Are grocers shortchanging flexitarians?

Discussion
Sep 17, 2018
Denise Leathers

Denise Leathers

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer magazine.

As recently as a decade ago, most people eating veggie burgers were die-hard vegetarians. Today, veggie burgers are on the menu at T.G.I. Friday’s. Clearly, a lot has changed as plant-based foods have gone from niche to mainstream.

New Nielsen data reveals retail sales of plant-based foods shot up 20 percent to more than $3.3 billion in all outlets combined during the 52 weeks ending in June, compared to a gain of eight percent the previous year. That’s a whopping 10 times the growth recorded by all food (approximately two percent) during the same period.

With the ranks of vegetarians and vegans for the past 20 years remaining steady (about eight percent combined), health-minded flexitarians are driving the uptick. Several recent surveys put the percentage of Americans looking to add more plants to their diet as high as 54 percent. Millennials also are said to be the first generation that doesn’t see a stigma around meat-free.

Also supporting the trend are new categories and flavors across meat and dairy substitutes, trendy items (i.e., smoothies, overnight oats, acai bowls), amped up advertising (i.e., “protein-rich,” “fiber-rich”), to-go options, increasing non-frozen alternatives and easy meal-prep solutions.

But grocers have been slow to respond and are playing catch up to the growth with regard to assortments and space.

Most manufacturers are dead-set against segregating plant-based foods in a single set — or what some suppliers refer to as “the penalty box.” Sure, it will be easy to find — for the dedicated vegetarians who care enough to actually look for it. But the majority of shoppers including flexitarians who might choose plant-based if it’s presented as an option will never go there.

“If retailers think this extraordinary growth is isolated to just traditional frozen and refrigerated doors, they’ll likely miss out,” added Matthew Carrington, EVP/SVP of strategic planning and business development for Worthington Foods. “They should be aggressively looking at where else plant-based options might fit into their stores.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are grocers underplaying the plant-based foods trend in their assortments? Will buyers eventually catch up or are they facing challenges incorporating diverse selections of meat and dairy substitutes into their mix to appeal to flexitarians?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Why don't grocers publish a list of items with package shots and aisle locations so shoppers can feel good about the learning process and save time too?"
"...as a non-Millennial, I never felt there was, “a stigma,” around meat-free products. We used to call them vegetables."
"Restaurants caught up long ago with the incorporation of V or plant-like symbols next to vegetarian options however grocery stores are still lagging."

Join the Discussion!

19 Comments on "Are grocers shortchanging flexitarians?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Grocers should not underestimate this trend. I’ve just returned from the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore and was amazed at the variety of products and categories that offer plant-based options. Everything from cookies to energy bars to pizza and beyond. Some that were not to my liking, but most were absolutely delicious and changed my mind and opened my eyes to what today’s consumer has available to choose from. As to the second question, grocers who do not integrate these offerings in a serious way will risk losing the shopper who is serious about what they eat to a natural grocer and that customer may never come back to the more traditional one.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

It’s so difficult to understand the plant–based options most stores have on hand. Why don’t grocers publish a list of items with package shots and aisle locations so shoppers can feel good about the learning process and save time too?

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

If retail sales of plant-based foods are growing by as much as is estimated, then retailers can’t be doing a completely terrible job. This is definitely a growth area but, like anything, it will take time for manufactures and grocers to reach potential.

Some, like Whole Foods, Sprouts and Wegmans, have been good at this for some time. Others are playing catch-up.

Jon Polin
BrainTrust

The only reason I see for grocers to resist the plant-based movement is that it is easier to always do (or sell) what you have always done (or sold) than to adapt. When Tom Hayes, CEO of Tyson Foods recently said, “If we can grow meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?” that should have further signaled to the grocery world that attitudes toward traditional meat consumption are certainly changing. While some conventional carnivores will only eat real animal meat, flexitarians are open to plant-based alternatives.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

A few thoughts, at least one of them somewhat tangental.

First, it’s all food. If we want the “vegetarian” movement and plant product sales to grow, stop treating it like some kind of weird thing. For goodness sakes human kind began as plant-eaters.

