Stay-at-home consumers bite into pricey steaks

CHICAGO Thu Oct 29, 2009 3:17pm EDT

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Meat-loving consumers in the United States are eating out less, but they are not forgoing taste and quality as researchers have found that more restaurant-quality prime- and choice-grade steaks are being served on family dinner tables.

Beginning in 2008, cash-strapped consumers shifted to at-home dining. As a result, with restaurant business on the decline, meat companies are now shipping more of their restaurant fare to grocery stores and consumers are buying it, according to data presented on Thursday at the Worldwide Food Expo.

"Before, if you wanted a great steak you had to go to a restaurant. Now you can get it in the grocery store," Merrill Shugoll, president of Shugoll Research, told Reuters on the Expo sidelines.

Supermarket sales of all meat have improved this year, which had Shugoll optimistic for better sales ahead. This improvement has been attributed to lower prices and to supermarkets aggressively marketing meat.

Shugoll and Michael Uetz, a principal at Midan Marketing, presented their survey results and separate marketing data, which showed a 12 percent increase in the volume of supermarket meat and poultry sales in the third quarter, compared with a year earlier.

However, they acknowledged that improvement compares with "horrible" 2008 sales.

The majority of respondents to an on-line survey, which was taken this autumn, said their meat and poultry purchases have increased or were unchanged since being polled in January.

The accompanying sales data showed sales remain strong for lower-priced meats such as ground beef, hot dogs, and chicken drumsticks. But, there was a noticeable increase in sales of higher-priced premium meats.

The sales volume of the more expensive "premium" steaks was up 15.5 percent in the third quarter from a year ago, versus a 13.2 percent rise in "regular" steaks, they said.

Much of that increase is being attributed to supermarkets having greater access to higher quality meats. Also stores have been running promotions to win customers during bad times so they will come back when the economy improves, said Uetz.

"It all comes down to retailers seeing opportunity because food service is hurting," said Uetz.

Meat continues to be prominently featured in weekly newspaper advertisements and at attractive prices.

"All of the data is looking positive for the meat and poultry industries and we are hoping that it will continue," Shugoll said of supermarket meat sales.

Eventually, meat prices should increase because production of beef, pork and chicken is down, said Uetz.

The smaller supply has not yet pushed up prices because consumers continue to control spending, but should the economy improve and demand stabilize, the smaller supply could mean higher prices, he said.

(Reporting by Bob Burgdorfer; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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