Action plan for protein

Considering the amount of pressure on him, you would think The Co-op’s protein buyer Graham Dunn, who tends a category worth a cool £550m, would be looking harried and worn.

Not a bit of it. His cheerful and lively demeanour and fresh face could easily fool you into thinking he was in his late 20s rather than, as he actually is, 42. And he’s already been in his post for three years.

Maybe it’s all the fresh air he’s getting – he freely confesses a passion for the great outdoors and cycling when he’s away from the office.

Whatever it is, you wouldn’t think he was presiding over one of the most important categories in the business. Representing 20% of its fresh food offer and 10% of its total food sales, chilled protein, which for The Co-op includes cooked meat and fish, is a big deal.

The challenge to get things right is underlined by the tight space available to the fixture in most of the society’s stores. A total of 2,300 out of more than 2,800 have a maximum of 3m2 to devote to it. This calls for exceptionally targeted marketing.

Relaunch of branding

Add to that the backdrop of the comprehensive relaunch of the society’s branding last month and it’s obvious that Dunn has a big task on his hands.

The new brand has a deliberate retro feel to underline its heritage, which stretches back as far as 1844. But groups with such a rich history can’t rest on their laurels and that’s as true in its protein fixture as anywhere else.

Specifically, Dunn says the group is working to develop protein within its convenience offering, educating shoppers and getting them to think in new ways about meat as a meal solution.

“The newly-launched Co-op packaging has labels on the front of pack that show serving suggestions. We’ve gone for recipe shots to inspire the customer with what they can do with the product. We’re also communicating how long things take to cook.”

This dovetails with wider mouthwatering recipe ideas on its website and promotions of meat options as part of its ‘Be as unpredictable as summer’ ad campaign, launched last month.

'Dinner for tonight'

The aim, he says, is to tailor such solutions to individual store demographics, with “dinner for tonight” for commuters returning home from work being a priority area. “Protein is inevitably at the centre of what most people go for in an evening meal. We have segmented stores, so there’s a tailored range to better suit the local community.”

Within that, fish is assuming higher prominence within the protein category, with salmon, for example, now giving red meat and poultry a run for its money, particularly at dinner time. “It’s one of our fastest growers,” says Dunn. “From a health perspective fish offers real competition with the red and white meat industry.”

But more traditional areas are flourishing too, he adds. “We have invested heavily in chicken formats and mince. Both are doing very well.

“We also do particularly well in whole chicken. We are the only retailer to fully package them for cooking in our roast-in-the-bag format.”

That’s not to say Dunn is neglecting important work in red meat. Lamb, for example, has received a lot of press in recent months, with top supermarkets accused of failure to support British farmers.

UK lamb sales

Dunn explains that The Co-op is working on extending the time it devotes to quality UK lamb sales and developing closer relationships with farmers in Wales to strengthen supply from there.

“It’s a modest extension at the moment. It’s something we’re looking to do imminently. We’re already 100% British during the UK lambing season, but we still source from New Zealand outside that.”

Supply and meat pricing are the focus of intense activity at The Co-op right now. The group puts a lot of stock on its sustainable sourcing credentials.

It invested £781m in sourcing own-brand British meat, produce and dairy products from the UK rather than overseas in 2015, ahead of target in the first year of a three-year, £1.5bn ‘Backing British’ farming campaign.

In addition, it started stocking locally sourced products, including sausages, in its Yorkshire stores, with a view to rolling out the initiative across the UK if successful.

Cutting prices

This year it also announced investment in cutting prices on more than 200 own-branded meat and poultry products to generate support for British farmers.

“In terms of overall price investment, we started on March 2 and this is successfully driving volume in some of our protein areas,” says Dunn. Many sub-categories are clocking up high single digit value and volume growth, he says.

A full review to assess how the investment programme is paying off has already begun and Dunn is keen to see how the results will highlight areas to concentrate on.

The Co-op Group in 2013 launched producer groups in five key protein areas: milk, chicken, pork, beef and lamb, covering more than 400 farmers, a fifth of its 2,000-strong farming support base. It has big plans to build on this, Dunn adds.

It already provides only 100% fresh British beef, chicken, ham, pork, sausages, duck and turkey in its stores and uses only British meat for chilled ready meals, pies and sandwiches, other than for continental dishes. It also wants to foster more of a virtuous circle between farmers, processors and stores.

Salmon and turkey

“We’re looking at forming groups on salmon, turkey and [fresh] produce. We’ve started the scoping work on produce, and on turkey and salmon we hope to have something in place this year,” says Dunn.

With the aim of fostering a more sustainable supply chain, Dunn also outlines a project to draw on dairy bulls for meat processing, offering a much-needed lifeline for struggling dairy farmers.

“It’s been going three or four months. We’re putting a fair few cattle in and starting to see the results at the end and it’s better product than we thought, because they are reared and finished to specific standards.”

As in a lot of other categories, the group has consciously moved away from traditional buy-one-get one-free (BOGOF) promotions towards a stable range of consistently lower-priced items. On top of this, there’s a renewed focus on growing sales by ensuring core lines are always available.

Through this blend of traditional grocery disciplines and new initiatives, Dunn’s convinced he’s on to a winner and it’s clear he’s just skimming the surface of what’s to come. Only time will tell if his endeavours pay off, but judging by his cheery manner, he believes his category has much more potential at The Co-op.

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