Fresh Food

Refrigerated Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Outperform Frozen

Sales are spiking, but share is down
Photograph: Shutterstock

Plant-based meat alternatives, both refrigerated and frozen, have experienced robust growth throughout the pandemic. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that both dollar and volume sales are a fraction of total frozen and fresh meat sales. Growth rates are truly 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 coronavirus upended many grocery shopping patterns. Dollar and volume sales gains vs. the same week in 2019 have been in the double digits for 13 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. Since, there have been small fluctuations, but sales gains have tapered 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 15 percentage points, and narrowed slightly Memorial Day week, at 13 points, signaling continued 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 May 24, frozen plant-based meat alternatives generated just shy of $15 million in sales vs. just over $10 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. For comparative purposes, meat generated more than $1.5 billion in sales this same week. To provide a frame of reference, sales of refrigerated plant-based meat alternative are virtually equal to those of fresh lamb, each generating just over $10 million in sales during the week of May 24.

Throughout the pandemic, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives have consistently 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 since averaged around 120% vs. the same week a year ago, with a slight drop during the most recent week. However, even pre-pandemic in March, refrigerated meat alternatives were also posting triple-digit year-over-year increases.

Converting dollars to shares, 63.3% of plant-based meat alternative sales was generated by frozen items, with the remaining 36.7% 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 40.3% in the most recent week.

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 $6.54 per pound vs. $7.89 per pound during the week of May 24. Compared to the same week in 2019, this reflects an increase of 6.5% for frozen plant-based meat alternatives and 7% for refrigerated items.  

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 and in April, both saw a slight decline with meat sales at $6.239 billion and refrigerated alternatives hitting $98.7 million.

Since the onset of the pandemic-related changes in grocery patterns, the meat department has generated an additional $5.7 billion in sales, vs. an additional $66.6 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. In volume, an additional 1.2 billion pounds of meat and poultry were sold between March 8 and May 24 vs. 7.8 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 throughout the pandemic. As a percentage of the total (meat department sales plus refrigerated plant-based meat alternative sales), the share for plant-based alternatives stood at 0.66% during the week ending March 1. The share for plant-based meat alternatives has since dropped to a low of 0.50% during the week of April 12. As a tight meat supply pulled down meat dollar gains in the most recent two weeks, the share for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives climbed back up to its pre-pandemic percentage of 0.66%. 

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 0.32%. 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 as low as 0.22% during the week of April 12. In the two most recent weeks, when tight meat supply prompted much lower pound gains for meat than seen in prior weeks, the share of refrigerated plant-based alternatives gained, ending at 0.33% in the most recent week.

Source: IRI, multioutlet, one-week volume sales and volume share

Assortment

The tightness in the meat supply has caused a drop in the average number of items carried per store. Memorial Day week, the average number of items per store selling were down to 299—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 May 24, plant-based alternatives represented 5.1% of the total number of items, while representing 0.66% of sales. The share increased due to the drop in the average number of meat items per store, while meat alternatives have remained constant, even gaining one item in recent weeks. While supply troubles and assortment consolidation has rocked the fresh meat department, refrigerated meat alternatives have remained consistent in distribution.

What’s Next?

These past 13 weeks have shown tremendous strength for plant-based meat alternative sales, even if its overall share vs. meat dropped slightly. The coming weeks are critical in the process of establishing what the next several months will look like. Nearly all U.S. states have started to partially reopen or have plans to do so. As states begin to enter their various reopening phases, the economic and social readiness of consumers to reengage with foodservice will become clearer. 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 aroerink@210analytics.com.

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