The rapid consumer shift toward prepared meal purchases from online stores could have important impacts on the future of the beef industry.
Don Close, an economist and analyst for Rabobank's RaboResearch group, recently said this consumer shift to online, prepared meal purchasing is an opportunity for the beef industry to capture market share, or the prospect to lose even more than it has given up over the past 40 years. Further, he said choosing to go after this opportunity may increase the farm-to-retail spread and the spread between classes or types of cattle. In short, it may not improve pricing for beef, other than that provided by saving market share.
Close recently authored a special report on this topic he called "Food fight: Online and brick & mortar battle for business. How can beef ensure a seat at the table?" It was in this publication he outlined concerns about this burgeoning market segment and beef's potential to serve it.
Close said, "The switch to online shopping is the biggest transition to occur in grocery shopping since the introduction of the supermarket in the late 1930s.
He said of the $15 trillion American consumers spend on food, they spend slightly more on meals away from home. Yet within their purchases for in-home consumption, USDA and other sources project 20% could be online by 2025. Suffice it to say Close describes a large growth in online grocery shopping.
Close spent a fair amount of time in his report describing the growth of online grocery shopping and the simultaneous growth of the ready-to-eat meals often called "meal kits."
The meal-kit industry is extremely competitive right now, as is typical for hot new business categories, but Close said it is being thinned by competitive forces and buyouts. Further, it is already being well attended by major retailers such as Amazon/Whole Foods, Walmart, Kroger and Albertson's. In fact, Close explained, the current thought is that these meal kits will require locations for pickup as well as online selection. This suggests a hybrid sort of marketplace that includes both online shopping and brick-and-mortar stores.
Perhaps most important, Close suggested, these changes in shopping and food preparation could offer new opportunities for the beef industry.
Here are a few of his ideas.
- The online market offers a pool of consumers exponentially larger than any conventional grocery store or chain can reach.
- The ability to offer an almost endless variety of products means consumers can scratch almost any itch and retailers could be able to fulfill previously unimaginable product variety requests.
- Meal kits could offer value-added beef cuts that consumers often overlook when shopping on their own.
- Meal kits might entice non beef eaters or light beef users to incorporate more beef into their diets.
- Price competition between suppliers and among protein sources could mean a success of meal kits may be detrimental to per capita beef consumption.
- Increased demands on cattle quality and production specifications will lead to a wider price spread across all classes of cattle.
- Due to additional product handling and food preparation, the farm-to-retail price spreads are likely to widen.
Among the greatest roadblocks to increased marketing options that the beef industry would need to make to meet these online challenges is the structure of the packing industry, Close added. The entire system is designed for large-scale production of commodity beef, and not infinite starts and stops of the production line for product changes and labeling. He also suggested packer problems with the probable need for greatly diversified storage and handling of beef products.
He thinks the growth of this marketplace for beef could also require producers verify more production practices and protocols.
Will there be financial rewards for these extra steps?
Close also suggests a further growth in online food shopping and ordering could provide entry points for smaller beef producers and marketers for a variety of reasons. Indeed, this is one of the models used by small, grass-finishing beef producers.
"The food and grocery markets are changing at a rapid pace," Close concluded. "The cattle and beef industry can embrace the transition and take a proactive role in how beef is provided to customers -- or it can stay inside its comfort zone and wait to see what changes are mandated in order to preserve market share."
You can read more about online food shopping in an online RaboResearch report called "Food Delivery 2.0: Early lessons from a young, but crowded space."