Best behaviour

Beef is the recognised butchers’ product,” says John Davidson of 2011 Butcher’s Shop of the Year Davidsons Specialist Butchers in Inverurie. However, he adds that butchers cannot rely on beef alone, with greater profits currently coming from pork and chicken, due to the high cost of beef.

Yet despite rising prices, beef sales are holding up. “Butchers generally report sales of beef as being quite robust and, in the main, still commanding the largest percentage share of overall protein sales,” says Graham Titchener, marketing executive for Welsh red meat promotional body Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales. “Red meat is one of the key products by which the increasingly discerning and knowledgeable consumer will judge the quality of the establishment which provided 
it, and it depends on the strength and enthusiasm of the butcher to maintain this trading advantage.”

According to data from Kantar Worldpanel, trade through independent butchers was valued at £153.9m — 8.5% of total fresh beef sales — in the 52 weeks to 27 November, 2011. While this data indicates a fall in value and volume market share for butchers, the trade reports buoyant Christmas sales. “Talking to butchers, like-for-like sales over Christmas weren’t bad,” says Mike Whittemore, retail project manager for Eblex. “The majority of multiples ran price promotions and I don’t think they did particularly well from it.”

“People have confidence in beef, recognising it as a premium meat and, at times of celebration, there is always demand for it,” adds Roger Kelsey, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat & Food Traders.

Rib roasts a Christmas favourite

Beef offers great versatility across a range of cuts, and the opportunity for butchers to tailor products to their particular market. “Loin and ribs are always popular on the wholesale market, particularly with the catering trade,” says Kelsey. “Rumps are a little bit weak at the minute, due to dependability. With sirloin and rib-eye, the back eats as well as the front, but with rump, the first cut always eats better and women tend to go more for rib-eye. Cuts like topside, H-bone and silverside remain popular and are much more manageable, and mince is always very popular.”

For Davidsons Specialist Butchers, however, trade in topside and silverside has declined over the past few years, due to supermarket promotions. “They are selling it for less than I can buy it for,” says Davidson. Beef rib roasts performed well for Davidsons over Christmas, while lean steak mince is always a best seller in the Aberdeenshire shop and such is the popularity of beef olives that a full-time member of staff is dedicated to their production.

Economic hardship has failed to quell trade in premium beef primals, such as sirloin, fillet and rib-eye steaks. “The quality end has always been strong for us,” says Davidson. That said, special offers are also an important part of his sales mix. “We have an offer on fillet steak going out, which will be cheaper than the supermarkets due to the quantity bought in,” he says.

With an impressive 3,000 weekly store visits by customers from a local population of 12,000, “there is a certain element of looking for something different”, says Davidson. The shop does try innovations, such as flat iron steaks, and one of its assets, he says, is to offer a wide selection of different cuts from each part of the beef carcase. “Beef sales have been quite strong, certainly for us.”

Kieran McAtamney of K & G McAtamney Butchers in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, winner of the 2011 Butcher’s Shop of the Year Awards for his region, says: “Beef is still holding up if you sell the right beef, price it right and hang it for the right length of time. Red meat is still strong and our sales are still climbing. People still want good meat.”

Alongside cuts at the value end of trade — such as mince, and casserole and steak pieces — chump, sirloin, rib-eye and Porterhouse steaks are all selling well for the Northern Irish retailer and rib roasts were again popular at Christmas. “We also sell a lot of old-fashioned T-bones, which a lot of butchers don’t do any more,” says McAtamney. And heavy trimming is a particular demand of customers in Ballymena.

The personal touch

Presentation is everything in the battle for retail beef sales, says Kelsey. “Butchers need to sell more effectively. The customer perception is that butchers’ meat is better, but customers still feel inhibited when they go into butchers’ shops. They are used to self-service – under-45s in particular — and the biggest problem is how butchers approach customers to make sure they feel comfortable in that sort of environment.”

He adds that butchers should adopt some measures of unit pricing and itemise things in relation to price per unit, not just per kilo. “People are very conscious of what they’re spending and need to see everything is open and above board. There is an embarrassment with the final bill; they’re never sure how much they’ll have to pay,” he says.

Good packaging and labelling, carrying clear pricing, provenance information and even cooking instructions, are important. Moreover, personal service and attention to detail is vital. “Whatever happens, you’ve got to make sure customers get exactly what they want, with products cut to the right size and thickness,” says Davidson. “Don’t say, ‘It’s too late, I’ve cut it now’, or they won’t come back in. Your best customer is your most awkward one and I’m particularly good at looking after those from my years in the wholesale trade. I had some hellish customers, but they paid top whack and put a good order in every single week.”

While some shops are lucky enough to still attract premium trade, economising has become a universal trend. “Most conversations I have about beef are about price,” says Kelsey. “Butchers are coping by utilising other carcase cuts. Customers are much more receptive to this sort of information and advice from butchers because of the financial situation.”

“Butchers report that all beef cuts are selling really well,” says Titchener. “Minced beef sales continue to dominate, and some butchers have added value into this category by offering options such as standard, lean and steak mince, for example.”

