KANSAS CITY – The ripple effect of the past two years of economic upheaval continues to shape US consumers’ purchasing behaviors as revealed in the 2022 Power of Meat study presented by Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, San Antonio, Texas, during a webinar hosted by the North American Meat Institute and FMI – The Food Industry Association and sponsored by Sealed Air.

Consumers are adjusting their meat purchases to ease pressures from inflation and supply chain disruptions, as 38% of shoppers acknowledged seeing more out of stocks and 21% said they see less variety. Additionally, 72% of respondents said they have changed retail meat purchases.

According to the study, 75% of consumers have noted higher meat and poultry prices and 43% see fewer promotions. In response, 61% said they save money by eating out or ordering in less and instead try to recreate restaurant experiences at home (62%).

Shoppers are on the lookout for meat promotions amid higher prices, although there were fewer promotions available, the Power of Meat study said. Still, 75% of shoppers check specials pre-trip, 80% compare prices/promotions across items in-store and 89% look for the ideal package price.

And where shoppers find promotions continues to change. In-store signs, the digital circular and store apps exceed the use of the once-dominant printed circular, according to the Power of Meat study. Cents-off the price per pound is the top discount, followed by meat BOGOs.

Given higher prices across the grocery store, value dominated the meat purchase and private brands grew as a consumer-preferred choice, according to the Power of Meat.

“The outright preference for manufacturer brands reached a 17-year high of 29% in fresh meat, and private brand preferences reached new records for both fresh (31%) and processed (26%) meat,” the study said. Additional factors playing into consumer focus on value included product quality/appearance together with price per pound and/or the total package price.

Higher prices and meals at home combined to produce another sales record for meat, despite lower volume. Dollar sales increased 0.3% to $81.8 billion, but volume declined 5.6% compared with 2020, according to the study. Data from IRI showed that shoppers made fewer trips to buy meat but spent more per trip, while household penetration remained high, at 98.5%.

And convenience was key for consumers looking for time savings and interesting flavors. Interest was high among shoppers for more value-added (68%), fully cooked items (59%), meal kits (64%) and deli-prepared meat variety (67%), the study said.

“Anything that we can do to help consumers with planning, shopping, preparation and clean up, I think is going to be one of the biggest pockets of growth for 2022,” Roerink said.

Where the magic happens

Supercenters, clubs and the internet were the top formats for consumers’ meat and poultry purchases. In the stores, the study found, the meat/poultry service counter continues to serve an important role even though the meat case represented the bulk of purchases. Despite 77% of consumers having access to a full-service counter, a shopper-estimated record 75% of purchases are made at the self-serve meat case. However, 59% of shoppers said they valued the idea of a service counter for special cuts, advice or special occasions.

“Having a meat associate roam the meat case area for tips or assistance is of interest to 36% of shoppers,” the study said.

But shoppers weren’t willing to make all meat and poultry purchases online, according to the study. Only 35% of consumers have bought at least some meat/poultry online, with 79% of Gen Z saying they buy the same meat/poultry items online as they do in store compared with just 38% of Boomers. Whole muscle cuts remain largely an in-store purchase, but ability to indicate specifications (41%), money-back guarantees (38%) and employee training (36%) can help overcome online buying hesitations, according to the study.

“Examples of items being bought online less often are whole muscle cuts, such as steaks, roasts and ribs,” the study said.

While shopping for meat and poultry consumers said their focus was on “better-for-me/my family” products; while better-for-the-animal, planet and worker were top of mind to about one-third. Among the 64% weighing better-for-me/my family, leaner cuts are the most common choice (40%), followed by avoiding second helpings (33%). Local, grass-fed and environmentally friendly packaging were important among the 32% of individuals emphasizing better-for-the-planet. The 31% who weigh animal welfare in their purchase decisions, get educated through search engines, on-package information, social media, documentaries and friends/family, the study said.

Skepticism surrounding cultivated meat remains, plant-based meat alternatives hold steady, and blends have potential. Forty percent of consumers are unwilling to try cultivated meat versus 29% being open. Plant-based meat alternatives remain mostly an occasional choice with only 9% eating them weekly. Sales plateaued mid-year and backslid in the third and fourth quarters. Blended items enjoy both higher household penetration and a greater preparation frequency than meat alternatives.

Meat makes the plate

The population’s share of meat eaters remained strong with carnivores making up 74% of consumers compared with 71% last year, the Power of Meat found. Flexitarians make up 16% of consumers and vegans/vegetarians remain at 6%.

A majority of respondents (73%) agree that meat belongs in a healthy, balanced lifestyle, but even so, 37% try to eat a little less of it. Home-prepared dinners with an actual portion of meat/poultry dropped back to pre-pandemic levels, at 3.9 per week.

Digital platforms serve as the dominant source of inspiration, handling and preparation tips, with a shift from websites/apps to social media.

“Search engines and YouTube are the top platforms for meat tips and how-tos,” the study said. “TikTok has become very powerful among Gen Z and Millennials.”

Consumers search by the kind of meat/poultry (58%), by cut (52%) and cooking method (48%). And reflecting consumer demand for convenience, 57% of people said the ability to add all recipe items to a list or online shopping cart in one click is of interest to them.

Occasional alternatives

Plant-based alternatives to meat were mostly an occasional choice for most consumers with only 9% eating such products weekly. Refrigerated and frozen plant-based meat alternative sales hit a plateau in the second quarter of 2021 and started declining in the third and fourth quarters, according to data from IRI. There were fewer trips (-3.6%) and lower spend per trip (-1.1%).

Blended meat and vegetable products present a bridge opportunity to attract consumers looking to reduce their consumption of animal proteins without eliminating meat and poultry entirely from their diet. The Power of Meat study indicated that products featuring vegetables or mushrooms that are blended with ground meat or poultry have both higher household penetration and a higher frequency of preparation.

But consumers drew a firm line against cell-based or cultured meat and poultry, according to the study. Fewer than three in 10 meat eaters (29%) said they would be willing to try cultivated meat compared with 40% who would not. A look behind the numbers revealed a range of attitudes about cell-based meats across different population groups. For instance, 60% of Boomers are unwilling to try cultivated meat versus 27% of Gen Z.

However, individuals who want to reduce the amount of meat they eat or are influenced by concerns over animal welfare (49%) and/or environmental sustainability (50%) are much more willing to try cultivated meat.