Perspectives from outside our industry can shed new light on consumer research. Here's a quick review of selected checkoff-funded studies and surveys by experts outside the beef arena.

Rooms to Go (r) is the fastest-growing furniture store in America. It's doing so by capitalizing on consumer lifestyle trends. At Rooms to Go, customers buy an entire room of furniture, rather than a couch here and a chair there. It's convenience, it's packaging and it's suggestive selling propelling this chain to the top.

It's not unlike what the beef industry is trying to achieve. Because according to its own studies, "consumers buy meals, not meats."

Mark Messura is senior director of corporate planning and program development at Cotton Incorporated. BEEF asked him to review several market studies conducted by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). Studies examined U.S. population trends, attitudes about nutrition and health, consumer time, perception of beef and attitudes toward food safety.

BEEF selected Messura and Cotton Incorporated because it's often referred to as a model checkoff organization. From its beginning in 1970, it's typified what can be achieved with strong funding, solid support and effective promotions. Domestic market share of cotton was 40% when Cotton Incorporated originated. Today, it commands 59%.

"As one who watches the apparel and fabric industries, the one thing that stands out to me in this (NCBA studies) material is the importance of lifestyle trends uncovered in the research," Messura says. "Specifically, it's the growing importance of convenience and the increasing value of time among consumers. We see these trends in the apparel industry as patterns that affect consumer buying behavior. The same applies for food products.

"It's also interesting consumers are spending less time preparing meals," Messura says. "This obviously is a function of their careers, but the beef industry should present them with foods that require less preparation time and have more consumer-friendly packaging. For example, I recently saw stir-fry beef packaged with vegetables that included cooking directions. This type of packaging is consistent with the research."

Get Ahead Of Trends "Consumers place a big premium on time - that's coming through loud and clear," he adds. "We see this same trend in the fashion industry and it's not going away. What's necessary in our business as well as the beef business is to find ways to get in front of this trend.

"I find it interesting that health issues seem to be waning according to these studies. This may be simply because there hasn't been a visible event such as the Jack in the Box E. coli scare that happened a few years ago. The challenge the industry has with these events is the media's portrayal of them and managing fact versus fiction.

"A lifestyle change that is occurring is the aging of the U.S. population. What this portends is a long-term outlook for more health-conscious diets. Data indicate consumers are aware of the health issues and older Americans typically watch their diets more. We need to be aware of this in the next five to 10 years.

"One thing that really jumped out at me is the barbecue grilling statistics in these studies. Grilling takes time. There's preparation and cleanup, too. In some ways the increase in grilling is clearly a statement of consumers' tastes - something they're moving toward because of taste, not necessarily convenience. Remember, the strongest attribute of beef is the consumer preference for its taste.

"Also," Messura says, "if you look at the shift in the U.S. population toward the South and Southwest, it suggests you're probably going to get a lot of grilling time. And, grilling favors beef."

Cautions Though Messura says most information in the NCBA studies aligns with consumer trends observed in the fashion industry, he cautions that it must be used carefully.

Mary Adolf, vice president of U.S. Consumer Marketing for NCBA agrees.

Is Research Significant?

"In some of the research summary material, numbers may not appear to be statistically significant," she says. "However, it's important to watch and monitor e ven small, not statistically significant differences. These small differences can provide tremendous insight to consumer trends occurring over time."

She adds that NCBA requires research firms to identify statistically significant occurrences and trends in all studies.

Messura says Cotton Incorporated requires the same of its vendors as well.

"The bottom line is that the beef industry needs to reduce the thinking time required by consumers to put together a good meal. The challenge for your industry is to come up with interesting and clever ideas.

"Remember, as one of your studies states, consumers buy meals, not meats," he says.

(Charts and graphs are samples of many studies reviewed.)