Poultry report: Points of difference

Pic by Stephen Good

The 2007 free range stampeed blurred the differential between butchers' and supermarkets' poultry offerings. Now the feathers have settled over welfare andvalue is back on the table, how can butchers compete?

Once upon a time, supermarkets were too busy competing over the cheapest chicken to worry about piffling concerns such as welfare, and people would turn to their local butcher for free-range poultry.

When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver declared war on intensive chicken farming early last year, however, supermarkets were forced to abandon their poultry price wars and stock their shelves with free-range birds.

The free-range stampede blurred the differential between independents and multiples; ethically minded consumers no longer have to take a separate trip to the butcher to buy a chicken, as they can pick one up during their weekly shop. So with the multiples now competing on quality, welfare and price, what can butchers do to promote their poultry?


Free-range favour

Perhaps the first question to consider is whether free-range is still important to consumers. According to data from TNS Worldpanel, sales of free-range have dropped off marginally since the height of Hugh madness, with total spend in September down 0.2% year-on-year. However, it seems the supermarkets have born the brunt of the recessionary return to standard and barn-reared birds.

Data shows that free-range spend in multiples increased by just 1.3% year-on-year in September 2009, compared to 43.5% during the same period in 2008. In comparison, independents saw a smaller increase in sales during the free-range boom, but that rate of increase has stayed relatively stable. F

Free-range spend was up 22.1% year-on-year this September, compared to an increase of 27.3% the previous year. These figures suggest that consumers who really want free-range are sticking with their local butcher.

When it comes to whole birds, the view from the shop floor is that free-range is still in great demand. Malcolm Pyne of P&B Pyne in Somerset, says customers simply don't want barn-reared birds for their Sunday roasts.

"We don't do intensive, but we do offer a high-welfare barn-reared bird as well as free-range and we explain the difference to all our customers. We tell them that the barn-reared birds are staying in a hotel while the free-range birds are camping!" he laughs. "But when people buy whole birds, they always go for free-range."

Wholesalers claim that overall free-range sales are falling, however. "Consumers are definitely buying fewer free-range birds, our free-range sales have dropped back 50% since the height of the TV campaign," says Steve Harper, sales director of wholesaler Tadmarton Products. This may be because while people choose free-range when buying whole birds, they are buying fewer whole birds now the recession has kicked in.

"Sales of whole birds are dropping off, housewives are cooking fewer roasts and more easy, cheap meals, such as curries and casseroles," says Harper. "We are seeing a lot of demand for back ends legs and thighs are selling well, as are fillets, which are always popular."

Malcolm agrees that a greater proportion of poultry revenue is coming from cuts of chicken, usually prepared from barn-reared birds. "Spend on poultry is rising in the shop and volume is up, but we are not selling as many whole birds," he says. "People are not roasting meats as much; with lifestyle patterns changing, people want convenience."


Pre-packed products

With consumers demanding convenience and value, butchers are being forced to play supermarkets at their own game and offer pre-packed chicken products. "Butchers are increasingly chopping and flavouring thighs and fillets," says Harper. "Our glazes also allow butchers to create their own product and they give the chicken a different colour, so they are eye-catching to the consumer."

Malcolm offers a diverse range of pre-prepared chicken in his shop. "Our products include a boneless leg of chicken with stuffing, a cajun chicken breast and a lemon and coriander chicken breast," he says. "All of them are kitchen-ready and can be on the table in 40 minutes."

Competing with the supermarkets is not necessarily about offering something radically different, but about better quality and better information, says Malcolm. "All of our products are made from high-welfare barn-reared chicken. We have an A4 piece of paper on the cabinet with the name of the supplier and the condition they have been kept in and, of course, we always have a butcher behind the cabinet."

Value for money is important, but value means more than price, he adds. "Our breast products are all £2.30 but the customer doesn't have to do anything. For 8-9oz of meat that's not much. A supermarket might offer a supreme of chicken, but they never have the inner filled, so there is no weight there. We are offering better value for money, and that is what consumers want."

Fixed prices on packed chicken products are also attractive to consumers, especially the younger generations. "We use unit prices for any pre-portioned products, because we have a relatively young clientele who might just have a tenner in their pocket and don't want to be left guessing how much they are spending," says Malcolm.

Convenience is not just limited to cuts. Malcolm offers whole, stuffed birds, which fly off the shelves at the competitive price of just £12.59. Tadmarton's tray-wrapped Somerset chickens are also selling well. "The tray has the farmer's name on it, which gives it a bit of identity," says Harper. "It's also wrapped and ready to go, so the butcher doesn't have to handle it."

Butchers can also differentiate themselves by offering birds that are not widely available in the multiples. Goose, for example, looks set to be a big winner this year. Boosted by a renewed interest in traditional Michaelmas celebrations, goose sales are soaring and producers are reporting a growing interest from consumers and butchers.

"Every year we see a steady increase in demand and, this year, it is definitely up," says Bill Homewood, owner of Peachcroft Farms and a member of British Goose Producers. "It's early days yet, but it looks as if this will be a good year for goose."

Homewood attributes this rising demand to consumers looking for something a bit different to try at Christmas. "Goose is slightly more expensive, but it is also richer, so you don't need quite so much. It is more of an exclusive meat than turkey," he says.

Peachcroft now sells around 2,350 geese a year, 80% of which are sold through butchers. "People are more likely to go to their butchers for goose," says Homewood. "Supermarket goose is very different; it's quite white and not nearly as tasty."

Game birds are also growing in popularity. According to TNS data, spend on pheasant and pigeon increased by 155.8% and 362.6% respectively between September 2008 and September 2009. "Pigeon is a great, inexpensive product and we have sold a lot recently," says Malcolm, who points out that it is worth stocking odd bits of game in the freezer so that you have them if a customer asks. "As my father always said, 'If you haven't got it, you cannot sell it'. I always keep a couple of guineafowl in my freezer in case someone asks. If you have what they want, then they will always come back."

Duck is also popular. "We sell ducks all year round. Breasts are particularly popular and, of course, whole birds at Christmas," says Harper, who adds that sales are holding up well.
Butchers can also add value to duck in the same way as chicken. "Our Cantonese duck legs are pretty popular and sell at £2," says Malcolm. "There are some good margins to be made in poultry if you are willing to play around."

With the recession in full swing and people looking for cheaper sources of protein, poultry is a valuable arrows in the butcher's quiver. Supermarkets might be stepping up their game when it comes to welfare, but with a little effort and thought, butchers can still set themselves apart.

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