With the beef supply tightening more dramatically over the past year or so, prices for beef cuts across the board are being forced higher. As a result, food shoppers are increasingly scrutinizing the meat department for alternative proteins that allow them to stretch their budget.

That has meant good news for chicken at the grocery store. In fact, last year, chicken had the strongest dollar per pound growth, according to the annual Power of Meat report, and performed second in sales to beef. Furthermore, according to the National Chicken Council’s report, Per Capita Consumption of Poultry and Livestock, in pounds, total chicken consumption is on track to outperform consumption in 2022 by 1.3 million pounds this year.

Across the chicken category, Perdue has seen a growing trend of convenience as well as an increased interest in cooking meals at home. Of note, 80% of dinners are made at home. These trends have translated into consumers eager for simple yet nutritious meals that don’t require significant time in the kitchen.

The challenge in this trend comes in the form of another: consumers want to break out of the routine of eating the same meals every day. According to the 2023 Power of Meat report, interest in meals consumers regularly cook is on the decline compared to 2019 as more and more people are looking to social media for meal inspiration and variety. Luckily, the versatility of chicken allows consumers to adapt the protein to any dish or cuisine they’re in the mood for.

Looking ahead to the spring and summer, which is prime grilling season, Perdue forecasts an increase in sales of various cuts of fresh chicken. Given recent reports, showing that chicken thighs make up 15% of total chicken sales, it also expects to see greater interest in dark meat cuts this year.

Tyson Foods projects chicken production will increase approximately 3% in fiscal 2023 as compared to fiscal 2022, according to its most recent earnings call.

A report from last summer by the National Chicken Council revealed that, despite rising prices, chicken consumers still purchase the protein due to its nutrition, value, and versatility.

Going up

Tom Bell, vice president of Wayne Sanderson Farms’ prepared foods division and retail, noted that many retailers are cycling a time of poor fill rates, so simply having fresh product this year has been beneficial for customers. And because product fill rates have stabilized, retailers are able to do promotions again, thus offering customers better deals as inflation continues.

“We also hear from our retail customers that they are seeing consumers trade down to some degree when it comes to chicken purchases as well as other proteins,” he said. “Dark meat seems to be selling better than normal, likely due to lower retail prices. B/S thighs have been a great mover. As far as tray sizes, family pack trays are the best movers overall on all items, likely due to value.”

With average chicken consumption more than 100 pounds per person a year, having more ways to enjoy chicken will become more and more important in the years ahead.

Retailers are recognizing the in-home meal preparation is being done with more equipment than stove-tops, conventional ovens, and microwaves.

“For a majority of kitchens, in addition to the basic cooking appliances these homes also have air fryers, instant pots, sous vide, and even multi-functional cookers,” Super said. “Chicken performs very well in all these appliances. Reminding chicken shoppers of this versatility via point-of-purchase literature, in-ad suggested serving ideas, on-line information, in-store demonstrations, and other ways will be important to build greater usage of chicken.”

At the start of 2023, Perdue debuted Chicken Plus Snackers and Flavor-Infused Chicken, which were respectively inspired by the growing trends of snacking amongst teens and young adults, and international flavors, while also tapping into the trend of convenience.

Merchandising matters

Today’s retailers are working to keep good traffic in their meat departments and calling more attention to the chicken products they have available. Chicken is beginning to benefit from retailers’ renewed interest in having more affordable offerings in their meat departments.

As such an adaptable protein, companies have the unique opportunity to align their chicken products with a variety of cultural and seasonal trends. For example, at the start of the year, Perdue introduced its Flavor-Infused Chicken to the portfolio, which includes three globally inspired flavors—Sesame Ginger Diced Chicken, Greek-Inspired Diced Chicken, and Green Chili Diced Chicken.

“This innovation not only demonstrates how we leverage cultural flavor trends, but also the versatility of chicken,” a company spokesperson said. “Another example of this is the opportunity grilling season holds for the category during the late spring and summer months. During this time, it’s important for us to provide consumers with new products or recipes that tap into this to ensure Perdue stays top-of-mind whether you’re cooking on the stove or on the grill.”

Retailers who can reach their consumers and customers digitally to inform them of deals and coupons are starting the conversation well before the shopping journey begins.

“Retailers should provide inspiration to consumers for cuts of chicken they may not purchase on a regular basis,” Bell said. “We’ve partnered with a retailer to incorporate cups into the case for ease of use in the back of the store.”

Staying versatile

Ground chicken and burgers substitute well for ground beef and is more nutritious, Super noted, while shredded chicken is a convenient serving option, especially if nearby in the meat department are sauces and flavorings accompanying the chicken display.

“Dark meat is a great source for shredded chicken and offers value,” he said. “Chicken sausages rotate with new flavors and ingredients. While most often positioned for breakfast and dinner, these sausages are great on the grill and lunch time sandwiches and snacks.”

Retailers have seen ongoing success with their private brands, both regular and premium options. Chicken has played a key role in this trend.

“Retailers expect meat department shoppers to continue, if not increase, their barbell buying pattern,” Super said. “That is, many shoppers and shopping occasions are for buying meat and poultry that will be used in a few days. At the same time, there are plenty of shoppers seeking to take advantage of deals and promotions at the meat counter. These shoppers and buying occasions are for the intent to stock/re-stock their freezers. Since much of the packages in this situation need to be re-portioned before being put in the home freezer, retailers should consider packaging that makes this option more convenient.”

For instance, tear and share freeze-ready packages that have only one or two chicken parts/portions should be given full consideration.

Bell noted he’s seeing a boost in several packaging and messaging trends, such as minimalist designs and messaging, and a push for more health- and performance-minded labels.

“The most common tray types are still polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC),” he said. “While long established as a standard format that is familiar to consumers, PS and PVC trays are at odds with the consumer preference for sustainable packaging. To accommodate this preference, manufacturers are exploring more sustainable options like recyclable and even compostable trays made from different materials.”

Sustainability has become a common theme across all industries in recent years, and that is certainly the case for the poultry industry, as consumers are looking for more sustainable packaging options.

Perdue, for one, is constantly looking to improve its sustainability efforts and has made more sustainable options available, such as its PET trays, resealable bags and more.

Chicken will do its part to help food shoppers better manage their household budgets in 2023, yet a record supply of chicken this year is just the first step toward that achievement. Retailers working with their meat department shoppers about the many attributes and versatility of chicken will be the most important step in the months and years ahead.