As of the end of June, lamb sales at retail declined in both volume (7.1%) and dollar sales (7.2%) compared to the previous year, according to the Power of Meat 2023.

“Still, dollars and volume sold remain robust compared to pre-COVID levels,” said Doug McNicholl, regional manager, North America for the Meat & Livestock Association of Australia (MLA). “Dollar sales of lamb have increased by 34.8%, and volume has seen a 11% rise compared to pre-pandemic 2019.”

There are specific markets across the US that have experienced significant growth in both dollar and volume sales of lamb this year. Boston stands out among major markets with a 1.7% increase in dollar sales and a 9.8% increase in volume sales between Q2 2022 and Q2 2023, according to MLA’s most recent Lamb Category Sales Report. Additionally, San Francisco and Seattle also witnessed growth during this period, with pound sales increasing by 2.9% and 4.8%, respectively.

Lori Dunn, vice president of retail sales for Thomas Foods International USA, noted lamb is a very seasonal product, spiking around the Christmas and Easter holidays. “Lamb sales during these holidays have been very strong over the last year; Easter 2023 outsold Easter 2022 and 2021,” she said. “Last Christmas, more Americans purchased lamb than they have in previous years, and we are experiencing strong demand in preparation for the upcoming holiday season.”

Still, there’s no denying sales are down. Fernando Moreno, director of meat and seafood for Gelson’s Markets, a 27-chain grocery story in Southern California, noted the lamb category trend has been soft most of this year, most likely due to the economic situation US consumers are facing and the higher costs of goods.

“The customers who were able to purchase lamb offerings during COVID took full advantage of purchasing lamb racks, lamb loins, and lamb legs, but once the cost started going up with the shortages, our customers started backing away slowly,” he said. “Our lamb sales are currently down between 7-10% vs. 2022 and about 15- 20% vs. 2021.”

Most popular cuts

According to the 2022 Cryovac National Meat Case Study, 90% of lamb in retail is case ready and almost 99% is branded with a private or manufacturer label.

One of the most popular cuts in the segment is ground lamb. In fact, dollar sales of ground lamb have surged by 9.5%, while volume sales have increased by 14.8%, even with lower demand overall, according to MLA.

At Gelson’s, which hand-cuts and trims its US manufactured lamb in-store, the best-sellers are the lamb rib chops, lamb racks, and ground lamb, while the rest of the cuts – loin chops, shoulder chops, and lamb leg offerings primarily sell when they are on sale or during Kosher holidays.

“I believe our customer is attracted to the high quality of our American lamb being that it contains a high level of marbling with a very subtle taste vs. New Zealand Lamb, which tends to be very lean and gammy,” Moreno said. “Lamb has great health benefits just like beef. It is high in protein, muscle growth, and support of muscle mass and is a great source of vitamins b-6 and 12 as well as niacin, zinc, and iron.”

For Thomas Foods, ground lamb, loin chops and racks of lamb have outperformed the rest of the category.

“We are also starting to see inflationary prices for lamb fall slightly versus last year, which will help price-sensitive consumers get back into or experiment within the category,” Dunn said. “We recently launched a new product, a boneless loin lamb roast, that has been received extremely well.”

Aussie Select, a brand of World Select Cuts LLC, offers the United States’ first fully cooked charcuterie-style products made from pasture-raised lamb. It currently has four products: lamb pastrami, lamb prime rib and two lamb “hams” – tikka masala and agave rosemary.

“Adventurous millennial eaters, ethnic shoppers, and home chefs willing and able to spend more time cooking, fueled a lamb renaissance,” Jaclyn Glatzer, CEO of Aussie Select, said. “Lamb has always been a premium protein, and as with all proteins, lamb pricing has increased. Offerings like Aussie Select’s lamb charcuterie are making lamb more approachable.”

She added that Aussie Select will continue to innovate with lamb as a protein.

