight months were tough, because The Co-operatives' rivals were offering loin and leg joints on promotion. "We took the stance that, in the long term, this strategy would pay off and we are performing better than we did last year. We have seen a marked improvement since the middle of November."
Like many in the market, tasked with increasing pork's profile and appeal to the consumer, Davidson believes that pork under-trades as a protein. "We should be generating greater sales than we have currently got," he says.However, on bacon, 40% of the rashers are British and 60% Danish. This is because there is not enough pork to meet the appetite of British consumers from the UK, admits Davidson.With consumers also tightening their belts, Reid believes the bacon market is going to be quite tough, with the multiples piling in lots of cheap promotions.
But he says the one thing The Co-operative will not do is buy-one-get-one free (BOGOFS). "It doesn't fit in
with our ethos and statements about provenance and consistent quality,"
At the same time, The Co-operative's introduction of premium ranges is paying dividends. Sales of premium sausages grew by 24%, as did premium bacon. Sales of premium pork, however, fell by 6-7%. Welfare is high on The Co-operative's agenda, so all fresh pork is produced to Red Tractor and Freedom Foods standards. "In the longer term it would be nice to apply this to all protein, to differentiate our products, but you would need to be a commercially brave buyer to do it."
The Co-operative's beef and lamb sales stand at £80m and, as with other proteins, provenance is important and beef is bought through Dunbia and Scotbeef. Farmers who want to supply the chain are advised by David Simons, the beef and lamb buyer, to approach the two big processors.
With sourcing lamb exclusively
from the UK proving difficult, The
Co-operative stocks 40% UK lamb and 60% New Zealand. However, it is keen to support British sheep farmers, so it has decided to extend the British lamb season by a month on either side this year. The retailer has also been examining ways in which it can include regionalisation. One of the ways it is doing this is by stocking Cambrian lamb, which has the support of the Prince of Wales, in its Welsh stores. However, it has no plans to extend the sales of this product into its stores in England. "We are looking at ways of offering increased provenance without diluting our message," explains Simons.
The same high-welfare and provenance ethos applies to The
Co-operative's sourcing of poultry. It has been keen to emulate the roaring success Marks & Spencer has had with its high-welfare chicken. "We believe higher animal welfare results in a better-quality product," says Reid. Hence, all its standard fresh whole chickens are reared to the higher welfare Elmwood level. "This is on a par with Oakham, if not better," he states. This move won the Co-operative MTJ's SuperMeat Award for Head Office Initiative. Andrew Nicholson, senior technical manager, who collected the retailer's award at the Supermeat & Fish event, said: "We are absolutely delighted with this award. A
lot of work went into introducing our higher-welfare Elmwood chicken. This is external recognition that we are doing the right thing."
The Co-operative's turkeys are similarly Freedom Food-approved and accredited by the RSPCA.
"We were the first to market Freedom Food-accredited duck in 2006," says poultry buyer Scott Shaw.
According to Shaw, the good news is that prices have risen after taking a hit in 2006 when the bird flu outbreak at Bernard Matthews occurred.
"Tesco, Asda and Morrisons have increased their prices," he says. "We also have to note that consolidation is taking place in this sector," he adds.
While buyers are responsible for their particular protein category, Nicholson plays a key role in ensuring that The Co-operative delivers on its ethical trading policy when it comes to meat. He is the firm's quality assurance manager and animal welfare specialist, responsible for independent audits, that are carried out to check that farmers meet The Co-operative's standard. It looks for British Retail Consortium audit approvals and accreditation, which can take up to two years and HACCPs, that can take up to 8-10 hours.
Nicholson reveals that The
Co-operative is also looking to introduce SALSA accreditation for small suppliers. "We are looking for suppliers who mirror our ethics, as we are big into animal welfare."
It is one thing to revamp your meat products, but if you leave the stores selling the product tired-looking and past their best, you are unlikely to woo customers. That is why Alison Tracey, head of fresh foods at the retailer, has been keen to execute a massive upgrade in new products, as well as carrying out refurbishment of the stores and retraining of staff. The number of food stores refitted to The Co-operative brand so far is 360, and 340 still to be done in 2008. This will take number of food stores changed to the new brand to 1,350. "We have changed our business in the last two-and-a-half years and we are now differentiating ourselves from our competitors. We are also focusing on demographics and categorising our stores with standard and premium products," she says.
At the same time, she reveals that the Co-operative has rebranded 1,500 lines and launched 90 new fresh and frozen meat products. "We see a big opportunity in frozen which needs to be exploited," says Tracey.