Second, just like we want to know where our meat comes from and what kind of chemicals and pharmaceuticals it contains, the same goes for plants. Where did the plants made into food products come from. What soil, water, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides went into the growth cycle of those plants? There’s a new day coming in agriculture … finally we’re about to stop poisoning ourselves. “Organic” is just one step on the way.

Third, the next wave is going to be totally plant-based medical foods. This goes way beyond “naturopathic” to the recognition that nature has the solution to pretty well all our health problems and nature’s solutions are always best.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Plant-based is no doubt an important trend given the data reported. Some grocery brands are doing a better job than others at promoting these products and making their customers aware of the options. Other brands may need to put more effort into joining the trend or they may risk losing customers to brands that show consumers the options they have more visibly. Grocers can’t sustain an infinite number of products in their assortment, so they will still need to pick and choose carefully based on their customer profiles. Trends like these are why it is so important for grocers to really know and understand their customers’ tastes if they are to deliver what those customers want and reap the sales rewards!

Jennifer McDermott
Guest

Restaurants caught up long ago with the incorporation of V or plant-like symbols next to vegetarian options however grocery stores are still lagging. Vegetarian items shouldn’t be relegated to a couple of specialty shelves (which I have found are usually stuck in a hidden corner). Placing them among similar yet non-veg options with a simple symbol would make finding options easier for buyers and no doubt drive more sales for grocers.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

There is a wonderful opportunity to provide options and information to shoppers on their mobile devices. I agree with Anne. Providing imagery, information and locations could be an excellent way to help the shopper. The retailers have a relatively easy opportunity to bring a valued solution to shoppers.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

For grocery not only is assortment limited, so is shelf space. The products have to move and there has to be turnover. Grocers can’t afford waste with small profit margins, so 8 percent of the market means a proportional 8 percent of an assortment should be plant-based foods — which few grocers have delivered on. The manufacturer’s desire to keep their products competitive with meat-based products and stocking these in the same aisles is an important factor. Challenges exist — manufacturers have powerful lobbies and deep relationships with retailers across many meat groups including beef, pork, poultry and lamb and they’ll keep it in this multi-billion dollar space. See this study for an interesting view into the power of meat.

Seth Nagle
BrainTrust

The plant-based food segment is growing but grocers and consumers can’t quite get on the same page. With the lack of items, the “penalty box” in most cases continues to be the best option for grocers as it allows the shopper to quickly see all their options vs. searching for an item that might not even be carried yet.

Once the category grows its item count/distribution then grocers should revisit the category management for this segment. As of now, grocers need to continue investing in these brands and helping them grow their presence at the shelf.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I have been a pescatarian residing in California since 1994, and I think the rest of the country can learn lessons from how California retailers assort and merchandise plant-based options. They are well signed, often prominently featured, and always easy to find. Organic selections are extremely prominent and in many grocers they are often placed near the front of the produce department. Next up for California is labeling and education about what different “classifications” mean (organic, non GMO, pesticide free, etc.). I would love to see a retailer get a leg up on the coming wave of supply chain transparency by offering data at the shelf via mobile as to what the labels and their classifications mean. If they offered truly helpful information, they would help shoppers make better decisions and prepare them to take advantage of rich blockchain data, which is not very far away at all.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There’s another aspect to this growing trend: People are developing more and more food allergies, intolerances, etc., whereas they need to eat more plant-based meals. I am seeing very successful category performance where the offerings are targeted directly at those more unhealthy traditional foods, e.g., cauliflower crust pizza vs. traditional flour dough. The opportunity is huge for retailers and CPGs.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

Most folks who are not into diet and nutrition are likely unfamiliar with the term “plant-based food” or are turned off by it. Grocers should stage several in-store samplings to create awareness of this tasty alternative.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
Meaghan Brophy
Senior Retail Writer
1 year 1 month ago

