The recession is being felt throughout the grocery store, and especially in the meat department, according to a joint study by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute.

Economic woes are affecting where people shop for meat as well as the kind of cut, brand and quantity purchased, found the “Power of Meat” study. While shoppers are eating out less and cooking more, they are also trading down, substituting and eliminating, resulting in the overall spending amount remaining roughly the same, at $91 per week. While grocery expenses may be relatively unchanged, the way shoppers are spending is not. The study found that at least half are using coupons whenever possible, buying only what they need and switching from national brands to store brands. Other popular measures include resisting luxury foods and buying items on sale.

How shoppers save money in the meat case

When it comes to the meat case, more than half of respondents (51%) have also changed their purchasing habits. Popular ways to save money in the meat department include greater preparation before going to the store and a longer selection process when in the store. Also, 71% of shoppers say they read the grocery flyers looking for meat and poultry deals more often and more carefully than a year ago. Sixty-nine percent stock up on meat when it is on sale, and 67% purchase less expensive cuts either frequently or every time they shop. Others cook more casseroles or pasta dishes to make the quantity go a little further or simply buy and cook meat and poultry less often.

A number of consumers are also switching where they shop for meat in an effort to save money. While full-service supermarkets are still the most popular at 66% of the meat purchases, this is down from previous years. More shoppers are now going to warehouse club stores, especially shoppers with higher incomes.

Supermarkets continue to have high retention rates in the meat department, with 88% of supermarket patrons also purchasing their meat and poultry there. Supercenters, on the other hand, continue to lose business in the meat aisles with 40% of their patrons purchasing meat and poultry elsewhere.

Once the shoppers have selected a store, 87% compare the prices of different cuts and types of meat before making their final decision, according to the study. The total package price is also growing more important compared with the price per pound.

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Promotions affect type of meat purchased

Meat sales promotions greatly influence the type of meat purchased as well as the quantity, found the study. Up by seven percentage points from 2007, 58% of shoppers now purchase meat in large quantities to portion up, freeze and use over time. They are also less brand-sensitive, both for fresh and processed meat, in their quest to save money. Shoppers preferring national brand processed meats, for example, dropped from 37% in 2008 to 29% in 2009.

The study found that saving measures differ vastly by demographic, with younger shoppers more likely to stock up on meat specials and buy cheaper cuts, bigger households more likely to engage in all meat-saving behaviors, especially stocking up or trading down; and lower-income households less likely to stock up on meat sales and more likely to trade down.

The growth of case-ready (prepackaged) meat sales continues with a median of 85% of total packages bought from the self-service meat case area. Additionally, 30% purchase exclusively from the meat case without ever using the assistance of the full-service counter.

Meat continues as staple of American dinners

Despite the economic difficulties, meat continues to be a staple at American dinner tables. According to the study, the average family has five dinners at home per week, with an average of 3.9 of these meals including a meat item, down from 4.2 last year. Chicken and beef are the top meat choices.

The report, which details the findings of a national online poll of 1,059 consumers conducted in November 2008, was released today at the 2009 Annual Meat Conference in Denver, Colo.