Meanwhile, Whittemore believes price is the major dictator. “Butchers are looking at current trading conditions and acting accordingly, with more forequarter cuts,” he says. “These are avenues to exploit for the short- to medium-term, and they do it exceptionally well in the independent sector. It’s looking at how you can break down a carcase and get the best value from it, utilising your skills and mastery of butchery. We’re not talking masses of volume here; there is only a certain amount that you can lift off and turn into something different. It will come at a cost — in terms of extra time — but will pay dividends.”

In a bid to help promote Quality Standard Mark beef and lamb, Eblex will be offering at least five point-of-sale (PoS) kits to butchers. 
As well as spring, summer, autumn and winter kits designed around a sporting theme to promote the role of Quality Standard beef and lamb in a healthy balanced lifestyle, an additional summer kit will feature a ‘Steak Bar Range’, with recipe cards focused on five beef primals and the value to be gained from alternative methods of preparation. Research by Eblex identified gross margin savings of 4-8% against traditional primals from using 
the thick flank, topside, rump, feather and chuck roll cuts.

The Steak Bar Range PoS kit will include material to help butchers promote and 
drive sales for a number of traditional and alternative steak cuts — including flat iron steaks (from the feather blade), centre cut steaks (from the thick flank) and Denver steaks (from the chuck roll), as well as three cuts from the rump, including bistro, premium prime rump and Picanha steaks.

“With the increase in the price of beef, along with other proteins, butchers need to work harder than ever to appeal to cash-strapped consumers,” says Whittemore. “However, butchers are ideally placed to react to market conditions and can be more flexible when it comes to introducing new cuts and added value products into their range.

“To generate a good return from added-value products, butchers should make sure their cabinets are well-stocked and new cuts are clearly labelled. By talking to customers about the new cuts, advising them on the best cooking methods and accompaniments, will give encouragement and certainly help to drive 
new sales.” Eblex also offers a free interactive merchandising tool.

Adding value and convenience

With convenience a major draw for supermarkets, butchers are increasingly offering ready meals or meal kits — “the meal and not just the meat”, says Whittemore — targeting time-poor customers.
Marinated meat cuts and self-service ready meals in trays fly off the shelves at K & G McAtamney Butchers, with added-value lines representing a large proportion of trade.

“Many butchers strive to offer a one-stop shop by stocking up on a range of complementary products and their 
own-label specialist product ranges, which play a vital role in helping them retain any competitive advantage over their competitors,” says Titchener.

However, Davidson believes butchers should not move too far into supermarket territory, at the risk of losing their own unique selling points. “We are up against them in a way, but also we’re not,” he says. “You cannot be like a supermarket; you have to do your own thing.”


Provenance retains relevance

While high premium niches, such as ‘organic’ or ‘free range’, have stalled or lost momentum in the current economic environment, interest in provenance may have wavered, but has come back in the last 12 months. We gauge butchers’ and industry executives’ reactions to the importance of provenance:

Mike Whittemore, Eblex: “It’s all about provenance, regionality and locality. Butchers doing it have been cocooned slightly in the recession. It has definitely proven its worth and, if you have got that offer, you can sell it through.”

Roger Kelsey, NFMFT: “Independent butchers are recognised for sourcing locally more than supermarkets. These days, most customers are looking for something sourced locally, but it has also got to eat right.” Longer maturation times have improved quality, he adds. Also, rare-breed beef lines are now more readily available, with more producers coming on board again in recent years and more access, as most wholesalers now carry lines.

Kieran McAtamney, K & G McAtamney, which displays posters highlighting the provenance and traceability of its beef around the shop: “People do want to know where it comes from.”

John Davidson, Davidsons Specialist Butchers, which is introducing a new Lincoln Red line, and expects to get through one to two carcases a week: “It’s a breed nobody has heard of but it’s excellent.” 

Graham Titchener, Hybu Cig Cymru: “Butchers should ensure they have excellent meat sourcing and management systems in place which allows them to respond to the demand for local, specialist, quality products. Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef benefit from the prestige of PGI status.”


Lower-cost cuts for 

With catering continuing to feel the pinch as consumers rein in unnecessary spending, 
Eblex has been working with chefs to create lower-cost, quality cuts from under-utilised or forgotten parts of the beef carcase such as chuck, brisket and shin.

Dick van Leeuwen, supply chain project manager for Eblex and a master butcher, has been extolling the virtues of sous-vide cooking, which allows tougher cuts to be tenderised through cooking in a water bath at a temperature as low as 55°C over a longer period of time.

“You can cook for 24 hours and the product can still be pink inside,” says Van Leeuwen. “It breaks down the tissue and the product is very tender. Butchers are in a very good position to supply caterers,” he adds, with the necessary expertise to produce the more complex cuts involved and, ideally, vacuum-pack them for the foodservice sector.

Credible assurance is vital for butchers targeting the catering trade, he believes.
And with celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal raising awareness of lesser-known beef cuts and alternative cooking methods among the wider populace, Eblex is conducting feasibility tests for sous-vide cooking in standard slow cookers.

Last November, Eblex launched a range of online butchery videos (pictured) for 20 different cuts of beef from under-used primals, using seam butchery techniques presented by van Leeuwen. Available to watch at, the videos offer 
step-by-step instructions on how to prepare alternative cuts from the topside, thick flank, rump, leg and chuck and have already been viewed over 3,000 times through the site.
Using seam butchery methods not only produces cuts more suited to today’s consumers, but will also add significant value to each primal, according to Eblex.

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