The Independent’s Playbook: Growing Into Plant-Based Products

May 9, 2022

Jim Dudlicek, NGA Director, Communications and External Affairs

The meat department is a point of differentiation – and one of pride – for many independent grocers. In-house butchers providing custom cuts from a full-service counter historically have been fixtures in community supermarkets.

Meat sales were robust during the depths of the pandemic, and even as inflation and supply chain pressures have driven prices skyward, volume sales have remained healthy, hitting the pre-pandemic normal, according to recent reports.

But it’s no secret that plant-based alternatives have been making significant inroads as increased trial has driven household penetration – so much so that any independents that haven’t yet fully embraced these new products should seriously reconsider.

According to Acosta’s latest research report, “Plant-Based Eating: Trend or Fad?”, 40% of today’s shoppers buy plant-based meat and/or dairy products, citing health as their key motivating factor.

Further findings from the online survey conducted this past March:

  • 64% of plant-based buyers purchase within this category at least several times a month.
  • 57% of plant-based buyers say they intend to consume plant-based alternatives throughout their lives.
  • Nearly 20% of plant-based buyers say they follow a fully plant-based lifestyle.

Despite these inroads into the American diet, about a third of all U.S. shoppers claim to perceive plant-based foods as a fad, according to Acosta’s report.

That should provide some comfort to advocates for the grocery store meat department, where sales reached $6.3 billion this past March, up 6.2% versus a year ago, according to analysis by IRI, Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics and Marriner Marketing. The average price per pound in the meat department was up 13.2% in March versus a year ago.

High levels of home-prepared meals in the past quarter, as documented by IRI, have resulted in strong meat dollar and volume performances. While pound sales were down versus year ago, they still exceed March 2019 levels by 2.4 percent. Dollars have consistently exceeded 2020 levels and many processors are unable to meet the retail order volume.

Looking ahead, inflation is likely to boost meat department dollar sales while pressuring unit and volume sales. The war in Ukraine, renewed COVID-19 lockdowns in China, labor shortages and supply chain challenges also are expected to have a continued effect on food and meat sales for the foreseeable future.

So, rising prices aren’t necessarily keeping folks away from the meat department, but the growing curiosity in and acceptance of plant-based products could further erode sales, despite the premium prices that many alternative proteins carry.

In light of this evolving market demand, independent grocers should consider boosting their offerings of plant-based products. Rather than segregating them, why not merchandise them alongside animal-based products, redefining the traditional meat department into a broader protein department that embraces choice and encourages trial across an expanding center-of-plate category.

Consumers are motivated by many factors to explore plant-based eating – health, sustainability and taste, among others, driving a growing population of “flexitarians” as well as those fully committed to a plant-based diet.

It’s those growing numbers that should motivate independent grocers to make sure everyone can find exactly what they’re looking for in your store.