KANSAS CITY, MO. - Whether it’s due to the kids being home from school, adults making lunches at home versus grabbing lunch around their office, or a continuation of limited foodservice operations, consumers are making a lot more sandwiches and deli meat consumption has gone up amid COVID-19.

Since early March, deli meat sales have been off the charts compared to previous years. While the deli and deli prepared category has been struggling overall since the onset of the pandemic, deli meats and cheeses have been the category’s saving grace. In the last week of July, 210 Analytics and IRI reported that sales of random weight, non-UPC deli meat increased by 11.2% compared to the same time frame in 2019.

Like most other grocery applications, consumers are more interested in pre-packaged, grab-and-go deli meats and the bulk of deli meat sales are going toward fresh-cut and pre-sliced random weight, non-UPC deli meat versus pre-packaged lunch meat in the refrigerated area.

Before the pandemic hit, consumers were already looking for ethically and transparently produced deli meats made with natural ingredients. Shoppers were looking for convenience surrounding the products they purchased, and they were interested in trying new flavors. Since COVID-19 entered the picture, most of those trends have quickly accelerated.  

Pre-packaged fresh slices the new normal

Beloit, Wis.-based global food industry solutions company Kerry expects that the shift to pre-packaging fresh deli items like meats, cheeses and prepared foods will be a long-term change.

“The consumer mindset has changed around touch points and this weariness may be here long-term, so the move to more refrigerated UPC options instead of bulk deli may continue,” said Maria Alarcon, direct to retail marketing manager for Kerry. “Grocers will want to offer their best-selling options that they know consumers will gravitate toward – the classics or regular offerings that customers typically buy from their deli counter.”

Cory Lommel, director of consumer insights for Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Protein, noted that when moving sliced-to-order deli meats to a grab-and-go setting it’s important for grocers to put the bulk of their focus on their highest velocity products.

“You want your grab-and-go products to turn quickly, customers don’t want products that have been in the case for more than a day,” Lommel said. “So you want your quickest, most appealing varieties in the grab-and-go case.”

Favorite consumer deli meat choices vary from store to store due to geographic and demographic impacts, but Cargill Protein can help grocers identify which types of deli meats will be most successful in their grab-and-go case. Recently, Cargill Protein conducted a survey asking consumers their preferences around 90 different varieties of deli meat. From those survey results, the company can help retail customers know the best fit for their store from customized data broken down by region.

Cargill offers a grab-and-go solution for retailers that has been part of the company’s product lineup since before the pandemic hit. The grab-and-go solution offers fresh-cut deli meats including Oven Roasted Turkey Breast, Mesquite Turkey Breast, Honey Ham, Seasoned Roast Beef, Honey Turkey Breast, Oven Roasted Chicken Breast and Black Forest Ham.

According to research released by IRI, in the four weeks leading up to July 12, oven roasted deli meats and flavors such as cracked pepper and buffalo were among the top flavors resonating with consumers.

For Garner, NC-based Butterball, this year’s top sellers for the company have been Oven Roasted Turkey Breast, Thanksgiving-Style Roasted Turkey Breast, Turkey Pastrami, Cajun Turkey Breast and Honey Roasted Turkey Breast. 

 “Many deli counters have reduced customer interactions by offering pre-sliced and bagged grab-and-go type options,” said Rebecca Welsh, senior brand manager of seasonal and deli for Butterball. “To help the service deli operators meet those needs, Butterball offers merchandising options like branded bags and adhesive labels that make it easier for shoppers to find and pick up Butterball products quickly instore.”

Butterball makes all of its premium deli flavors without nitrites or nitrates, and shoppers are still on the lookout for clean-label, better-for-you products. In fact, those qualities have seemed to gain even more traction since the onset of the pandemic.

“Clean label attributes, such as ‘all natural/100% natural’ and ‘made with real’ will continue to help consumers prioritize their purchases,” said Alarcon. “While the current focus is on food safety, clean label is a longer-term consumer goal.”

Cargill Protein’s research shows that consumers are more likely to purchase products that offer a sense of transparency. Customers are interested in knowing about the ingredients in the products they are buying, they want to know any production claims associated with the item and how their food was produced.

