It's been six months since the U.S. declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Since then, Americans have been under various forms of lockdowns and phases, as well as their own comfort levels in venturing outside the home for business or pleasure. This fall, as schools attempt to reopen and families try to get back to some sort of normality, Tara-Ann Dugan says one activity will remain the same — dining at home.
"Some of the bigger things that we're seeing are that consumers definitely plan to prepare food and consume at home, and they are anticipating at this time that the pandemic is going to continue to last longer than they had originally thought," Dugan says. "An earlier MarketPulse survey from IRI [a marketing consulting company] had produced information that noted that consumers thought that pandemic would last for a few months. In their latest reports, we're now seeing that expected lasting impact of upwards of nine months or so, and it's playing out in the way that people are behaving. Fortunately for us, pork continues to be strong in all of this."
As director of research and insights for the National Pork Board, Dugan is responsible for figuring out what protein purchases people are making, and why. Since March, that consumer and data insight has been instrumental in keeping NPB one step ahead in its marketing efforts during the pandemic.
One such example is the uptick in interest in smoking meat, lending the Pork Checkoff an opportunity to modify its traditional grilling campaign to highlight how pork can be part of the smoking process.
"We've seen that's a really big trend right now, even leading into the summer and prior to the pandemic," Dugan says. "Smoking was certainly a big trend, but now even more so as people have more time on their hands."
1. Larger baskets, fewer trips, e-commerce
Overall, Dugan says she sees five predominant consumers trends that will continue to play out through 2020 and into 2021, as the pandemic continues.
According to IRI research, more than half of grocery shoppers were extremely concerned about COVID-19. For the week ending July 26, more than a third of Americans said they were more concerned than they were the previous week.
"It's not quite back to where we were at around April or so, but maybe around early May — and people have definitely adjusted their buying behaviors, where we're not seeing as much of the large, big pandemic buying behaviors, but we are continuing to see that there are larger baskets and fewer trips," Dugan says.
She anticipates this level of concern will continue into the future, where people will try to find safe shopping experiences and only make grocery trips as needed. This behavior has also led more consumers to turn to online shopping, with e-commerce dollar sales growing 83% for "click and collect" alone since April 2019 according to IRI research, she says. "We're seeing that a lot of consumers who have purchased during this time via e-commerce mentioned that they're likely to continue to buy groceries online after the crisis. While this is more evident when we think about some of the durable goods — like personal care, health and beauty items — we've also seen growth in meat, which is quite different than before, because that may have been a category [in which] people were slower to transition to e-commerce. But they're becoming more comfortable with it, so that innovation is being sped up, if you will."
2. Convenience gets new meaning
Consumers are keeping more meat on hand. During the week of July 26, meat department dollar sales were up 22% versus a year ago and 11% in volume. The same was true with fresh pork, up about 20% in dollars and 11% in volume, IRI research found.
"Pork has gained share, having an uptick in volume share up about two points in late July versus prior to the pandemic, so we're definitely seeing more pork on hand," Dugan says. With more Americans now working at home, demand for fast-food breakfast sandwiches may be declining, but she says that doesn't mean pork isn't still being served for breakfast.
"Pork continues to win at breakfast," Dugan says. "Chicken and beef tend to have more share of the lunch and dinner occasion. Nonetheless, the way that consumers are approaching lunch is likely going to be changing as we shift to this new phase of back-to-school."
Consumers are also now finding convenience can come from cooking larger cuts and getting more meals out of one protein.
"We will likely not go back to — anytime soon, for that matter — what the needs were for convenience before, but they will take on a different life," Dugan says. "They'll just be perhaps in our homes for now."
3. Affinity for familiar, specialty cuts
The National Pork Board tracking is not only seeing that consumers have an affinity for beloved cuts, such as bacon and pork chops, but also for specialty items, like ribs.
"Of course, we see a lot of demand for ribs, both at retail and at food service, but as people become 'cooking-fatigued' and grilling out more, we may even see that the particular need for ribs extends beyond just the summer period, as people look to extend that grilling season and enjoy that pace of cooking, versus others," Dugan says.
Another pork product gaining popularity is ground pork. According to Neal Hull, director of channel marketing for NPB, from March through the end of July, ground pork sales are up 27%, and 45% of households purchasing ground pork during this time had not bought it in the previous 12 months .
"That's really good news for an item that has been on shelf for a long time," Hull says. 'It would be a brand marketer's dream to have that type of new household penetration on an item, and really what we're trying to do at the Checkoff is to ensure that we're continuing to communicate the opportunity throughout the supply chain."
According to Pork Checkoff research, the top use for ground pork has been for meatloaf and meatball recipes, but Hull says Google Analytics has shown searches for egg roll bowl recipes have become quite popular.
With nine out of 10 of these new ground pork consumers saying they are likely to buy the product again, Hull says the Pork Checkoff goal is to make sure packers and retailers are capitalizing on the opportunity.
"They like ground pork. They're coming back to buy it a second and third time, and we just need to make sure that we've got it merchandised — one, where it is easy to find, and two, where we're giving them inspiration and ideas," Hull says. "This whole concept of 'pandemic cooking' … you cook at home; you try new recipes … ground pork is a great item. It's versatile and can go a lot of different directions, from as easy as a pork burger … to multicultural dishes, from egg roll bowls to wontons to pork nachos. It's just a versatile and flavorful item that we want to continue to keep in front of consumers, because they've shown that they like it."
4. Balance of taste, health, economics
While taste has always been at the top of the list for food preferences, consumers also want to know their food is fresh, safe and easy to prepare.
"These characteristics tend to be even more important — 'taste' and 'easy to prepare' — than before," Dugan says. "But even with that said, they aren't leaving the vegetables behind. They are using more vegetables since March. Of course, that's a great pairing for the extra meat on hand."
According to IRI data, about 22% of consumers anticipate changing their eating habits to be healthier and 31% plan to focus more on health. The biggest diet trend so far has been consumers are leaning toward more small meals, rather than fewer large meals.
However, Dugan notes it's important to recognize that health goals for many must also be balanced with the economic and financial challenges they are facing today.
"Whereas it used to be, 'I'm looking for energy because I'm always on the go.' Now it's more so — that people wear health as a badge of honor, and they're also looking for ways to be proactive about their health management," she says.
5. Trust, transparency matter
Another trend that has resurfaced among consumers is trust and transparency, Dugan says. Many customers believe the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed flaws in supply chains, and she says the food supply chain now has an opportunity to lean into transparency and traceability as consumers perceive this to be effective.
"It'll be interesting to see how brands really lean into this, because folks are looking for foods that they can feel are authentic, and that they can trust the source, that they feel that the information about the food is transparent, so that they can feel good about the food that they're eating," Dugan says.
Dugan says this is another area where e-commerce can come into play.
"I wholeheartedly believe that we're going to continue to see e-commerce evolve," Dugan says. "The good news for meat is that it's a way that we can communicate with consumers about the product and continue to build trust on how farming takes place in agriculture, so they have more visibility into the food that they're eating, which is what they want."