As the market for plant-based sales grows, retailers are increasingly looking to understand the plant-based shopper and identify strategies to provide a broad array of plant-based options to meet consumer demand. Partnering with retailers to conduct research that provides insight into shopper trends and motivations is a key focus for PBFA’s Marketplace Development team. At this year’s Plant Based World Expo, PBFA’s Senior Director of Marketplace Development Julie Emmett moderated a panel with Kroger Category Manager Meghan Barton and 84.51 Director, Business Acceleration Consulting, Kate Holmstrom titled “Understanding the Consumer Shift from Animal to Plant-Based.”

Recent years have shown dramatic increases in sales of plant-based foods, but are customers actually eating less meat as they shift to diets that focus on more plant-based foods? In this session, Julie, Kate, and Meghan shared insights into new joint research from PBFA, Kroger, and 84.51 that tracked eight million plant-based shopper behavior across Kroger stores over two years and included a comprehensive consumer survey of the “Plant-Based Engager Segment” (shoppers who actively purchase plant-based foods) to understand plant-based shopper motivations. As Julie shared at the top of the panel, the research does provide evidence that consumers are shifting from animal-based to plant-based and the motivations behind the shift. PBFA will be sharing a detailed report on this groundbreaking research in coming weeks.

Retailer Commitment to Understanding the Plant-Based Shopper

During the panel discussion, Kroger’s commitment to understanding the plant-based shopper and leveraging 84.51’s data to do so came through. “[Understanding the plant-based shopper and their behavior] is something all retailers are still learning and understanding, this is something we’re going to continue to iterate as more households adopt plant-based into their lifestyle,” shared Meghan.

Additionally, from a retailer’s perspective, the plant-based shopper is incredibly valuable. Meghan continued, “when households purchase both plant-based and animal-based, they spend more. That to us shows incrementality on that customer’s journey with plant-based.”

High-level insights shared from the consumer survey of the joint research found that 95% of households that purchase plant-based foods state they are either maintaining their plant-based purchasing or increasing the number of plant-based foods compared to a year prior. As Julie shared, respondents went even further to indicate that in certain cases they were actively replacing animal-based foods with plant-based. “Among the plant-based engaged survey respondents, 43% report they are choosing plant-based milk instead of animal-based milk.” She continued, “Additionally, nearly 30% are choosing plant-based meat and frozen meals instead of animal-based in the same categories, and nearly 20% are choosing plant-based cheese and yogurt instead of animal-based in the same categories.” This is significant because as we track consumer purchasing behavior year over year, we can better understand how retailers can adjust their merchandising strategies to potentially make more space for plant-based innovation and variety. 

Knowing the value that plant-based shoppers have for retailers presents an incredible opportunity for collaboration. PBFA and Kroger have a history of collaborating on research to identify plant-based food merchandising, starting with our 2019 plant-based meat pilot that tracked sales of plant-based meats when sold next to their animal-based counterparts in the fresh meat case. As Julie highlighted during the panel, PBFA is committed to continuing this collaboration to benefit shoppers and also build a solid foundation for plant-based brands in the retail marketplace. 

“We’re thinking about plant-based in terms of total store strategy and how we make sure we usher households across that spectrum of engagement from plant-based, into plant-based meat, all the way into plant-based cheese,” said Meghan. “We know that once households start that down that journey, once they get to plant-based cheese, they are loyal plant-based shoppers. For one, they’re most valuable, they’re spending the most in the store on plant-based and also decrease their animal-based consumption the most. As you start to incorporate more plant-based into your diet, you’re ultimately decreasing animal-based.”

Strategies to Respond to Consumer Trends

Meeting growing shopper demand for plant-based foods means retailers need to have a pulse on the latest innovation – tracking trends in ingredients or new products entering the market and adjusting their strategies accordingly to meet changing consumer needs. Looking at plant-based milk for example, Meghan explained: “We’re tracking the shift, for example from soy to almond milk, and changing what we think of for assortment for a commodity. What percent of the planogram should be dedicated to almond versus soy, and what percentage should be dedicated to legacy brands versus innovation and new,  making sure that we’re shifting something like almond milk as the entry point in the planogram, leading customers in the way that they’re telling us their behavior is changing.”

When it comes to ensuring sustainable growth of the plant-based segments, Meghan highlighted “promotion, inspiration, and findability,” as key areas Kroger is focused on. Promoting new and legacy plant-based products and pairing that with recipes and other forms of shopper education helps build consumer familiarity with plant-based foods and also builds shopper loyalty. On top of this, ensuring plant-based foods are merchandised in a way that allows shoppers to see the variety of options available and, importantly, makes it easy for shoppers to find what their looking for is also crucial. 

What Motivates Plant-Based Shoppers?

As the conversation shifted back to findings of the consumer survey results, a few key themes emerged as the top motivators shoppers identified for why they purchase plant-based foods. 

“Health continues to be the number one reason that consumers cite switching from animal-based to plant-based,” said Kate. “Just behind health though, we see the environment as a top reason, we also see animal welfare and food safety claims.” These findings are consistent with trends that suggest consumers are increasingly seeking out foods that are not only better for them but also are better for the planet and animals. 

Another area that stood out was the focus on providing plant-based foods that deliver on consumer expectations for nutrition at every price point. 

“We have long-term profiling of our plant-based shopper that shows they span every level of price sensitivity, so we cannot be thinking that this is a niche consumer,” explained Kate. “We have to be thinking the highest and lowest quality options of the value we’re bringing without sacrificing what gets them engaged in the first place, being that health component.” 

This sentiment was echoed by Meghan, “For brands, making sure [to] have the cleanest labels and communicate that.” She continued, “Make sure [brands are] getting credit with the customers and educating what [they’re] doing – especially with the quality improvements…The customer expects price points that are accessible, quality that is unparalleled, also cleaner labels and health.”

Pathway Forward to Plant-Based Marketplace Development

The panel discussion ended on a clear optimistic note, illustrating the industry support for a better understanding of the plant-based shopper and devising strategies to ensure increased access to plant-based foods. This is the first of a much broader discussion around the exciting findings from the joint research by PBFA, Kroger, and 84.51. Ensuring both brand and retailer success in plant-based is paramount to PBFA’s mission and we look forward to furthering collaboration to champion, strengthen, and elevate the plant-based foods industry.