Throughout the pandemic, refrigerated and frozen plant-based meat alternatives have experienced robust dollar and volume growth. To put these gains in the right perspective, however, it is important to keep in mind that these gains are derived from a relatively small base, a fraction the size of frozen and fresh meat sales. As such, growth rates are just one part of a bigger story in the red-hot protein market during this unprecedented time. 210 Analytics and IRI partnered to understand the total effect for frozen and fresh meat alternatives in dollars and volume since the onset of COVID-19 related grocery shopping patterns in early March.
Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Dollar and Volume Sales Growth
Sales of meat alternatives (fresh and frozen) have seen tremendous gains since early March, when the coronavirus fundamentally alternated all well-established grocery patterns. Year to date, frozen and refrigerated meat alternatives have increased dollar sales 58.9% vs. a year ago. Both dollar and volume growth vs. 2019 have been in double and triple digits for 15 weeks running. Year-over-year sales gains peaked during the first of the two panic buying weeks, with an increase of 152% vs. the same week in 2019. There have been small fluctuations since, with sales gains tapering off since the middle of May. Volume sales have had a strong performance as well, with gains peaking during the panic buying weeks, at 135% vs. the same week in 2019. Volume sales gains have trailed dollar gains since the onset of COVID-19. The gap was at its widest during the week ending May 17, at 14.8 percentage points and narrowed slightly going into June, at 14.1 points—signaling inflationary pressure.
Frozen vs. Refrigerated Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
Frozen plant-based meat alternatives represent the majority share of total sales. During the week ending June 7, frozen plant-based meat alternatives generated just over $14 million in sales vs. just under $10 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. For comparative purposes, meat generated nearly $1.4 billion in sales this same week. To provide another frame of reference, refrigerated plant-based meat alternative sales are virtually equal to those of fresh lamb.
Throughout the pandemic and even pre-pandemic, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives have outpaced their frozen counterparts in dollar and volume growth. Refrigerated alternatives reached a high of 258% during the first of the two panic buying weeks and gains have averaged around 110% vs. a year ago in recent weeks.
Converting dollars to shares, 64.7% of plant-based meat alternative sales were generated by the frozen items the second week of March. The remaining 35.3% were generated by refrigerated items, typically merchandised in or around the fresh meat case. Given the slightly higher growth rate throughout the pandemic, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives gained several percentage points in share, reaching a high of 40.8% the end of May and falling slightly in early June.
The volume share of frozen plant-based meat alternatives is slightly higher than their dollar share, given that frozen alternatives are typically sold at slightly lower price points than their refrigerated counterparts, at $6.60 per pound vs. $8.12 per pound, respectively, during the week of June 7. Compared to the same week in 2019, this reflects an increase of 8.1% for frozen plant-based meat alternatives and 7.3% for refrigerated items. During the second week of March, 69.0% of volume sales were generated by frozen plant-based meat alternatives. This share is down to 64.8% going into June.
Meat vs. Meat Alternative Sales Throughout the Pandemic
Despite robust sales gains each week, refrigerated meat alternative dollar sales are a fraction of meat department sales.
This means percentage gains are based on very different sales numbers and reflect very different absolute dollar gains. For instance, during the month of March, which includes the two big panic-buying weeks, meat sales totaled $6.6 billion vs. $112 million for plant-based meat alternatives.
Since the onset of the pandemic-related changes in grocery patterns, the meat department has generated an additional $6 billion in sales, vs. an additional $72.9 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. In volume, an additional 1.2 billion pounds of meat and poultry were sold between March 15 and June 7 vs. 8.5 million pounds of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives.
Because of these absolute dollar gain differences, the share of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives actually dipped in March and April. As a percentage of the total (meat department sales plus refrigerated plant-based meat alternative sales), the share for plant-based alternatives stood at 0.7% during the week ending March 1. The share for plant-based meat alternatives dropped to a low of 0.5% during the week of April 12. As a tight meat supply pulled down meat dollar gains in the most recent weeks, the share for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives climbed back up to its pre-pandemic percentage of 0.7%.
The volume share for meat alternatives shows a similar pattern. During the week of March 1, the share of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives to the total pounds sold for meat plus alternatives stood at 0.3%. Despite percentage gains being much higher for refrigerated plant-based alternatives, the absolute gains in pounds for meat vs. meat alternatives caused the share to drop throughout the pandemic to 0.2% during the week of April 12. In the most recent weeks, when tight meat supply prompted much lower pound gains, the share of refrigerated plant-based alternatives grew, ending at 0.35% in the most recent week.
Volume Sales Meat Department vs. Refrigerated Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, one-week percent growth vs. year ago
While supply troubles and assortment consolidation has rocked the fresh meat department, refrigerated meat alternatives have remained consistent in distribution. The tightness in the meat supply has caused a drop in the average number of items carried per store. During the final week of May, the average number of items per store selling was down to 297—48 fewer items than the same week in 2019. Refrigerated plant-based meat alternative assortment has stayed very stable throughout the pandemic.
During the first week of March, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives represented 0.66% of total dollar sales, 0.32% of volume sales, and 4.2% of total items in the refrigerated case. During the week ending June 7, plant-based alternatives represented 5.0% of the total number of items, while representing 0.69% of sales.
These past 15 weeks have shown tremendous strength for plant-based meat alternative sales, even if its overall dollar and volume share is a fraction of meat sales. The coming weeks are critical in the process of establishing what the next several months will look like. In nearly all states, consumers are able to work and dine outside the home. Consumers’ economic and social readiness of consumers to reengage with foodservice will become clearer each week. For the foreseeable future, it is likely that grocery retailing will continue to capture an above-average share of the food dollar.
Please recognize the continued dedication of the entire grocery supply chain.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.