Consumers turned to technology to help them shop for groceries and find recipes during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. And both trends may be here to stay, experts say.
The Kansas Beef Council hosted the first “Beef Insights” webinar March 24. The new series of educational Zoom calls is meant to bring cattle producers information about food production and consumption trends, so that they have a better handle on the full demand picture for their products.
Shawn Darcy, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association senior director of marketing research, and Jace Thurman, NCBA market intelligence analyst, offered data insights from the retail and food service industry, as well as consumer studies into behavior trends. NCBA is a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.
Darcy says of the variety of concerns consumers had, they overwhelmingly were worried about the economy and job security in 2020. As people hunkered down in their homes in March and April, they quickly found that they needed to improve their home-cooking skills.
“In March and April, consumers were looking for recipes,” Darcy says. The newness of indulgent recipe preparation quickly shifted to finding recipes that were convenient to fix while working from home or schooling children from home. Consumers were searching for recipes that used common items cooks already had in their pantries, and called for ground beef or familiar cuts like roasts.
Darcy says 84% of consumers they surveyed this fall said they’ll still cook at home.
“Nearly two-thirds of people will continue to cook meals at home,” Darcy says. “That dynamic is not going away yet, even though we are opening up more, and more are getting vaccinated in the country.”
The Beef Checkoff capitalized on this trend by providing these new home chefs with recipes for their favorite beef comfort foods, and with ideas of how to prepare those roasts and ground beef they could find in stores.
Thurman says beef sales to food service dropped by 1.3 billion pounds from 2019, at a loss of $5 billion.
When consumers couldn’t go out to eat because of restaurant closures, the industry saw stocking-up behavior, he adds. That increased the average retail price of beef to $5.34 a pound, or a 10% increase.
“But price wasn’t the primary factor in their purchasing decisions,” he adds. Many were worried about running out of food. Ground beef was king of the shopping cart because it freezes nicely, further extending that time between shopping trips, and it was familiar for those consumers returning to their home kitchens.
“Surveys showed 67% of consumers reported consuming beef at least weekly during 2020,” Darcy says. Seventy-four percent of Kansas consumers surveyed reported that they eat beef weekly, and they are more positive about beef and beef production methods than consumers overall.
And now that more people are getting vaccinated and feeling more comfortable dining out, those consumers are reporting they’re willing to pay more for steaks when they dine out.
Rise of e-commerce
E-commerce was another trend that both the retail and food service sectors used to keep customers safe — and to stay in business.
“Necessity is the mother of innovation, and these retail stores needed to expand and develop their e-commerce to survive the changing market,” Thurman says. Consumer surveys showed nearly 70% of those sales were through ordering online and picking up groceries at a brick-and-mortar store, 26% were through a delivery app, and almost 5% were through packaged fresh delivery services direct to the consumer. Digital ordering ahead for pickup or delivery, in the fourth quarter of 2020, saw 1.3 billion more orders compared to the same period in 2019.
This trend has the Beef Checkoff leaning into targeting consumers through apps like Chicory. The app, Thurman explains, shows recipes to consumers, and then allows them to order the ingredients from their store of choice, right through the app.
“Consumers don’t have to spend a lot of time in the store — and with one click, they can put all the ingredients for the recipe in the basket,” Thurman says. “Consumers are embracing it and adopting it, and we expect that technology to stick around for some time to come.”