A key driver of growth at grocery retailers nationwide, plant-based foods were gaining momentum before the pandemic. But as COVID-19 has influenced shopping habits and spurred new trial, plant-based foods have moved to the fore, offering a point of differentiation for mainstream and natural foods retailers in the dairy aisle, meat case and frozen.
The Good Food Institute’s (GFI) recently released Good Food Retail Report rates the top 15 U.S. retailers on product assortment, merchandising and marketing of plant-based meat, eggs and dairy. The report shows that Whole Foods and Kroger-owned King Soopers are leading the way in capitalizing on the booming plant-based trend. It also recognizes Giant Food and Wegmans for strong plant-based performance.
COVID-19 lockdowns have resulted in a huge surge in demand for plant-based foods, according to Washington, D.C.-based GFI, which finds that some top retailers are doubling down on their own plant-based product lines in 2020 as mainstream consumer demand continues to increase. The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, is set to launch at least four new plant-based product types in the second and third quarters, and Minneapolis-based Target aims to more than double its store-brand plant-based assortment in 2020.
And COVID-19 has given Sprouts Farmers Market “a fresh perspective on areas of importance for its shoppers,” prompting the Phoenix-based retailer to spotlight more plant-based offerings, CEO Jack Sinclair said in an investor conference last week.
“Our frozen business is very strong because it’s very different—plant-based, keto, vegetarian, vegan, those kind of categories—where, if you walk up and down our frozen fixture, it’s totally different to what you would see in all of the other grocers,” said Sinclair, according to a Sentieo transcript. “Going forward, we want to be much stronger at what we would call center of plate. We’re seeing real strength when we get difference in areas like plant-based proteins. We’re doing really well with that.”
“Plant-based foods are a growth engine in retail, with sales growing more than five times faster than total food sales,” according to GFI, which points to new SPINS retail sales data released March 3, 2020, indicating grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products have grown 29% in the past two years to $5 billion.
Whole Foods and King Soopers have the best overall plant-based assortments of the top retailers, with 360 and 410 plant-based products on shelves, respectively; ample store-brand collections; and a wide variety of plant-protein products in prepared food settings, noted GFI. King Soopers and Whole Foods both offer 50% more plant-based options than most other top retailers, whose plant-based selections average 270 products.
“We’ve seen significant increases across our plant-based offerings since the early stages of COVID-19. Our teams continue to work hard to maintain our leadership across these market segments during these unprecedented times,” Whole Foods VP of Grocery Dan Epley said in a release.
King Soopers boasts at least 38 store-brand plant-based meat and dairy products, which is the best assortment of the top retailers. On average, the top retailers offer 15 plant-based store-brand products, presenting significant opportunities to expand store-brand product development across categories to capitalize on the mainstreaming of flexitarianism.
“Kroger anticipates interest in plant-based products to continue to grow in 2020, with the category being one of the key drivers of our natural and organic sales,” Kroger SVP of Merchandising Joe Grieshaber told GFI.
Whole Foods gets a nod from GFI as having the best plant-based in-store foodservice offerings. The Austin, Texas-based grocer provides plant-based meat in three times as many prepared food settings as other top retailers, thereby increasing customer access to convenient plant-based foods and meals.
“Whole Foods Market has long been a champion of plant-based eating. We feature a wide variety of alternative protein options across our store, including high-quality, chef-inspired vegan and vegetarian options in our prepared foods department, which includes our chef’s case, salad bar, hot bar and a variety of convenient grab-and-go items,” said Jeff Turnas, SVP of global culinary procurement and operations for Whole Foods, in the release.
GFI named Wegmans of Rochester, N.Y., as the top performer in terms of absolute number of products on shelf, with 530 products available, including twice as many plant-based meat products and four times as many plant-based cheese products as most other top retailers.
“The top retailers are making great strides in merchandising, with 91% shelving plant-based products alongside their conventional counterparts in at least two categories and 65% offering at least one plant-based meat product in the meat aisle,” said GFI, which added that Giant Food does the best plant-based merchandising, shelving multiple plant-based products alongside their animal-based counterparts in 10 out of 11 product categories.
Despite this progress, the report identifies opportunities for retailers to further integrate plant-based foods with their conventional counterparts across all categories and to adopt inclusive “plant-based” or “plant protein” language in signage to appeal to all customers.
“Traditional meat eaters and flexitarians are embracing plant-based products, which means it is critical for retailers to employ plant-based strategies that attract the mainstream consumer,” said GFI Associate Director of Corporate Engagement Caroline Bushnell. “Plant-based eating is no longer niche. Retailers are leaving money on the table when they isolate plant-based sets in hard-to-find sections or use exclusive category language, like ‘vegetarian.’ ”
With analysts predicting that the plant-based market will grow 28% per year to $85 billion in 2030, plant-based is one of the biggest trends in food, according to the Good Food Retail Report. Per SPINS data and GFI, plant-based milk is leading the entire category with 2019 sales of more than $2 billion. Plant-based meat alternatives are the next most significant category with 2019 sales of nearly $1 billion.