KANSAS CITY, MO. - The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on most segments of the supermarket perimeter, and when it comes to turkey products, industry insiders have seen a rise in consumers looking for larger, family-sized quantities of different turkey cuts and larger ground turkey packages because they’re making fewer trips to the store. 

Tammy Shaw, marketing director for Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill’s North American protein business, noted the company is seeing trends similar to those across the meat category such as a focus on a clean label and convenience.   

“COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty for our customers and consumers, but like the rest of the meat category, the turkey category has experienced growth—around 6%,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of consumers spending more time or even starting to cook at home more than they did previously. They are also stocking up on essentials when they go to the grocery store and that includes turkey products. We’ve also seen a number of new buyers to the category as well as lapsed shoppers coming back to the category during the pandemic, all of which are helping to drive sales and volumes.”  

Christa Leupen, public relations manager for Garner, N.C.-based Butterball, said the industry has moved from the panic buying experienced early in the pandemic to sustained elevated sales in retail to balance the disruption to the US foodservice business.   

“Turkey holds a unique advantage as a protein because it’s naturally healthy, versatile and delicious, and a great alternative for consumers who suffer from more chicken fatigue,” she said. “And our recent innovations make it easier than ever for consumers to enjoy delicious Butterball turkey in new and easy ways.” 

For instance, the company is seeing an increased demand for value-added cooked products like turkey breakfast sausage and fresh, raw turkey products as more people are cooking at home or are becoming more comfortable and exploratory with cooking at home.  

Kim Anderson, brand manager for Austin, Minn.-based Jennie-O Turkey Store division of Hormel Foods, said that as consumers continue to spend time and cook more at home, they are looking for simple, delicious ideas for dinner and are more open to adding turkey to a variety of meals.  

The company offers everything from fresh ground turkey, to fresh turkey dinner sausages, to turkey burgers, hot dogs, bacon and more.  

Sean Sáenz, senior director of meat and seafood operations for Encino, Calif.-based Gelson’s Markets, a supermarket chain with stores in Southern California, noted the fresh turkey category has grown in sales and volume during the pandemic more than 30% year-over-year.   

“This is in large part due to the consumer looking for healthy meal solutions, shopping more frequently and wanting to try new recipes for lean protein offerings,” he said. “One of the key elements for sustained growth is processing and merchandising fresh turkey parts, as customers are looking for additional healthy meal solutions.”  

Lake Forest, Calif.-based Before the Butcher is now offering a 100% plant-based turkey burger in supermarkets called the Uncut Turkey Burger.  

“When we developed our line of plant-based burgers, we first developed a beef-based burger, but then decided to offer a variety, and knew we needed to have poultry, and were wavering back and forth between chicken and turkey,” said Danny O’Malley, founder and president of the company. “We decided to go with both of them, and we have seen a lot of fans of our turkey burger. It’s one of my favorite products.” 

Home for the holidays 

Leupen said as the calendar gets closer to Thanksgiving, celebration plans are solidifying, and company research revealed nearly 90% of consumers say they’ll make the Thanksgiving meal happen, even if the celebration looks a little different this year. 

“The immediate focus is on products purchased mostly around Thanksgiving, like whole turkeys, turkey breast roasts, ready-to-roast and fully cooked options,” she said. “In fact, we’re anticipating an increase in overall holiday gatherings as 30% of people say they are hosting only immediate family this year, which is an increase over 18% of people who typically would do so.”  

Anderson noted Jennie-O is also planning its holiday strategy, which revolves around the expectations that things won’t be as big this year.  

“For the holidays, we know that people are going to have to be together in smaller gatherings, so items like our Jennie-O Oven Ready boneless breast will be a great fit for families that will not need the large whole bird this year,” she said.   

Still, smaller gatherings don’t necessarily mean smaller turkeys, as Butterball’s research indicates that three-quarters of those hosting Thanksgiving plan to purchase the same size or a larger turkey compared to last year. 


Marketing and merchandising advice 

Gelson’s Markets has found success by incorporating all fresh turkey parts in a complete blocked module within the poultry category in the retail sales case.   

“Just as you would see in the ground beef or ground meat category, offering a variety of different cuts and pack sizes—as well as fresh ground turkey (breast and dark meat)—for the customer to choose will help you to achieve continued sales and volume growth within your turkey category,” Sáenz said.  

