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The plant-based shift

Among the many changes grocers have had to adapt to over the last decade, the shift to more plant-based eating is undeniably a significant one

Grocers have always faced change, and they’re becoming pretty nimble at grappling with it. Over the last 10 years, they’ve faced a barrage of challenges that have tested even the most adaptable of grocers. They’re not only facing competition from other mainstream grocers— they’re also duking it out with ethnic specialty stores, health food stores, drugstores that sell groceries, mass merchandisers, warehouse clubs, convenience stores, and, of course, online shopping.

Ten years ago, few people would have anticipated the impact smartphones would have on consumer buying habits, yet the mobile phone has become a go-to shopping tool, whether it’s just browsing for info or for actual purchases.

And who, 10 years ago, would have predicted the massive change we have seen in eating habits? From the rise in specialized diets and demand for more “free-from” products to the current plant-based eating boom, there are foods showing up on grocery shelves that few would have predicted a decade ago.

The plant-based trend, specifically, is on the rise wherever you look, including, perhaps surprisingly, at fast-food burger chains. Several popular burger chains in North America have successfully launched plant-based burgers, with the 2018 launch of A&W’s Beyond Meat Burger garnering much attention across Canada. The burger was in such high demand that the chain sold out of the vegan patties within weeks of the initial launch last summer. And it’s been such a success that A&W has recently launched the Beyond Meat Sausage & Egger on its breakfast menu.

And now, grocers across Canada are able to get in on the Beyond Meat action, as the California-based company’s wildly popular plant-based burgers become available in major grocery chains across the country this spring.

Popular introductions like this are all due to changing consumer demands—but it’s not just about strict vegetarian or vegan diets; today’s consumer is more likely than ever to follow the “ exitarian” path, which means focusing primarily on veggies and plant-based proteins, but still occasionally eating animal proteins. This shift is leading marketers to aim plant-based products at people who might have a fully vegan dinner one night, but a steak dinner the next. It’s one thing to cater to vegans, but a totally different thing to cater to exitarians in the grocery aisles.

That said, brands and retailers should avoid the “exitarian” jargon, says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of food culture consultancy the Hartman Group. “Flexitarian is very much an industry term. We rarely, if ever, hear consumers describe themselves that way,” she explains, in the April AdAge article, “How the rise of ‘exitarians’ is powering plant-based foods.”

Interestingly, while conversations about food used to be more about flavours and traditions, now there seems to be more of a moral element to the way we discuss eating, wrote Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy and senior director of the Agri- Food Analytics Lab, in a Canadian Grocer blog last summer. “Today, we talk more about morals and values linked to how we consume food, simply because we can afford to do so,” he wrote. Indeed, the economy is relatively healthy right now and the unemployment rate is almost at an all-time low. The rise in more people choosing a vegan diet is linked to the strong economy, he argued.

Regardless of what’s driving the trend, navigating the growing interest in plant-based foods is something all grocers must be on top of to stay competitive. Once grocers learn to compete on plant-based foods, their next challenge may be to face the rise of smartphone-based cashier-free stores already popping up. Just another challenge, in a decade full of them.

This column appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s May issue.

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