Sales of meat increased an unprecedented 34.6% during the COVID-19 pandemic and revealed changing consumer behaviors, according to the new midyear Power of Meat study released by FMI –The Food Industry Association, the Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education and the foundation for the North American Meat Institute (Meat Institute).
Reflecting unprecedented growth, the meat department sold an additional $7.9 billion and 1.4 billion pounds between March 15 and July 26 versus year ago, according to the report. Nearly half of shoppers (48%) bought more meat to support the greater number of at-home meal occasions. Beef generated 61% of new fresh meat dollars, with particular strength for ground beef.
“Meat department sales almost doubled in the first week of the pandemic, compared to the same week in 2019,” noted FMI vice president, fresh food, Rick Stein, pointing to the unprecedented demand challenges that were acutely felt in the meat aisles at the height of the pandemic. “We witnessed that consumers did not discriminate over the type of meat, as beef, chicken, pork, fresh, frozen or processed were all loaded into shopping carts week after week. While many consumers focused on filling their refrigerators and freezers with their purchases, they were also cooking more meat-centric meals at home, increasing meals made with meat to 4.6 occasions per week (from 3.9 last year). Consumers said they were trying new recipes and experimenting with different types and cuts of meat.”
The survey found that as a result of the pandemic, 75% of consumers made changes in their meat purchasing behavior with at least half buying different brands (58%), cuts (51%) or types (50%) of meat. Additionally, during the pandemic, consumers are now cooking more meals and need more variety (50%), cooking new recipes (37%) and experimenting with different cuts/kinds of meat (34%).
Supermarkets and e-commerce won big, with 14% of shoppers changing shopping methods during the pandemic. Once shelter-in-place mandates ensued, trips fell and basket size rose as shoppers consolidated purchases to limit in-store visits. Supermarkets (53%) and online sellers (3.2%) gained in channel share and dollar sales, but 52% of shoppers say they will return to their regular store post-COVID. Up from 19% before, 38% of shoppers have ordered meat online amid the pandemic, according to the study.
Home-cooked dinners with meat jumped from 3.9 to 4.6 times per week, but meal planning is becoming more challenging, the report noted. Meals with meat and poultry are the norm, according to 76% of shoppers. Up from 12% pre-pandemic, flexitarians increased to 16% over concerns about animal welfare, health and sustainability. Five months into the pandemic, the industry has a big opportunity to help consumers who struggle with meal planning (40%) and new recipe and meal ideas (49%).
Supply tightness caused inflation, narrower assortment and out-of-stocks, which drove different buying behaviors. Led by Millennials, 51% of shoppers have bought different types, 50% different cuts and 58% different brands than they did pre-pandemic. Out-of-stocks were the primary reason for doing so, with shoppers also diverting dollars to frozen meat (33%), seafood (27%), different retailers (27%) or other proteins, such as beans/eggs (25%) or meat alternatives (11%).
“This sudden surge in demand and the impact of COVID-19 on meat suppliers resulted in a significant tightening of supply and some resulting meat inflation,” noted Steve Markenson, director of research at FMI in a blog post. “The impact was particularly profound in the meat department as 91% of shoppers experienced out-of-stocks. As a result, most shoppers made changes to their meat buying habits in the early months of the pandemic, buying more and/or different types of meat. However, there may be a silver lining here as many shoppers have now been exposed to different meat products, have been experimenting, and say they are more knowledgeable and confident about meat.”
Shoppers also intentionally changed up meat purchases and 58% predict they will continue to buy a wider variety of items. Cooking more meals prompted 50% of consumers to want more variety in meat purchases. Additionally, consumers bought different cuts and kinds for better value (42%), trying new recipes (37%), going to the store less often (35%) and simply experimenting with different types and cuts more now (34%).
Nearly two-thirds of consumers say their meat IQ has improved as they intentionally or unintentionally bought differently. The pandemic-driven changes in purchases have resulted in 63% of shoppers considering themselves more knowledgeable about meat.
The influence of health/nutrition, convenience and meat claims is relatively unchanged and all saw big gains. Pre-pandemic, 25% of shoppers paid a lot of attention to healthy/nutritious meat choices. Now, 12% are paying less attention while 26% focus on it more. Claims-based meat sales grew 32% amid COVID-19, but 31% of shoppers said they bought it due to out-of-stocks of planned purchases. Even so, 75% of these shoppers plan to continue to buy at least some claims-based meat. Value-added meat sales increased 29.2% during the pandemic, with 63% buying them as often or more.
Price-per-pound has always ruled the meat purchase, but the role of value and promotions is even more important now. Value has become more important given meat inflation and mounting economic pressure: 46% changed cuts to save money, 32% say price per pound has a bigger influence on what and how much they buy, but 44% are seeing fewer promos. Shoppers check promotions pre-trip across stores (82%), at their main store (87%) and in the meat case (93%). More than one-quarter check for in-store specials more so now than before.
During the pandemic, the meat industry managed supply, food safety and employee safety well, according to shoppers. Many consumers feel the meat industry did a good job keeping the supply moving amid the pandemic (51%), ensuring employee safety (42%) and maintaining food safety (42%). While these issues took the headlines, animal welfare communications remain important to 47% of consumers and 62% of flexitarians. The industry has a big opportunity to drive trust in animal protein from the angles of health, animal welfare, planet and social responsibility, said the report.
“Through all the turmoil, the meat department has persevered,” observed FMI’s Markenson. “Many consumers say the meat department has done a good job keeping product in supply during the pandemic, ensuring employee safety and maintaining food safety. As we move forward, shoppers are putting more effort in choosing healthy and nutritious options, and with meat there is no exception. Most shoppers continue to see meat as a good source of protein and nutrients. In addition, many continue to believe meat belongs in a balanced diet.”
“The Midyear Power of Meat has again proven the value of meat and poultry to retailers, but most importantly, to consumers,” said Julie Anna Potts, Meat Institute president and CEO. “The survey affirms that meat and poultry remains the food consumers want when times are good and when faced with a crisis. Consumers want the comfort and nutrition that meat provides.”
The Midyear Power of Meat 2020 was conducted by 210 Analytics and is made possible by CRYOVAC Brand Food Packaging, part of Sealed Air Corporation.
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