Butterball has decades of leadership and study to help retailers drive holiday traffic—whether in-store or online this year—and maximize profitability.   

“While strategy should be customized to each retailer, there are some things we’ve found to be universally helpful, like merchandising top revenue/margin items at the front of the traffic flow to make consumers pass high impact endcap displays of fresh whole turkeys and featuring smaller unit-size products in ads and online to let consumers hosting smaller Thanksgiving gatherings know you have the turkey products that meet their needs,” Leupen said.  

With the pandemic changing things, retailers need to pay special attention to their online holiday presence this year.   

“In only four months, online grocery adoption increased to a level that experts thought would take four years to achieve,” Leupen said. “It’s important not to treat turkey items like center-of-the-store items when describing them at the holiday. We recommend retailers use the online environment to be more consultative for people unsure what to buy or when to buy it, by connecting products to the number of people the product feeds, how long it takes to thaw, etc.”   

O’Malley believes one thing that could help sales of plant-based turkey products like what Before the Butcher offers is moving it to the same area where they would have turkey products.  

“It would be interesting to see a product like ours in an area where they have breast turkey products on the shelf to see how it would work over there,” he said.   

Shaw noted that turkey does well in its typical set, but Cargill has focused on smoking and grilling as an opportunity to bring new consumers into the category and create a new occasion for turkey.   

“With this focus, there is an opportunity to put turkey items like the ‘trisket’ (a turkey breast that’s great for smoking like a brisket), thighs, sausages or bone-in-breasts near other key grilling or smoking items to keep them top-of-mind as they are considering protein for that occasion,” she said. “We are focused on innovation in the turkey category and work every day with our retail partners to provide valuable insights and products to grow their business.” 

Packaging matters 

Many of the companies offering turkey products are starting to realize the importance of packaging with more consumers paying closer attention to what the labels say. 

“We’re starting to see more packaging referencing the attributes of turkey, i.e. high in protein, lean content and vitamin content,” Sáenz said. “These are the attributes that appeal to consumers looking for healthy meal solutions.”  

Jennie-O is continuously evaluating more sustainable, less wasteful packaging options.   

“Portions of our fresh ground turkey production has moved from foam trays to plastic in-line formed trays that use a lid seal film instead of a cardboard overwrap,” Anderson said. “We will continue to convert products as our production lines are updated.”  

Packaging on Before the Butcher’s turkey burgers isn’t the usual tray pack that you would see with fresh ground turkey burgers; instead, the product is in a box in a sleeve and has very distinct colors that pop on the shelf. 

Continued growth 

Over the years, a number of new products have evolved in the turkey segment and companies continue to innovate in the category.  

Leupen said that while Butterball is famous for its tender and juicy whole turkeys that serve as the centerpiece on so many Thanksgiving tables across the country, the company also makes trusted products in pretty much every category where turkey exists, including retail service deli, the fresh meat case and convenient, fully-cooked products like turkey bacon and turkey breakfast sausage.   

“In tune with emerging consumer needs, we also offer the Farm to Family by Butterball brand for products made from turkeys raised either organically or without antibiotics,” she said.  

Additionally, its meal solutions kits are designed to be quick, go-to meals highlighting turkey recipes for consumers seeking a delicious, flavorful turkey dinner that is simple and easy to create.  

“It offers not just a product, but an experience that encourages consumers to explore new flavors and get comfortable in their own kitchens—something we’re all doing a lot more of these days,” Leupen said. “Butterball meal kits show consumers that turkey doesn’t have to be complicated and the combination of turkey and meal seasonings are easy crowd pleasers.”   

The company is also launching two new lines of turkey-based breakfast options—Butterball Breakfast Pairings and Butterball Sausage Balls.   

“While these products are designed with convenience in mind, we know consumers don’t just want convenience, but a breakfast for the whole family that is convenient as well as savory, healthy and high in protein,” Leupen said.  

Sáenz shared that today’s consumers are looking for and purchasing more of the fresh turkey cuts such as breast cutlets, tenderloins, thighs and whole breasts.  

 “We are also seeing a big uptick in sales/units in the turkey bacon and turkey sausage category,” he said. “Ensuring that you are offering a good variety of these packaged turkey items will also help the overall category growth.”