The 2021 Power of Meat study serves as a record of how the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about consumer purchase behaviors in the meat and poultry department throughout 2020 and into 2021. More than three-quarters of shoppers changed something about their meat purchases in 2020, and these changes translated to strong sales of meat, especially beef, during the pandemic.

Currently in its 16th year, the Power of Meat, sponsored by Cryovac, a division of Sealed Air, and conducted by San Antonio-based 210 Analytics, delves into the meat buying and consumption habits of consumers. During a year marked by panic buying and lockdowns, consumers shifted to making fewer trips and spending more money during those trips, according to the study.

“The most profound change was in trips and baskets,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics. “Very early on we had a flurry of activity as people raced from store to store trying to fill their pantries, their freezers, their fridges. But right after that, we had a lot of trip pressure and that meant while people were in the store, they were buying a whole lot more each and every time, and that same pattern is lasting all the way into February this year.”

Shoppers continued to make the majority of their meat and poultry purchases at supermarkets although online shopping received a big pandemic boost, according to the study, with 56% of shoppers having purchased groceries online in 2020.

“Additionally, occasional online orders made way for steadier purchase patterns,” the report said. “Meat also landed in online baskets much more frequently, with 31% of all meat shoppers having ordered meat online, up from 19% the year prior. Fresh meat trails frozen in online purchases, with the exception of fresh chicken.”

Roerink noted that 29% of consumers have now bought meat online.

“We see not only more engagement, but we also see people buying more frequently. IRI measured a 90% increase in meat e-commerce and it now makes up 10% of the total meat purchases.”

Beef is boss

Every department in the store saw sales gains during the pandemic, but the meat department was the brightest star. Higher spends per trip resulted in a double-digit increase in the annual meat spend per buyer in 2020 to $687.87 or an increase of 21.8%.

“Up from 1.0% growth in 2019, the meat department increased dollar sales by 19.2% in 2020,” according to the Power of Meat study. “An increase in the price per volume of 7.4% drove higher dollar than unit and volume gains. But even so, retail meat volume sales increased by 11.0% over 2020.”

Beef especially had a strong showing in 2020. Roerink said beef recorded not only the highest dollars among proteins, but the category also saw the most growth.

“We don’t often see that happening to higher percentages,” she noted, “but it’s incredible to see the industry pull together.”

Gen Z, millennials and Gen X all had above average contributions to growth, according to the Power of Meat report.

“Millennials became the biggest generation in 2016, but their spending lags in meat and food in general,” the study said. “However, when looking at the share of sales versus the share of 2020 growth, the two generations punching far above their weight are millennials and Gen X – the generations with the largest household sizes.

“Pre-pandemic, millennials also drove an above-average share of growth, signaling that future success requires a careful balancing of current spending patterns versus the very different wants and needs of the millennial generation,” the study advised.

Diving into variety

Consumers bought more and different meat items during the pandemic. As pandemic-related lockdowns took hold across the United States, consumers began cooking more meals at home. Fifty-six percent of meat shoppers reported buying more meat/poultry because of preparing more lunches at home. One-quarter of consumers said they are purchasing more because of having more people at home. For example, an IRI/210 Analytics survey of primary shoppers found that 63% of college students were not on campus in the 2020-2021 school year.

“Three-quarters of meat shoppers who increased meat purchases since the start of the pandemic point to more at-home dinners as a reason,” according to the Power of Meat. “While dinner has always been the most important meal occasion for the meat department, the pandemic prompted important inroads into the lunch and breakfast occasions as well.”

Although numbers declined from a year ago, roughly 40% of consumers surveyed bought different items and engaged with different brands of meat because of out-of-stocks or by choice.

“Down from 51% in the Midyear Power of Meat 2020, 42% bought different meat types than pre-pandemic, such as lamb or bison, in the second half of the year,” the current study said. “Down from 50% in August, 40% bought different cuts than usual come the January survey, such as roasts or ribs.

“The highest share, 45%, bought different brands than they typically did prior to the pandemic. This too is down compared to mid-year 2020. One-quarter of shoppers made changes in all three ways, including different kinds, cuts and brands.”

Brands mattered more in the pandemic year with online ordering driving greater brand loyalty. In fresh meats, perceptions of taste and quality were drivers for consumer preference for manufacturer brands, the report stated.

“In fresh meats, 52% have preference for purchasing national or private brands,” according to the report. “Brands are even more popular in processed meats, at 67%.”

Roerink said other factors of concern driving consumers’ brand loyalty included confidence in food safety and consistency, and a company’s values regarding animal welfare and social responsibility concerns.

“Larger, smaller, manufacturer and private brands can enjoy mutual growth through transparency, consistency and quality offerings,” the study advised. “It is a curated, balanced assortment, targeted at the store level, that offers customers the best overarching value. Importantly, these younger, brand-focused shoppers are more socially and environmentally conscious and value animal welfare.”

Eyes on promotions

While working or attending school from home was a pivot for many households, consumers continued to do their homework before making that trip to the meat department. The Power of Meat study revealed that 92% of shoppers look at one or more promotional platforms to research meat and poultry sales specials. A big winner among meat shoppers is the digital circular. Usage increased to 44% in 2021 compared with 33% in 2020. This trend likely dovetails with the increase in the number of online meat shoppers, according to the Power of Meat.

And more consumers were looking for meat promotions despite fewer of them being offered.

“Before heading to the store, 68% of meat shoppers compare prices at two or more stores regularly and 78% check promotions at their primary meat store,” the study said. “This is up from 2020 levels for both.”

Even more consumers, 83%, compare prices and promotions between the various offerings before selecting a meat product, and 89% of shoppers sift through packages to find the quantity and package size they prefer, according to the study.

“Consumers like to select from a variety of packages to find the package size and price that matches their needs,” the study said. “This is the most common research behavior across all ages, incomes and other demographics. Finding the sweet spot between inventory and shrink will be important to address this behavior while minimizing loss.”

Keen for case-ready

Consumers’ perception of case-ready meats changed dramatically with favorability reaching a study high, according to the report.

“In 2008, when we first asked that question, we had quite a few folks wondering about the quality of case-ready, and they thought that meat cut in-store might be of better quality,” Roerink said. But by 2020, case-ready favorability had advanced 70% over 2008, and the number of consumers who perceived case-ready was not as good declined almost 20%.

“This is moving to an 81% favorability, and that is an important message for our industry today,” she added.