THE growth in retail sales of beef and lamb in Australia this year is plenty to celebrate but it is perhaps the sector's potential to tap into changing consumer behaviours that provides an even stronger platform for next year.
Experts believe consumers are forever changed as a result of 2020's global pandemic upheaval and point to health and wellbeing, human connection and a concern for empathy and inclusion as likely to drive purchase decisions like never before.
As economies recover, red meat is positioned beautifully to capitalise on those demands.
This comforting view of the state of play for domestic beef and lamb demand emerged at a recent webinar hosted by Meat & Livestock Australia.
The big research, development and marketing organisation's new general manager of marketing and insights Nathan Low outlined the latest consumption figures, which show fresh meat was the fastest growing supermarket category.
In the 12 weeks to the start of September, fresh meat grew at 12.5 per cent, with fresh vegetables second at 7.9pc - but the likes of ice cream only managed 2pc and hand cleaners just 1.3pc.
This Nielsen Homescan data takes in quarter three sales - post the initial panic buying of lockdowns.
Mr Low said even more impressive was the fact fresh meat was the biggest category in the retail environment and invariably the bigger a category, the harder it is to grow.
It really was a vote of confidence in the role fresh food plays in health, he said.
Beef sales grew 15.4 per cent and lamb 17pc compared to chicken at 8.9pc.
Mr Low described that as remarkable, given beef and lamb's historically high price premiums within the retail channel.
Chicken is relatively the same price per kilogram today as it was 20 years ago but lamb and beef prices have increased solidly.
Beef remained solid in its market share at 36pc of the fresh meat retail category, while lamb lifted slightly to12pc.
And despite the vision of bare red meat cabinets with fake meat burgers still sitting idle, the alternative protein category also grew to the tune of double digits. However, it still accounts for just a 0.5pc share.
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"2020 has been a year like no other and definitely changed consumer mindsets," Mr Low said.
"Prior to COVID-19, top of mind was the economy but now minds are dominated by thoughts related to health care and living healthy lifestyles."
And rather than house prices and interest rates, economy concerns centre around unemployment.
As we spent more time at home, our consumption behaviours changed, Mr Low reported.
"In the food category, we tried more cuisines than ever before, we tried new recipes and growth of online food delivery went up - many people tried that for the first time," he said.
Where the shopping happened also changed.
While all supermarkets experienced double digit growth, people clearly looked to shop local more.
"So the likes of smaller IGAs and local independents outperformed the majors," Mr Low said.
"For us, what was pleasing was the trusty local butcher - a channel that has been declining for a number of years - saw significant growth above 20pc."
Total food service was down, hard hit by closures of hotels, restaurants and cafes, but online food delivery increased 12pc and is now a segment of the market worth $750m.
As a result of all these changing trends, MLA's marketing engine room pivoted.
Where the beef campaign for 2020 had been geared around the Tokyo Olympics, the focus became leveraging the changing consumer habits.
MLA partnered with Masterchef to provide new and innovative ways to use beef cuts at home.
With lamb, the Share the Secret Recipe campaign demonstrated ease of cooking and the idea that nothing brings people together like lamb - even a lockdown, Mr Low explained.
And building on the local butcher growth, Jessica Rowe's star power was employed to showcase butchers as a convenient source of expertise.
Looking ahead, Mr Low said food service would continue to recover as borders opened and business travel resumed. Already it is back to 80pc of what it was before lockdowns.
Yet, the changes in consumers are likely to stay.
"That presents great opportunities to showcase the role red meat plays in a blanched diet and for marketers to reflect the concept of empathy and inclusion," Mr Low said.
The theme of human connection would also feature in upcoming red meat marketing campaigns.
"COVID made us more isolated than we ever have been and Christmas may be the first time people have come together in a long time - it will be an opportunity to tap into that sense of togetherness people are looking for," Mr Low said.
The story Red meat in box seat as COVID-19 transforms consumers first appeared on Farm Online.