Magazine article Marketing

A Dying Breed?

Magazine article Marketing

A Dying Breed?

Article excerpt

Independent butchers may have had their day. What can they do to keep up with the competition? Mike Johnson reports

Butchery is a dying art. Hand-in-hand with the baker and the candlestick maker, the British high street butcher has been minced by the might of the multiples. The country's biggest, Dewhurst, will sell 600 of its 1000 shops over the next 17 months in an attempt to clear debts of 350m [pounds]. Fewer and fewer of us eat meat inside the home; when we do, it's to the supermarket we turn. Can the butcher exhume his own carcass?

On the face of it, things don't look so bad. Despite the onslaught of vegetarianism and BSE, as a nation we aren't actually eating any less meat than we used to. Last Year, says Government-funded industry promoter the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), we ate 65.2kgs per head--which has remained static since 1988, when we consumed the highest amount since records began. We now eat more meat than in the 60s and 70s--though that includes the boom in supposedly healthier poultry. The MLC predicts the figure will actually rise next year.

Trouble is, the dear old butcher has been ill-prepared for the sophistication of Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway et al. Changing shopping habits have rubbed out his raison detre. Most people have a car: who cares that there's a butcher on the high street just around the corner? Supermarkets accounted for just on 30% of all red meat sales in 1981; last year, just over 47%. They now account for 77% (Keynote) of all our food shopping.

In a deeply conservative, fiercely proud industry with ingrained views on how it conducts its trade, the frustration of those charged with moving it into the 21st century is palpable.

"The industry has been abysmal at responding to consumer requirements," says Phillip Davies, MLC trade development manager for the North-west of England. "The independent trade has decided what consumers need-without regard to what they wanted. It's failed to adapt, failed to modernise, failed to pay the kind of wages that would attract people into the industry. The trade can carp as much as it likes about the supermarkets, but it has been its own worst enemy."

Uninspired by slabs of flesh piled high between sprigs of plastic parsley, consumers have fled to meat-based ready meals instead. Convenience won the day while butchers looked away. Couple this with the killer blow of high rates on stores which turn over on average just 3000 [pounds] per week, and it's no surprise that the number of butchers' shops, according to Mintel, have plummeted from 21,800 in 1984 to just 15,000 last year.

The knife is truly being wielded with a vengeance --directed, for once, at the butcher's own navel. Dewhurst has suffered from a reputation for poor management; too many stores looking too much like one another with too little concern for the consumer profile of their particular area. Chief executive Jeff Steer says support of lossmaking shops "has been going on too long", and now's the time to trim the fat.

But what can be said that is positive? "The supermarkets are very good in terms of their product presentation and standards," accepts Steer. "We have to match these standards. I do think the one thing we can differentiate ourselves on is personal service. There's a lot of ignorance about how meat should be cooked--that's where we have an advantage."

Butchers should capitalise on their trade as an art. "Being a butcher is like being an artisan, a carpenter --there's a lot of artistic skill about it," says Steer. …

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