Commitment is a word that you simply must associate with DeWayne Wulff, vice president of meat merchandising for Marsh Supermarkets. For more than 42 years, Wulff has been committed to Marsh Supermarkets and to the meat business.

Starting as a 16-year-old “carryout boy” in January 1966, Wulff worked his way up through the ranks. In 1967, he began his meat cutter’s apprenticeship and eventually went on to tackle various meat buying and merchandising jobs for Marsh Supermarkets. He was promoted into his current vice president post in 2001.

“Once I got into the meat business I knew it was for me,” Wulff says. “I love the meat business, and Marsh has been a tremendous company. They’ve given me great opportunities.”

Headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind., Marsh operates 104 stores in Indiana and Ohio, and serves 2 million customers each week. Listening to Wulff, it’s clear that the company’s mission and philosophy align with his own. “We want to be shoppers’ first choice; we’re committed to our customers and supportive of the communities that we serve,” he adds.

Customers are always top of mind with Wulff, and his focus never strays from their wants and needs. Over the course of four decades, he’s seen, learned and experienced much; now here’s a snapshot of how he views his business and yours.

What is the Marsh philosophy as it relates to the consumer and the meat case?

We have two store formats, which occurred about two years ago. One is Marsh Marketplace, where we try to cater to middle- and upper-income customers. The other is Marsh Hometown Markets, which is more value-focused for middle- to low-income shoppers and rural communities.

The meat cases also have different formats. The Marketplace has a full-service counter and there are more upscale meat products, such as natural meats, an Angus program and a Signature Pork program. In Hometown Markets you’d find Select-grade meats, and they’re presented in self-serve counters.

Explain more about Marsh’s Signature Pork program.

It was developed about seven years ago. It’s an all-Indiana product that has to meet a specific Minolta color score, the cuts have to be a certain size and there are only six local farmers supplying the product.

It’s processed by Indiana Packers. So, it’s a locally raised and processed product. It’s harvested at a different time, kept segregated and shipped in different boxes to our stores. Marsh Signature Pork is sold only in our Marketplace stores and only out of our full-service meat counter.

What’s been the greatest consumer change that you’ve seen over the years?

Today’s consumers are much more savvy and informed. They’re looking for healthy food alternatives; they’re interested in nutritional benefits; they’re concerned about where a product comes from. 

Younger shoppers are looking for meal solutions. They want a product that’s mostly ready to go. That’s a big change.

We do have a significant amount of what I call a la carte items in our service meat area. Products that are breaded, marinated, seasoned, stuffed; the prep-time has been removed.

Specific to the meat case, what has changed in terms of retail merchandising?

Branding is No. 1. Everyone is trying to find ways to brand their meat program, to make it preferred and separate themselves from the competition. For us, it’s Marsh Signature Pork; you can’t buy it anywhere else.

Prepared product is a huge business today, so you’re seeing more of that in terms of merchandising. 

Over the years there also has been more boneless product. That goes back to having a savvier shopper; she doesn’t want to pay for the bone.

What do you see as pork’s biggest competition?

It has to be other proteins — beef and chicken. Almost 42 percent of our pounds sold is beef. We sell a fair amount of pork. More than 20 percent of our pounds sold is pork. About 19 percent is chicken, which is a bit unusual because chicken often outperforms pork, but we sell more pork at Marsh. We promote pork a lot; it’s a great value and our customers seem to be attracted to it. Fish is still a very small part of our business, but it’s growing.

What do you see as pork’s greatest asset?

It is a tremendous value compared to beef or other proteins. If you look at the economy, the consumer is trading down from steaks to chops, for example.

Another great asset that’s underutilized is ground pork. We need to convince the consumer of ground pork’s value and versatility.

It’s a top-of-mind issue. If someone said, “let’s have a cookout,” no one thinks about ground pork. We need to do a better job as an industry. It’s not just my job as a retailer but also producers and processors.

What do you see as pork’s biggest obstacle or challenge?

The asset, its value compared to beef, is also an obstacle. When you look at the dollar profit, it’s so much greater in beef than pork, and as a retailer we are trying to sell all proteins.

Health concerns present another obstacle. “Pork: The Other White Meat” has gone a long way in comparing pork to chicken, and presenting it as a healthy option, but there’s still work to be done.

Another obstacle, and one that’s going to hit all of us, is the economy.

What adjustments do pork producers need to make to address these challenges?

This almost sounds too simple, but working together — and I don’t mean just the producer — the entire chain. The producer, processor and retailer all need to work toward the same goal and not just focus on what works for them individually.

How do we do that? I wish I had the answer. Marsh tries to work with Indiana Pork and the National Pork Board. I’m a big believer that we need to talk and work together.

Here’s a good example: Maybe the producer wants to raise larger hogs that produce bigger pork loins. It might work for the producer and the packer because the yields are better, but it may not be what the retailer needs or the consumer wants.

But just Marsh working with Indiana Pork can’t get the job done; it takes all of the retailers to work with their state pork group or NPB.

What keeps you up at night?

One thing is how to stay ahead of our competition. What is that next product or service that the customer is going to want, and how can Marsh be the company that provides it?

The economy is a real concern. What will 2009 bring, and when will the consumer say, “I can’t afford to buy meat for my family anymore”? I saw a lady talking on a news program; she said she quit buying meat. She’s feeding her family macaroni and cheese or peanut butter. We’re adding costs with feed, fuel and country-of-origin labeling — what’s going to happen down the road?

Another concern is maintaining skilled meat cutters. We still cut and tray all of our meat in the store for the consumer. It’s another attribute that makes Marsh different. We have a training program, but many young people today are just not interested in that skill set.

Looking at natural and organic products, what does the future hold for them?

First, a lot of people — consumers and in the industry — get confused as to what is organic and what is natural. Often when our consumers say they want organic, they really want all-natural. Because of what organic is and the cost, it takes it out of the ball park for many shoppers. Organics (meat) will be a niche.

On the other hand, natural is here to stay, and it will grow. Consumers are concerned about antibiotic use, growth stimulants and the effect they might have on their families. For the young shopper, it’s a big issue. What’s yet to be seen is how the economy might impact that. Will the customer be willing to pay 50 cents more for an all-natural product than the regular commodity product?

What about animal welfare? Is it an issue with consumers?

I’ve heard comments periodically from consumers. They are usually triggered by a TV news program. There is a small percent that are interested in animal welfare. I think it will continue to be an issue and may even increase as time goes on. Most consumers don’t want to relate the product back to something that was walking around at some point. We try not to bring that to their attention.

Where do you see the meat case headed in five to 10 years?

As retailers try to find ways to separate themselves from the competition, especially from the mass-market stores, we could see more specialty meat counters, more customer service. Have someone available to help the consumer in terms of handling and cooking advice.

Provide more meal solutions; package items together more — even meat and produce or meat and center-store items — where the consumer can pick something up and quickly cook it at home.

A lot of branding, making your meat program different from the store down the road.

What is your favorite cut of meat or pork?

This will sound made up but, honestly, I love pork. You can ask my wife; I’ll take a pork chop over a steak any day. My favorite meal is a pork chop and fried potatoes.

What advice do you have to offer pork executives?

We all have some very tough times ahead, perhaps tougher times than we ever faced — with the customer’s buying power, cost of fuel, cost of feed. Now we all have to look for ways to save costs, run more efficient operations. My hope is in doing so we can work together, talk more today than any time in the past.