Meat Department Sparks Reputation for Service and Quality



From May-June 2013

River Valley Market
Northampton, Massachusetts

Year founded: 2008
Member investment: $150 stock purchase
Number of members: 5,760
Retail square feet:17,000
Number of employees: 105

River Valley Market in Northampton, Mass., has enjoyed unprecedented success as a startup operation, and sales continue to climb. This is due in part to the efforts of their co-op’s fresh food departments, and their educational and merchandising activities that have contributed to the co-op’s reputation in the community. “Like the store as a whole, we’ve exceeded forecasted growth every year we’ve been open,” said meat department manager Travis Keith. Their growth has also precipitated adding extra prep, freezer and refrigerated space in a workspace reset in 2011 that doubled the size of their prep room and walk in. Nonetheless, things are still tight, but Keith is determined to make the most of the space they do have for value-added meat products preparation.

“A full meat department that offers everything people want makes the co-op be the store customers can shop for everything,” Keith said. “We are the place to come to for natural food and special diets, and a lot of things set us apart in our meat department compared to other grocery stores.” All sausages are made in-house, and meat marinades are also prepared from scratch with real ingredients. There are no pre-packs used or sold in the department. “It’s the big difference between us and everyone else,” he said.

As part of their internal reset, the meat department added a smoker fueled by electricity and flavored by natural wood chips. “A lot of smoked meats have preservatives and nitrates, so there’s a big difference between our smoked meats and other sources,” he said. Additionally, the deli kitchen was smoking foods in the kitchen before the advent of the smoker, and the smoke couldn’t be contained. This way, it’s win-win for both departments and their customers.

River Valley Market has also effectively capitalized on this distinction by showing their customers how they do meat better, and educating consumers that this is the co-op difference. “Everything we grind here is from whole muscle cuts, which is a big, big difference,” Keith said in quality and food safety. People understand what they are getting because every product is labeled and staff and signage alert them to the fact that their meat is locally sourced as much as possible, and prepared items are made in-house. “You look at our competition, like Trader Joes, and there are no people to help you, no in-house products. It’s a real benefit to have that capacity.”

Keith is big on utilizing promotional opportunities through advertising, flyers, demos, recipes and holiday tie-ins. He noted that certain meat items are very price sensitive, chicken and ground beef, so their pricing strategy on those foods is to keep those in line with their major competition. “Every department is really required to understand prices in our market,” Keith said, and the store has an everyday low price (EDLP) on staples like bread, eggs, ground beef and bacon in order to address price sensitivity.

Local meat products as a category has been growing faster than their overall sales volume, and Keith has been actively working with producers to help meet the demand.
He said the benefits of doing all this has really paid off. “There’s a benefit to serving customers who eat meat and can get everything they want at the co-op. It opens you up to those customers who like to fill up their carts and shop for weekly groceries,” Keith said. “The meat department is the ‘relationship corner’ in the store.”

River Valley Market’s numbers demonstrate that the commitment pays off in sales growth, margin minus labor and net profit dollars. “The service meat case connects you to people, and a lot can be said for that interaction with staff and customers in the store. It guides what we have to offer,” he said.

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