Meat experienced higher inflation numbers earlier in the pandemic, and — with that impacting the consumer mindset — meat sales volume has trended downward over the past year, according to the Food Industry Association.
“What consumers are doing now are trading down on the price per pound; trading from beef to pork or poultry; and buying a little bit less,” said Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods for the Food Industry Association. “Still, the dollars were up for meat even though the volume was down because there were 8-9% higher prices.”
In 2023, retailers are concerned with how to get volumes growing again. Midan’s 2022 Beef Attributes Research shows price is the first influencer for consumers when purchasing beef; however, that is followed by quality indicators like marbling and USDA grade, and brand.
Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, noted that with the start of every new year, customers are on the hunt for better-for-you items to battle holiday weight gains. This has translated to a rise in sales of lean ground beef, chicken, and turkey in early 2023.
“The demand for convenience is a continuing trend,” she said. “Customers still want high quality meats; however, they are looking for variety in the convenience meal categories.”
Rise of the case-ready meats
According to the Cryovac 2022 National Meat Case Study, case-ready makes up 83% of packages in the meat case, and this category has been less impacted by inflation.
Kent Harrison, vice president of marketing and premium programs for Tyson Foods, Fresh Meats, said that case ready meat products have seen tremendous growth over the past decade, and he doesn’t foresee demand slowing down in 2023.
“This means that it will be increasingly important for retailers to supply case-ready offerings including smaller portion sizes for consumers,” Harrison said. “These products help consumers who are searching for flavor and convenience. Plus, they streamline operations for the retailer by reducing waste, increasing food safety and consistency, and helping reduce out of stocks.”
The Cargill Protein Trends 2023 report noted that throughout the past year, while more U.S. households are buying and eating plant-based meat analogues, those same consumers are buying it with less frequency, attributed to both high price and a lack of taste.
Jim Rogers, senior vice president of sales for Creekstone Farms, which offers USDA-certified Premium Beef and supplies many of the nation’s top grocers, noted the big trend in the meat case is the value-conscious consumer.
“Value for consumers is a balance between quality and price,” he said. “Some consumers are seeking the lowest price, while others want an assurance of quality. We know research has shown about 61% of meat shoppers say they are willing to pay for better quality meat and about that same number of shoppers say product quality and appearance are the top decision factors when purchasing meat and poultry.”
Stein noted that while value and convenience are still important to the consumer, sometimes consumers will splurge for the more expensive meat cuts based on desire, especially when related to package size.
“You could have an item that’s $7.99 a pound but if you only have a portion size that’s half a pound, the package price isn’t too bad,” he said.
The Cargill report revealed that Gen Z and Millennials, as well as Hispanic and Black consumers, all over-index for purchasing value-added beef products at least once a month or more often, many driven by the desire to save time.
A trend that keeps showing up in Tyson Foods’ internal research is consumers’ desire for some level of traceability. For example, customers that partner with Tyson’s Open Prairie Natural Meats brand are backed by marketing support efforts that give consumers the chance to hear the stories from the farmers and ranchers that make these meat products possible.
An evolution of packaging
As consumer needs continue to evolve, so should the meat case. Packaging is one immediate and straightforward way to address consumer concerns about sustainability.
For example, Tyson Foods recently introduced a product called flow wrap packaging.
“This product uses 50% less plastic than conventional overwrap, requires 50% less energy to produce, and keeps products fresher for three times longer on the shelf than overwrap packaging,” Harrison said. “It’s currently available for Tyson Foods’ ground beef products, but as consumer awareness grows, this innovative form of packaging will as well.”
At Publix, the grocer has seen a rise of supplier CPG products move to vacuum-sealed packaging.
“There are packaging companies attempting to develop alternative trays, but the added expense would be a dramatic shift in packaging costs,” Brous said. “There’s a balance with these types of packaging options and thus they may be slow to evolve.”
When it comes to marketing and merchandising, it’s critical to stock what the customers want, Brous said.
“We want to make sure we are staying on trend with the items they are looking for while maintaining the traditional cuts that will always be a staple,” she said. “Good competitive prices and promotions on the high-quality meats we are known for will also be important.”
Keeping it simple and clear for the consumer also is key when marketing meat, specifically by using claims they genuinely understand or seek out, according to Harrison.
“For example, we know from internal research that consumers are increasingly health-minded and look for packaging callouts like lean-to-fat ratio and clear protein amounts,” he said. “So, that’s a great opportunity to create an easily digestible poster or label calling this out.”
Another big trend is shoppers’ continuing desire to connect with the story of the brands they buy, and that includes their meat.
That’s why Creekstone Farms is committed to sharing the stories of its ranch partners.
“We know the passion and integrity that goes into raising the cattle for our brand, and it is incredibly rewarding to share that with consumers,” Rogers said. “We share these stories through video content on our website and social channels. We are also working to share this with consumers through point-of-sale materials emphasizing our claims and pointing consumers to where they can learn more information and see these stories firsthand.”
Stein has seen retailers find success by being savvier in their digital marketing efforts.
“For decades now, it’s been print that’s carried the day, but very few consumers look at print today,” he said. “Having a good social media presence — TikTok videos, Facebook and a digital app where for meat, you might have recipes which is another opportunity to resonate with consumers.”