The past few weeks have seen incredible spikes in grocery sales as the nation hunkered down amid heightened COVID-19 restrictions and the number of confirmed cases grows.
According to IRI, meat has been the leading sales driver for the perimeter, up by a staggering 91% for the week ending March 22, with volume sales up 78%. This is on top of the 7% dollar increase for the week ending March 8 and the 77% surge for the week ending March 15, when pandemic pantry-building shoppers were frantically buying food for family meals for all three dayparts.
Meat sales among regional and independent grocers were particularly strong during the week of March 22, with consumer demand often exceeding offerings. “Our demand on orders has been as high as 600% over the norm for some of our independent grocer customers,” according to a meat and seafood director for a large wholesaler who requested anonymity. “We ran at double the sales volume and could have tripled it if we had had product and selection time. The attendance in our warehouses was excellent and stores are getting caught up.”
Week by Week Growth ($ and lbs.)
Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet
IRI found more evidence of how rising meat sales mirrored consumer anxiety levels during the week of March 22, when 58% of consumers reported feeling extremely concerned about COVID-19, up from 38% the prior week. This resulted in all meat and poultry moving at unprecedented volumes, whether fresh or fully cooked items.
The inflection point in shopping behavior occurred during the week of March 1, when nonedibles started to gear up but when meat sales gains were still in line with trends seen in 2019, ranging from -5% (pork) to 1% (lamb). Meat sales started to rise the subsequent week ending March 8, with increases between 4% (lamb) and 10% (turkey).
During the week of March 22, three fresh proteins more than doubled sales vs. the comparable week in 2019: fresh turkey (up 126%) and fresh exotic meats such as duck and bison (123%) and pork (101%).
Week by Week Sales Growth
Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet
“Bison had been enjoying strong year-over-year growth before the COVID-19 meat sales surge, but product demand has been up 250% over the past three weeks for us,” says David Kent, SVP of sales for Great Range Bison, Henderson, Colo. “Some retailers have had to ration product, not unlike paper goods and cleaning supplies. Our production teams have answered the call, scheduling extra shifts to meet demand. I think the niche proteins and claims-based proteins benefited in general from stock-outs in the big three proteins. What we pulled off together, as the entire meat supply chain, is incredible.”
Beef and chicken, the two largest proteins, saw the largest increases in terms of dollars, and turkey was once again the highest in percentage growth. In absolute dollars, the five biggest winners for the week of March 22 were ground beef (>$180 million more vs. the comparable week in 2019), chicken breasts (>$75 million), pork loin (>$40 million), beef short loin (nearly $40 million) and beef chuck (>$35 million), according to IRI. The other items making up the top 10 were ribeyes, beef round, chicken wings, recipe-ready beef and pork ribs.
These kinds of volume surges are only possible thanks to the heroic efforts of everyone in the meat and poultry industry. “As an organization, we had to quickly switch gears,” said Samer Rahman, senior director of meat and seafood for Allegiance Retail Services, Iselin, N.J. “Faced with school, restaurant and retail outlet closures, we had to assess customer needs in advance of the unknown height and course of the epidemic. Our community worked together to ensure shelves were stocked to the best of our ability, with the support of our national and local supplier partners. Everyone worked around the clock to ensure sanitary and safe stores while committing to in-stock conditions across departments. The food industry is a resilient business and we, as a community, will face this challenge head on and come out with a true appreciation of every person who made this happen.”
Ground continued to be big, regardless of species, given its versatile and easy-to-prepare nature. Increases by species included:
- Ground beef: 104%
- Ground turkey: 87%
- Ground chicken: 69%
- Ground pork: 89%
- Ground lamb: 33%
A Detailed Look by Area
Sales surged across all proteins and offerings.
$ Gains Latest Weeks Ending March 1, 8, 15 and 22
Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet
It Takes A Lot of Meat to Feed Families 3 Meals A Day
In part, these spikes can be attributed to the combination of panic buying and freezer stocking. IRI found that among those stocking up, the top goal is having a two-week supply. However, the sales surges address the increased everyday need as well. The increase in home-cooked meals is a given with mandated restaurant/restaurant seating area closures around the country.
IRI found that for the week of March 22, 56% of consumers ate more meals at home vs. at/from a restaurant. But also consider the fact that universities and schools are closed, which means many students moved back home. In Florida, for instance, 350,000 students live on campus. Consider their added three meals per day at home—that is 1 million more meals consumed at home per day for Florida students alone.
Next, consider the people working from home and the elementary and high school students being at home. That means many more breakfast, snack and lunch occasions that moved to at-home. Further consider the fact that all sports and evening activities have been canceled, which means there are far fewer “scramble dinners” to feed families on the fly and more time to create a home-cooked dinner. IRI found that among households with kids, 69% have kids staying home from school or daycares vs. 38% the week prior, with 47% doing fewer activities and sports.
Additionally, consumers are also looking to boost their nutritional intake and build their immune systems, and from their buying patterns, it certainly appears meat matters during times of crisis. So nutrition seeking shoppers add another layer to the drivers of increased everyday demand of the grocery channel vs. foodservice.
Fresh beef sales virtually doubled over the comparable week in 2019, generating close to $900 million the week of March 22. This is more than $425 million, or 95%, over last year, and ranchers rose to the occasion.
“We have seen unprecedented demand from our retail customers,” said Matt Byrne, founding rancher and president of SunFed Ranch, Woodland, Calif. “We have been able to react quickly to supply current and new retail customers, as our grass-fed beef is 100% supplied from our own ranches and other American ranching partners. Together, as the farm-to-store supply chain, we have stepped up to meet the incredible surge in consumer demand for nourishing meat amid the pandemic.”
Beef volume sales were up 80%. Ground beef, more than 41% of beef sales, gained big the week of March 22, at 104%, and adding more than $180 million in new dollars. Five areas within beef more than doubled sales vs. the comparable week in 2019: ground beef, short loin, chuck, round and ribs.
Fresh chicken generated more than $400 million for the week ending March 22, up $165 million or 70%, according to IRI. Fresh chicken was the only fresh protein that saw a small decline from the prior week and out-of-stocks likely influenced these results. Volume sales accelerated 63% this week. Generating half of total chicken sales, chicken breasts sales were 64% over 2019. Chicken thighs gained more than $15 million (55%), and chicken legs increased nearly $13 million (80%). Cornish game hens proved to be a good back up to more familiar cuts, with a 207% gain over the comparable week in 2019.
Fresh pork doubled the week of March 22 to close to $100 million, according to IRI. Making up just under 45% of pork sales, pork loin added more than $40 million in new dollars, or 95%. Cuts that more than doubled in sales included belly/side, fresh ham/leg, marinated and seasoned pork, ribs and shoulder blade. Smoked pork and ham sales also increased significantly over the latest week, at 115% and 222%, respectively.
Deli meat generated an additional 38% in sales the week of March 22. Deli turkey and ham each increased sales by about $15 million, a 38% increase for turkey and 48% for ham.
The subsequent week, March 23-28, saw an increase of mandatory shelter-at-home orders, further social distancing guidelines and a rapid increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases. 210 Analytics and IRI will provide sales updates weekly. Meanwhile, please thank the entire meat and poultry industry, from farm to store, for all they do to ensure supply during these unprecedented times. #MeatFeedsFamilies #SupermarketSuperHeroes
Anne-Marie Roerink is principal of 210 Analytics, which specializes in research for the food retailing industry and authors studies in meat, produce, bakery, deli, frozen, confectionery, snacks and retail operations. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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