KANSAS CITY - The Annual Meat Conference, a co-production of the North American Meat Institute and FMI – The Food Industry Association, was held virtually this year, March 22-25.

While it’s impossible to replicate the in-person experience — particularly in an industry that’s so dominated by personal connections, many lasting decades — AMC ’21 managed to pack plenty of educational and other content into a digital format, and also give companies an online showcase for their products and services.

As always, the highlight of the show was the unveiling of the annual Power of Meat report, presented by Anne-Marie Roerink, president of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics.

Roerink’s overarching message, one echoed throughout the show’s four days, was that one silver lining of COVID has been the extraordinary performance of the retail meat category.

“When the going gets tough, the tough eat meat,” Roerink said.

Well into 2021, the pattern established at the beginning of the pandemic has continued: consumers are stocking up on meat. As Roerink put it, meat has strengthened its “top dog status” in the perimeter. It was already the top seller before COVID, and the pandemic also widened its lead, accounting for 35.8% of total perimeter sales for 2020.

Meat dollar sales rose 19% and total pounds sold was up 11%. And beef was not only the top seller, it grew at the fastest rate.

“You don’t often see that happening,” Roerink said. “It’s often the small guys who have the highest percentage gain.”

In 2020, Roerink added, consumer trips to the meat department notched gains in all three key areas analysts look at: volume bought, money spent and frequency of purchase. While total trips to the grocery store were down, trips to the meat department were up.

There’s likely no chance of 2021 repeating the incredible category performance of 2020, but retailers and their supplier partners should still expect a very strong year, Roerink said. One key: working together across the supply chain to sell “solutions, not just meat,” she said.

Retailers and their supplier partners must also ramp up their efforts on cross merchandising, meal ideation and marketing if they want to get “anywhere close to 2020 levels,” Roerink said.

Eating meat is still the norm, according to the 2021 Power of Meat. More than seven in ten Americans eat meat most days. But that number has come down in the past two years, and the number of flexitarians is increasing dramatically, Roerink said.

Thirty-four percent of American are trying to eat less meat, especially red meat, mainly for health concerns but also because they’re concerned about animal and planet welfare. That doesn’t have to be bad news for retail meat departments, however, Roerink said. Take, for instance, protein solutions that combine animal and plant-based proteins.

“Blends can go a fairly long way to keeping meat on the plate,” she said. “Meat and plant-based are not mutually exclusive. There’s a lot of overlap. Plant-based may draw people to the meat department who may not otherwise have gone there.”

More than three out of four consumers, in fact, believe meat belongs in a healthy diet, she added.

More takeaways from the 2021 Power of Meat:

  • Variety is “really, really important,” Roerink said. People who bought more varieties of products in their grocery meat departments also bought more, period. In 2020, the average basket had a 15% increase in the variety of meat cuts. “When comes down to it, we’re all looking for new varieties. In the past, a lot of people relied on restaurants for that.”
  • Online fresh meat purchases surged in 2020. Twenty-nine percent of consumers have now bought meat online. There was also huge growth in the use of digital versions of the store circular, Roerink said, and huge opportunities for retailers who put marketing dollars behind meat promotions online, e.g. BOGOs and meal bundles with non-protein foods.
  • Case-ready continues to gain ground. In the past 13 years, there’s been a 17% increase in the number of consumers who believe the quality of case-ready is better, and a 20% decline in those who say it’s not as good as meat packed by a butcher instore.
  • New ways of cooking. Sixty-two percent of American households now own an air fryer, and 60% have an instapot. Retailers and suppliers that adjust their offerings to adapt to the changing ways people cook will see big dividends.

Meeting the demand of post-COVID consumers

There’s no substitute for meeting customers and other industry members in person, said Tom Windish, retail channel president for Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill.

But one advantage of AMC’s 2021 virtual version, he said, was that the spotlight shone brighter on the Power of Meat presentation and other programming that many attendees may not have as much time for in typical years.

“We always value our time with customers, but this year, there were less distractions, in a way,” he said. “I think when you’re able to concentrate on (presentations), you realize how valuable that information is.”

Among the themes driven home for Windish was the importance of strong supply chain networks, which the pandemic drove home; consumers’ discovery of cooking skills they didn’t have, and how the retail industry responds going forward; and the importance of animal welfare, environmental impact and other concerns, and how packaging can help deliver those messages.

At the show, Cargill highlighted its case-ready options, which continue to enjoy huge growth at the company, and their deli case equivalents: packaged, grab-and-go premium meats.

“Helping retailers redeploy labor, we see that increasing,” Windish said. “We’re really looking at product solutions. Our Castlewood Reserve is the fastest-growing deli meat brand.”

New — but not “normal”

Sarah Findle, marketing and communications manager for Westminster, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, said there was a lot of productive conversation at this year’s show about what it will be like “getting back to normal” after the pandemic. One of the conclusions was that “normal” is probably not the best word to use in this context.

“People realize that we’re never going to being exactly the same, back to what we had before. It’s not a new normal, it’s just new.”

One huge part of that “new,” for Coleman and others, is the explosion in digital. For smaller and mid-sized players in the industry, for example, online sales platforms provide a way to stand out against the industry’s major players. That can be hard in brick-and-mortar, where so much product from the top brands dominates shoppers’ fields of vision.

“I’m really excited by all the digital waves we’ve made over past year. In a way, online allows our brand to compete more on an equal playing field. Shopper can take more time to look at our product.”

And once a consumer purchase something online, there’s that magical tool called “previous order history” to steer them back to the same product the next they’re placing a grocery order.

“Once they buy it, we know we have great quality, and we hope they’ll but it again. This provides an instant connection to a brand for repeat purchase.”

At the virtual AMC ’21, Coleman highlighted its new redesigned packaging, which gives consumers easy, instant access to the company’s product claims right on the front of the package.

“We wanted to keep it simple,” Findle said. “We tried different logos, but people really like the Coleman logo, there’s something classic about it. We wanted to make the logo the star but call out our top things. We started with a blank slate, and added only what was necessary.”

The new packaging should be on all Coleman products nationwide by late May or June, Findle said.