KANSAS CITY, MO. – 2021 promises to be an interesting year for the retail meat industry, said Chris Oliviero, general manager of Northglenn, Colo.-based Niman Ranch.

He said it was similar to “a tale of two years rolled into one.”

The first quarter or maybe even half of the year will likely closely mirror the last nine months of 2020, he said. With people cooped up at home and worried about their health and in many cases livelihood, comfort foods came to the fore last year, and that trend will continue well into the new year.

One thing that started to change in late 2020 and will only accelerate in 2021, Oliviero added, is people getting tired of cooking at home. But because the virus is still with us, they’ll have to keep doing so for some time yet. That creates opportunities for retailers and meat producers to provide solutions that take some of that fatigue out of the equation.

“Things like marinades or spices, anything that can add newness to whatever’s being served, and that takes an extra step out of the process, I think that’s going to accelerate,” he said. “People have spent nine months at home. Maybe they got out a bit in late summer, early fall, and now they’re back inside. The quest for ease and convenience will really accelerate.”

Another trend to keep a close eye on in 2021, Oliviero said, is the continued popularity of breakfast.

“Breakfast has certainly gotten an upgrade, and we expect that to continue,” he said. “Bacon, breakfast sausage, Canadian bacon are in a lot more home-cooked meals.”

When it comes to deli meats, COVID will likely have a permanent effect on the category, Oliviero said. Look for a lot more product sold pre-packaged, due to consumers’ concerns with foods being handled by a clerk using common serving utensils.

“I think it’s a trend that’s here to stay, and it’s a benefit for purveyors and store owners, because it reduces the time in stores,” he said.

It typically takes three times for a certain behavior to become ingrained in consumers, Oliviero said. COVID has provided way more than three times, and many consumers have now made the permanent switch to pre-packaged as a result.

In the natural meats segment that Niman specializes in, the rise in pre-packed deli meat has been particularly pronounced, Oliviero said. Sales during the pandemic were often up 40% over the same time as the year before.

E-commerce explosion

Of course, the ultimate way to reduce the amount of time spent in the store is not to go to the store at all. Look for the “explosive” growth in use of Instacart, Butcher Box, home delivery, click and collect and other digital avenues to continue apace in 2021, Oliviero said. 

For specialty producers, online has many benefits, he said.

“Digital provides a great opportunity for folks offering curated sets of high-attribute sets of product, that you can’t get when you’re looking at a product in a store,” he said. “Online gets a lot more information more quickly, and if you’re a premium brand, it’s much easier to tell your story in a digital format.”

Alicia Laporte, Niman Ranch’s communications director, added that, during the pandemic, customers have been much more comfortable using QR codes.

“We’re incorporating them a lot amore, on packs, on the glass on cases,” she said. “It’s so quantifiable — who scanned, when, we can probably retarget them, collect their email, etc.”

Retailers who aren’t having the conversation with their meat supplier partners about how to connect with consumers digitally to drive sales are “missing something big,” Oliviero added. Meat has come a huge distance in online sales.

“Net weight items in particular,” Oliviero said. “People are just as comfortable buying a package of bacon as they are toilet paper.”

In the COVID era, people have spent a lot more time thinking about better meats and better ingredients. The results are in — 2020 was the first year NA pork saw a sales increase (13%), which to Oliviero means    that people are paying more attention to brands and claims they can understand.

“Having learned a lot about the food system over the course of the spring, they’re more interested,” he said. “We have home-schooled, armchair nutritionists who are very open to trying new things if you provide health benefits or anything else that eliminate risks from a health standpoint.”
When the pandemic has finally wound down, the flood of people taking off their aprons and going out for meals will have a profound effect on the retail grocery world, and categories like fresh meat, which had weekly sales increases of up to 30% during COVID, will really feel the change, Oliviero said.

“Q2 will be very difficult for retail to be able to match,” he said. “There will be a huge appetite for somebody else to do the cooking. Innovation will be important.”

Those innovations could include things like new flavors, new cuts of meat and products that cater to certain diets. According to some surveys, as many as 73% of consumers have said they gained weight during the pandemic.

Retail “reckoning”

“There’s a reckoning that’s coming,” Oliviero said. “People may continue with comfort foods through winter, but then they reach a point where they have to do something.”

Keto-friendly and no-sugar are among the many ways that Niman and other meat producers can position themselves for success in this particular post-COVID scenario.

Despite people’s pent-up desire to eat out again, Oliviero expects another phenomenon to also occur.

“People will really want to entertain again, show off that new air fryer, knife set, new recipes they’ve tried out in quarantine.”

Another “new normal” behavior that Oliviero expects to see is higher demand for prepackaged meat — not just in deli meats but throughout the fresh meat category.

“Products that consumers used to count on buying from a  full-service counter they’re now more comfortable buying pre-packaged.”

If they’re going to freeze product, buying something with a vacuum seal already on it takes one step out of the process for them, just one example of the advantages of case-ready, Oliviero said.

Case-ready pork and beef is still just a small fraction of the overall market, so there’s plenty of room for growth, he said.

“Consumer acceptance of it has been dramatic,” he said. “Food safety and convenience are driving it. Consumers are not going back to stores wanting to touch everything, spend a lot of time in there, like they were before.”

There’s also more consistency in sizing of product with pre-packed vs. meat cut in-store, he said. With many fresh meat items — pork chops and cut steaks, to name two — there is a challenge to be more consistent in unit size, number of pieces and weight, Oliviero said.

“You might buy a couple of packs of pork chops, and one has two chops in it, another has three,” he said. Especially when ordering online, that can lead to an unexpected surprise, and is another reason to increase the amount of precision in prepacked products.

“Portioning has been big in foodservice for many years now, and I think we’re seeing that same expectation now for click and collect.”