Pushing plants

The plant-based trend is clearly here to stay. How can grocers make the most of this rapidly growing category?

SHUTTERSTOCK/Alexander ProkopenkoSHUTTERSTOCK/Alexander Prokopenko

While most Canadian consumers still choose meat as their primary source of protein, plant-based proteins are gaining serious traction as interest expands beyond those who follow vegan and vegetarian diets.

Recent figures from Nielsen show sales in Canada of plant-based proteins—which include meat and dairy alternatives, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds—grew by 4% to $1.7 billion in the 52 weeks ending Sept. 15, 2018.

Who’s driving this growth? According to Nielsen, it’s the consumers opting for regular meat-free days and the meat eaters looking to reduce their consumption of meat. Forty-three per cent of Canadians are actively trying to boost their consumption of plant-based foods, while 6.4 million eat meat-restrictive diets. Furthermore, it is estimated that 20% of Canadians plan to increase their intake of fish and legumes, and 15% plan to eat less meat. The top reason cited: “improve overall health and nutrition.”

READ: New Canada Food Guide highlights lifestyle choices, nixes portion sizes 

What’s more, the demand for plant-based foods is now getting a boost from the recently updated Canada’s Food Guide. One of the chief recommendations of the new guide is to “eat plant-based foods more often.” Even big meat companies are getting in on the plant-based action. In the past few years, Maple Leaf Foods has acquired two meat-free brands, Field Roast and Lightlife Foods, and it recently announced plans to build a US$310 million plant-based protein food processing facility in Indiana.

READ: Maple Leaf Foods to buy meatless foods producer

For all these reasons and more, experts agree the plant-based protein movement is here to stay. “It’s happening in all categories, including desserts and ice cream, alcoholic beverages and ready meals,” says Vancouver’s Jordan Rogers, founder of Lloyd-James Plant-based Sales and Marketing, which acts on behalf of manufacturers to help retailers increase their assortment of plant-based products.

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy and senior director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, concurs: “It’s not just a small fragment of the market.” Plant-based foods are getting a big makeover, he adds, as producers put more research into replicating the taste and texture of conventional proteins. According to Rogers, the movement’s success hinges on offering “awesome-tasting” products. “We’re changing people’s perceptions through their taste buds.”

DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO MERCHANDISING
With so many plant-based products being launched into the market, which ones do you carry? And the more contentious question: where do you display them?

For many years, vegan products were considered “niche” and grouped separately in the store. But in 2016, vegan protein company Beyond Meat ignited a change in the way we market meatless products. Its vegan burger—which is said to look, cook, and taste like an real beef patty—was the first to be displayed alongside packaged meats.

READ: Quebec cattle farmers have a beef with Beyond Meat’s marketing

Many grocers are now choosing this approach, especially as vegan products become more mainstream. Christy McMullen, co-owner of Summerhill Market in midtown Toronto, says she stocks the vegan cheeses, snacks, beverages and desserts in with their non-vegan counterparts. As for plant-based hot dogs, they can be found in both the vegan and meat sections of her store. And burgers? It depends whether they are fresh or frozen. Fresh-prepared beef burgers are sold in the meat case, says McMullen, “so the vegan burgers are not in the same section. But we do put [frozen vegan burgers] beside the frozen meat burgers.”

Another approach is to sell plant-based products in the fresh produce section. “It’s a real destination and it has a health halo,” says Sandro D’Ascanio, vice-president of marketing and R&D at Hain Celestial Canada. D’Ascanio argues that if you stock meat alternatives in the meat section, you run the risk of alienating your core consumer, the vegans and vegetarians: “Although they make up a very small per cent of the population, their consumption of these brands and categories is very high.”

Save-On-Foods in Western Canada and Metro Ontario are among the grocery retailers who have adopted this merchandising strategy. Metro Ontario houses its plant-based offerings in the produce department, including vegan burgers, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, ground meat, cheeses, and salad dressings. They do, however, also display their vegan burgers in the meat section. “It’s a reminder to our customers to pick up something for their vegan guests,” says Charles Buhagiar, Metro’s category manager, OTC, Health and Wellness.

Some categories do well when placed in different areas of the store, says Margaret Coons, founder of Nuts for Cheese, a vegan cheese company based in southern Ontario. “Because our product is in a unique category it sells really well when it’s in a variety of locations, including the deli and natural foods sections,” she says, adding, “It helps that our cheeses are packaged in distinct, triangle-shaped boxes, which makes them easy to spot.”

EFFECTIVE PROMOTIONS
With health food specialty stores now saturated with plant-based products, the companies that make these foods will vie for growth within traditional grocery stores. Grocers, therefore, would be wise to leverage this and turn to manufacturers to invest in full-fledged promotional campaigns, from cross-merchandising to building endcaps to product sampling.

Coons says close collaboration with her retail partners has helped to boost sales for her products. “Farm Boy featured our cheeses on its in-store pizza as a way to expand their vegan offerings, and Sobeys included us in their ‘Look for Local’ program.”

When it comes to cross-merchandising, grouping several plant-based options together “really communicates that you’re leading in this category,” says Hain Celestial’s D’Ascanio.

And if you’re trying to attract mainstream consumers, “avoid words like meat-free, vegan, vegetarian, and healthy restrictive,” says Rogers. He uses U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury’s to illustrate his point. At one time the grocer offered its café customers “Meat-Free Sausage and Mash.” When it re-named the offer “Cumberland-Spiced Veggie Sausage & Mash,” sales increased by 76%.

Flyers can also be an effective sales tool. In its flyers, Metro Ontario calls out the product’s attributes along with several offerings for meal solutions. “Our meat department features plant-based products on the meat page of our flyers and also supports with in-store features,” says Metro’s Muhagiar. He adds, “Product sampling is also encouraged with our vendors.”

Summerhill’s McMullen offers an example of a successful product sampling she did recently. “We sampled our in-house-made vegan cream cheese with our non-vegan at bread. We put it up against a dairy cream cheese so customers can see that there’s not much difference in taste between them.”

Ultimately, retailers would do well to think outside the box for plant-based merchandising. “Try something new,” advises Rogers. “Excite your customers when they come into the store. Make their shopping experience easier.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s May issue.