As the article suggests, a lot of grocers have incorporated vegan and vegetarian products into the frozen food section. And at this point, I think most flexitarians have accepted going to the dedicated vegetarian section of the frozen food aisle to pick up veggie burgers. However, grocery stores have a huge opportunity to incorporate more veg-friendly items in the prepared foods section. Many people are opting for vegetarian options when eating out, or when buying a frozen meal. But learning how to cook healthy veg meals from home takes effort, and I think there is a revenue opportunity for grocers that fill in that gap.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Color me confused. I thought flexitarians were folks who ate primarily plant-based diets and occasionally included limited meat options, not the other way around. If the question is about the majority of shoppers adding more plant based protein to their diets, that’s different. And, as a non-Millennial, I never felt there was, “a stigma,” around meat-free products. We used to call them vegetables. Are plant-based proteins merchandised in meat cases? Generally no, but that may make most vegetarians and vegans sleep better at night.

I think the confusion here suggests that we really do need to reconsider how we think about food, consumers and merchandising. People do want to eat healthier meals and not just Millennials — there are plenty of Boomers out there munching black bean burgers after their first or second heart attack. So, we need the supermarket to catch up with the changes in the culture at large. And, yes, that means buyers may have to actually talk to real customers instead of sitting in front of their computer screens.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Grocers should always adjust assortments to demand. If vegan sandwich patties are what your shoppers want, then you sure enough should be offering them. The same goes for organic strawberries or buckwheat (gluten-free) pancake mix.

If adding popular items such as almond milk creates space management pressures, consider that this is not really a new challenge. There are always a few slower-moving items to cut.

Meeting current trends is seldom as simple as allocating a percentage of shelf space to align with a demographic statistic, like the percent of vegetarians in the population. Many of the foods offered in supermarkets have always been non-meat. Non-vegetarians buy many of them too.

When it comes to prepared and frozen foods, here is where some creativity enters the equation. Center-of-the-plate vegan and vegetarian options should be offered side-by-side with products containing meat. Plenty of households will purchase both types of foods, according to the varying preferences of family members.

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust
As a vegan, I’ve noticed something quite interesting that I never hear anyone address. The challenge used to be that there weren’t a lot of plant-based options on the market, period. Now, there are a plethora of options and many brands have gone mainstream (Gardein, Beyond Meat, Morningstar, etc.) which presents another challenge: retailers attempting to get on the bandwagon aren’t always choosing the best products from particular brands. I was thrilled when Walmart starting picking up respected vegetarian/vegan brands, but some of the rock star items (Gardein fishless filets, for example) would suddenly disappear, the worst versions of Tofurkey lunch meats would arrive, the remarkable Chao cheese has made its way in (merchandised right there next to the tofu and fresh mushrooms?). Local grocers are selling some of the same items at crazy markups, Whole Foods seems to be dumbing down its offerings even as mass competitors double down. In short, it’s a bit of a mess and the time has come to treat flex, veg, etc. as a viable and important category. Several… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

My instinctive response is no, grocers are allocating pace based on what sells — which of course is the instinctive response to every question about space allocation, since we assume an efficient market.

gordon arnold
Guest

Perhaps we should look at these products as very perishable used for the luxury of home cooking. Nothing is more sought after in today’s growing consumer classes as time. That makes high priced ingredients and the time needed to prepare them an expense worth reconsidering and solving. Add to this the disappearance of family meals due to unaligned schedules, and dining rooms may soon become repurposed for expanding work/study needs. Restaurants with two or more portion meals at lower than self prep prices will grow to two or more meals per household as reheat technologies improve time and taste. Grocery stores may wish to expand on the future of meal prep and delivery as opposed to order pick up and/or delivery.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Why don't grocers publish a list of items with package shots and aisle locations so shoppers can feel good about the learning process and save time too?"
"...as a non-Millennial, I never felt there was, “a stigma,” around meat-free products. We used to call them vegetables."
"Restaurants caught up long ago with the incorporation of V or plant-like symbols next to vegetarian options however grocery stores are still lagging."

Take Our Instant Poll

What’s the likelihood that plant-based foods will continue to expand at a double-digit CAGR over the next five years?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...