“Our newest product is a lamb prime rib roast. Simply seasoned, this offering brings out the delicious taste of lamb in a new, convenient ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat format for retailers and shoppers,” Glatzer said. “The more mild-tasting Australian lamb we start with ensures great taste. Our pipeline is rich with further ideas that are in early stages of testing for 2024 launch.”

Perfect packaging

When it comes to packaging, McNicholl noted the best choice depends on the cut, and tradeoffs exist between eating quality, product presentation, and shelf life.

“Vacuum packaging provides the best shelf life for consumers who want to freeze the product at home; however, MAP packaging can present the product in a more visually appealing way,” he said.

Gelson’s currently sells 90% of its lamb products as a self-serve offering using clear plastic trays with an overwrap as all of its lamb offerings are cut fresh in-house daily, with the remaining 10% of sales sold behind the glass and are hand-wrapped in butcher paper.

“The only change in the recent year has been us no longer using foam trays and only using recyclable plastic trays,” Moreno said.

Lamb aligns seamlessly with Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, presenting an ideal chance for pre-packaged meal kits featuring items like tzatziki, olives, pita bread, and hummus.

“Shoppers can effortlessly pick up these kits, grill lamb, and savor a delicious meal,” McNicholl said. “Furthermore, for health-conscious consumers, lamb offers a source of lean protein, making it an excellent inclusion in healthy recipes.”

He noted that since lamb is a premium protein, it helps build bigger basket sizes overall, so featuring lamb on the shelf helps drive dollars.

“Highlighting lamb’s sustainability and health characteristics are also proven to attract more buyers,” he said. “Sharing simple to make recipes featuring lamb makes the protein more approachable to the widest audience at store level. Social media is a great place to do this.”

Thomas Foods sees a major opportunity to help educate consumers through packaging, and recently launched new packaging with consumer-friendly colors that stands out on-shelf.

“The new packaging also prominently displays our all-natural claims and has a QR code on-pack that leads to meal and recipe ideas for busy consumers,” Dunn said. “Highlighting nutritional content or production claims such as all-natural or antibiotic-free is a valuable opportunity to connect with shoppers who are seeking protein choices with these attributes.”

Gelson’s has a header sign directly over the multideck meat case and rails trip signs that call out its Lamb as 100% born, raised, and harvested in the United States.

Bringing the restaurant experience home 

According to Midan Marketing’s recently released Meat Consumer Segmentation 3.0 study, 78% of US lamb consumers say they enjoy cooking at home and want to recreate gourmet and culturally inspired dishes. Retailers can capitalize on the opportunity to boost lamb sales by tailoring their offerings to align with the growing trend of consumers seeking restaurant-style experiences at home.

“Lamb is a great alternative to recreate at home after being inspired by a fine dining experience,” Dunn said. “We have also seen a lot of success offering inspiration through videos posted on channels like TikTok, educating consumers on swapping ground beef for ground lamb.”

Bringing something new to the charcuterie board, and a non-pork offering that many consumers seek, Aussie Select feels its lamb products can elevate an experience and pairing these products with more traditional prosciutto and salamis is a great way to up one’s game.

“People who buy lamb consider themselves foodies and are happy to purchase premium food items,” Glatzer said. “We also suggest cross-merchandising with wines, premium cheeses, and nuts. Since Aussie Lamb is Halal-certified, we often see the items cross-merchandised in a Halal-specific section of the store.”

MLA sees an opportunity to help retailers continue to drive demand and take advantage of the rapidly approaching holiday season.

“With the help of our ‘Lambassadors,’ retailers can boost lamb consumption by crafting enticing holiday-themed promotions and bundles that feature festive lamb dishes, such as succulent roasts and savory stews,” McNicholl said. “Creating visually appealing in-store displays and online content that highlight the warmth and tradition associated with lamb-centered holiday meals can evoke a sense of seasonal joy and inspire shoppers to make lamb a centerpiece of their holiday feasts.”

This article is an excerpt from the November 2023 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Lamb feature and more in the digital edition here.