New flavors still appeal in small doses 

While customers typically have their go-to deli meat choices and have gravitated toward familiar flavors amid the pandemic, there is still consumer interest around trying out new flavors. That’s why Cargill Protein launched three new flavors under its premium Charter Reserve brand earlier this year:

  • Big Island Barbecue Chicken, flavored with Hawaiian barbecue
  • Sweet Kentucky Bourbon Ham, a southern flavor inspired by brown sugar and bourbon whiskey
  • Baja Chili Limon Turkey, a chili lime flavored turkey breast

“Those ideas had high appeal in a variety of research we did,” said Lommel. “People have their standbys, but I think we’re starting to see a little more experimentation and interest in new varieties.”

Kerry’s Alarcon suggests that retailers try marketing new and unique flavors by adding pre-packaged, smaller quantity options in the grab-and-go cases.

“Another option is to offer limited stock of more unique or adventurous flavors that customers may be more willing to try if it’s already pre-sliced and pre-packaged for them,” she said. “Consumers looking to test their heat levels or try flavors that aren’t typically found in the deli could be willing to try it if the deli has already packaged it for them.” 

With many foodservice operations still running at limited capacity, another big opportunity for grocers is to offer unique varieties consumers can’t make on their own.

Alarcon noted that exotic preparation methods such as smoking and fire grilling appeal to consumers. In fact, Kerry offers cooking method flavors, including clean-label smoke, that offer nostalgic taste experiences that can be added to deli meats and resonate with consumers looking for both flavors found in foodservice and comfort food.  

Incorporate deli meats with convenience solutions

Convenience is another factor consumers are still on the lookout for. With more families and individuals cooking at home more frequently, offering simple food solutions that cut down time in the kitchen have high appeal.

Alarcon suggested that grocers leverage their instore products such as deli meats and complementary products that promote convenience and freshness.

“These items can be placed at kiosks throughout the store where consumers can mix and match components in one quick stop,” she said. “Having everything for the meal in one place can help alleviate the stress of shopping during COVID and also make meal planning easier for shoppers. Plus, shoppers can feel better about creating their own meal with fresh ingredients instead of buying an overly processed prepared meal.” 

  Austin, Minn.- based Hormel’s Deli Solutions Group offers Hormel Carver’s Club and Hormel Cuisine Crate, which each include a starch, protein and sauce and offer retailers new flavor profiles and meal options to put either in a tray or other application to serve their customers.

 “Products like our new Hormel Carvers Club and Hormel Cuisine Crate items now give consumers different restaurant inspired recipes and quality, premium ingredients (like natural, organic and plant-based) enjoyed in their own kitchens,” said Megan Ward, brand manager for Hormel Deli Solutions Group. “For our retail partners, these products help solve the pain points of labor, food and team member safety and make preparing heat and eat options less labor intensive and are a great click and collect option.”

Ward pointed out that giving consumers increased options and ideas alongside their regular deli meats can be a successful merchandising technique. Like Alarcon, Ward suggested ideas such as bundling other meal components with pre-packaged deli meats such as sides or a dessert from the instore bakery and providing customers with tips like an appetizer recipe card.

There is more to instore deli meats than sliced meats to make sandwiches with. Hormel’s Sean McNeil, senior brand manager of the company’s Columbus Craft Meats label, also recommended that retailers cross-merchandise deli meats with charcuterie components. Columbus can provide retailers with incremental displays and point of sale materials for charcuterie.

 “Cross-merchandising charcuterie components together, such as Columbus Salame, specialty cheeses and spreads, as well as providing pairing tips with a favorite beverage, can elevate a consumer’s at-home experience,” McNeil said.

McNeil noted that consumer interest and purchasing of grab-and-go charcuterie including salame and other Italian deli meats has gone up due to increased at-home entertaining and that grocers have an opportunity to capitalize on that trend.

Columbus recently introduced several charcuterie focused products including the Columbus Charcuterie Tasting Board, complete with Columbus Italian Dry Salami and Calabrese Salami, cheeses, crackers, olives and chocolate covered cranberries.

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue