“The plant-based food category has seen tremendous growth year over year,” said Julie Emmett, senior director of retail partnerships at the Plant Based Foods Association. Emmett spoke during The Big Idea: Plant-Based session during the Specialty Food Live! virtual event, Tuesday, about the current state of the category and about PBFA’s recent test pilot with Kroger, where plant-based meat alternatives were placed in the same department as animal-based products.
Experimenting with Plant-Based Merchandising
“The question on how best to merchandise plant-based food is ever-present,” said Emmett. “Though Beyond Meat was the first to start merchandising plant-based meat in the meat department, we wanted to see what would happen if we brought in every plant-based meat product.”
To test this, the PBFA partnered with Kroger to conduct a 12 week pilot in 60 stores across Kroger’s Central division and its King Soopers stores in the Denver market. From December 2019 through February 2020, Kroger placed a variety of plant-based meats in the meat departments of these stores, with accompanying signage to help shoppers understand the new placement.
As part of the study, store personnel were educated, shoppers were interviewed, compliance audits took place and sales data was collected and analyzed. Kroger ultimately grew its plant-based meat sales by an average of 23 percent, with the Central region driving most of the sales. Not only did this prove that plant-based products performed better when merchandised alongside animal-based products, but it also showed that the Midwest region offers opportunities for plant-based food makers.
Key learnings from the shopper interviews included that consumers liked the ease of shopping for all protein products in one place, as well as the varieties of products that could be found there.
“After we announced the results of the test, several major retailer partners reached out to us to discuss the implications for their plant-based merchandising strategy,” said Emmett. In addition, many suppliers and retailers began to think about exploring cheese merchandising next. The test also led the PBFA and other leading brands to create an advisory team for merchandising to explore these possibilities.
Tips for Plant-Based Makers
“The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst to accelerate the shift from consumer demand of animal-based products to plant-based ones,” said Jans Tuider, international director and special advisor to the president at ProVeg. Tuider, along with ProVeg colleagues Michael Webermann, U.S. executive director, and Verena Wiederkehr, international head of food industry and retail, corporate engagement, also spoke during The Big Idea: Plant-Based session.
The ProVeg experts shared some best practices for plant-based food makers, including:
Flexitarians are the key. According to research, 50 percent of consumers are actively reducing their meat consumption and 54 percent are already consuming plant-based meat, said Wiederkehr. This means that a large portion of consumers are exploring and eating plant-based food, which presents a huge opportunity for food makers.
Familiarity is a strong purchase driver. “If a plant-based product can mimic the experience of its animal-based counterpart, customers will feel more comfortable trying it,” noted Wiederkehr. This paves the way for other plant-based food products that may not resemble an animal-based product and instead focus on plant-centric ingredients like legumes or nutrient-dense vegetables.
There’s room to grow. In a recent European consumer survey, ProVeg found that customers see the biggest opportunity for plant-based products in the cheese category. Other categories ripe for plant-based innovation include fish and seafood alternatives and egg alternatives. Wiederkehr observed that consumers are interested in baked goods and confectionery categories, suggesting that if makers swapped out animal-based products like eggs with alternatives, their offerings would appeal to a much larger audience.
Labeling matters. Consumer interest around foods labeled “plant-based” has seen huge growth in the past few years, while the term “vegan” has become less popular. “Use plant-based or plant-protein labels instead of vegan,” Wiederkehr said. “This makes the product more accessible to consumers.”
Categorize plant-based products based on usage, not ingredients. “People expect to find a plant-based product next to the animal-based one in the store,” said Wiederkehr. ProVeg believes that the store of the future will shift towards a “protein aisle” rather than a specific aisle for meat and a separate one for plant-based offerings. This has already been proven successful by the PBFA’s test with Kroger.