Fresh Food

How the Pandemic Changed How Shoppers Buy and Consume Meat

Meat sales increased by 34.6% in 6 months
Photograph: Shutterstock

Three quarters of consumers changed their meat purchasing behavior during the pandemic, according to findings in the mid-year Power of Meat study by FMI–The Food Industry Association and the Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education, the foundation for the North American Meat Institute. The mid-year survey was conducted to understand how consumer preferences and demand have changed during the pandemic.

Sales of meat for the first six months of the pandemic increased an unprecedented 34.6%, with more than half of consumers trying different brands (58%), cuts (51%) or types (50%) of meat. Some of this behavior was driven by the out-of-stocks in stores because of increased demand and lack of supply due to plant shutdowns because of the COVID-19 outbreaks in the processing facilities.

The perfect storm of increased demand and lower supplies drove meat inflation and inspired shoppers to adjust, with 46% of shoppers saying they changed cuts to save money and one-third (32%) saying price per pound has a bigger influence on what and how much they buy. Consumers also became more aware of promotions, with 82% checking sales prices pre-trip across stores, 87% checking while at the store and 93% checking the meat case. Still, 44% of surveyed shoppers reported that they were seeing fewer promotions than before. About half of shoppers felt the industry did a good job of keeping the meat supply moving while ensuring employee safety (42%) and maintaining food safety (42%).

“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, president and CEO of the Meat Institute. “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.”

During the pandemic, consumers were cooking more, with 50% indicating they were looking for more variety, while more than one-third (37%) were cooking new recipes. This all led to the huge uptick in meat sales from the very beginning of the pandemic. This switch to more cooking and experimentation has led to 63% of shoppers considering themselves more knowledgeable about meat. More knowledgeable consumers tend to buy more than the top five most popular cuts, the groups said.

“Meat department sales almost doubled in the first week of the pandemic, compared to the same week in 2019. 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,” said Rick Stein, VP of fresh food for FMI. This pantry or freezer loading behavior led to consumers increasing their meat consumption occasions to 4.6 times per week, up from 3.9 times per week in 2019. Meals that included meat on the plate became the norm for 76% of consumers.

However, this does not all mean all good news for the meat department. Three-quarters of shoppers agree meat is an important source of protein and other nutrients, but a lower 66% believe it belongs in a balanced diet. The disconnect is based largely on age, with 59% of Gen Z agreeing meat belongs in a “happy, balanced diet” vs. 75% of boomers.

As part of the large surge in meat sales, consumers were also spending more on meat per trip. Meat departments generated an additional $7.9 billion in sales and moved 1.4 billion more pounds between March 15 and July 26 vs. the same period in 2019. Beef generated 61% of new fresh meat dollars, with particular strength for ground beef. Shelter-in-place mandates helped drive the additional sales per trip as consumers began taking fewer trips to the store and also started shopping for groceries and meat online. Since the pandemic hit, 38% of shoppers have ordered meat online, up from only 19% pre-pandemic.

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