The pandemic has spurred many changes in consumer shopping patterns and as more consumers cook more meals at home, they are turning to beef for meal planning. In March, at the start of the pandemic, beef sales rose 53% compared to the previous year and sales continued to remain elevated by double digits through the end of August. It wasn’t until the week of Aug. 30, that sales were closer to the previous year with a sales gain of only 1.2%.
“Beef is the biggest of the proteins in the United States and had the highest dollar and volume growth in 2019. Once the pandemic’s shelter-in-place mandates changed food spending seemingly overnight, beef emerged as the pandemic powerhouse with the highest dollar and volume gains of all proteins,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal with 210 Analytics.
“The pandemic confirmed that meat remains a family staple,” says Dave Greening, general manager of La Farge, Wis.-based Organic Valley’s Organic Meat Company division. “We saw early on during the pandemic that people wanted to make sure they had adequate quantities in their freezers of all the meat proteins and specifically increased beef purchases. ... Beef surged dramatically and remains strong today. However, the panic buying seen at the early height of the pandemic has returned to a steadier state.”
The Beef Checkoff Stock Up research supports Greening’s observations. Early on in the pandemic, 62% of consumers surveyed said they were stocking up on beef more than they typically do, and the number at the end of July had dropped down to slightly more than 50%, notes Shawn Darcy, senior director of market research for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff. For the near future, 30% of those surveyed said they were going to stop their stocking up behavior and 22% indicated they were going to continue or increase their stocking up behavior.
With retail foodservice closed at the beginning of the pandemic and most restaurants only opened at limited capacity, consumers began cooking more meals at home. While aspirational and chef-inspired creations may have been popular in March or April, the reality of everyday cooking soon settled in and consumers shifted back to convenience and comfort. On the Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner website, operated by Beef Checkoff/Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the “top recipes are generally comfort food recipes, like meatloaf, [which] is at the top of the list, and that has stayed the same through [the pandemic] as well,” says Bridget Wasser, executive director of meat science, culinary and supply chain research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“Fatigue is setting in,” Roerink says. “Helping shoppers with meal planning and introducing them to new beef cuts and recipes can be a big win not just for sales today, but [also] have a positive lifetime impact.”
At Lakeview Supermarket & Deli in Lucerne, Calif., owner Kenny Parlet and his team are handing out a lot of recipes to help inspire customers. “They’re coming in and they’re saying, ‘I tried your chili verde recipe, your pork Parmesan.’ They’re really expanding their horizons.”
Lakeview also benefits from being seen as experts in consumers’ eyes. “One of our mottos is ‘We’re the experts, so you don’t have to be,’” Parlet says.
When customers come in and request a certain cut, like a flank steak, his team is trained to ask what they are making and often, another cut will work better for the dish. “We’ll recommend something else. And [customers] value the knowledge and wisdom that our staff offers them to give them options to do the same meal with a different cut.”
Creatures of Habit
Parlet has found that customers tend to buy the same four or five cuts over and over again. It’s insight that is backed by data.
“For as many years as I can recall, the top five cuts that sell have not changed. They might change in order, but it’s always those five,” Wasser says. The top five cuts are rib-eye, strip, T-bone, fillet and ground beef.
“Ground beef in particular remains extremely popular,” Roerink adds. “It’s the most common cut purchased across shoppers as a versatile and easy-to-use item. Ground beef has been in a quarter of shopper baskets during the pandemic as the No. 1 item, and beef steak is the second most common item in 24% of shopper baskets. This is far ahead of No. 3, which is chicken breast, in 18% of the baskets.”
While the top cuts have remained the same, Parlet has “seen a massive transition to high-end cuts and people moving toward quality more often than they have in the past. … I just recently switched over to strictly Prime and my sales have tripled. People are wanting the better quality and they’re more than happy to pay for it.”
Even as beef prices have started to creep up, Lakeview hasn’t seen pushback from customers. “Delivering constant value in the way of giving them the best quality and the ultimate in customer service helps,” he adds.
Moving On Up
Younger consumers are also increasingly turning to natural, organic and high-quality foods, Parlet notes.
“We’re seeing increased demand for organic products in general as consumers look to provide the cleanest, healthiest choices possible to their families,” says Greening of Organic Valley. “We’re seeing more and more consumers every year who value the stability and sustainability that comes from sourcing organic foods from small family farms like the ones in our company.”
High quality and sustainability may remain top of mind for consumers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t look for value. Value-added beef made up nearly 9% of all beef sales pre-pandemic, Roerink notes, with a 52-week growth rate of nearly 3%. Despite the growth of sales overall, value-added beef has maintained its share. In mid-July, it made up 8.6% of sales with a pandemic growth rate of 33.5%.
“It’s important to keep in mind that many retailers had to allocate all available manpower to keeping the meat case stocked, rather than allocating man hours to developing value-added items in house,” Roerink says. “So value-added sales held its own even with much less availability through much of the pandemic. Value-added items will remain a big sales opportunity for beef going forward.”