Deli meat sales are usually strong in the spring. This is when schools are still in session and the weather turns nicer in many parts of the country, allowing for people to plan picnics and outdoor gatherings.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic, and many grocery stores halting live deli workers, replacing them with pre-packaged deli meats available for consumers, there has been an obvious drop-off in 2020.
Eric Richard, education coordinator at the Madison, WI-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), says pre-COVID, the deli department was doing extremely well, and while prepared foods were driving a lot of that, deli meats were also very strong.
“Year over year, turkey meat was up 2 percent, ham was up about 1 percent, and there was steady growth over the whole department, which is something we’ve been seeing over the past few years,” he says. “Since COVID hit, we’re still seeing deli meat sales do okay, but the challenge has become the ease in getting some of those deli meat products.”
He explains in some instances, retailers have had to shut down their deli depart- ments, limit the number of hours or shift staff to other sections of the store that were falling behind.
“It’s been challenging from what we’ve been hearing from some of our retailers, but of those who have kept their deli depart- ments open—wearing the proper protective gear of gloves, masks and screens to provide a barrier between the people behind the counter and customers, we’ve been hear- ing good things,” says Richard. “But there are people hesitant to shop because their health is on the line. We believe that’s some- thing that will play itself out but there are so many unknowns right now.”
Still, meats including turkey, ham, roast beef and salami remain popular for lunches among kids and adults alike, and there’s every reason to believe that once things start to get back to normal, sales will return to where they were pre-coronavirus.
Arnez Rodriguez, an industry analyst with Los Angeles-based IBISWorld, which tracks the deli meat category on a regular basis, notes the category was strong in early 2020, reflecting a trend deli meat has been experiencing since 2015.
“Meats such as turkey, chicken and roast beef have grown in popularity rela- tive to ham due to the high fat content of pork,” says Rodriguez. “As consumers have become more health conscious over the past five years, lean protein sources have become preferable to fatty meats.”
Despite this trend, salami has experi- enced growth over the past five years to 2020, as the consumption of “party ready” platters has grown during the same period.
Additionally, snack combos containing small amounts of charcuterie are among the fastest growing products in delis. Over the past four years, snack combos are esti- mated to increase at an annualized rate of 20.7 percent, according to New York City- based Nielsen.
Deanna Depke, marketing manager for Volpi Foods, St. Louis, says when it comes to del meat, overall, the company is seeing consumers migrating to premium products in more convenient formats, with better- for-you options.
“The recent COVID-19 outbreak has people centered on pre-packaged prod- ucts even more,” she says. “They’re able to reduce their time in-store, while also lim- iting the number of people touching that product before it hits their cart.”
Furthermore, demand for organic and low sodium products have encouraged delis to expand the variety of products offered. Non-GMO, organic and gluten free prod- ucts have all become widely available in delis. In general, health-conscious consum- ers have increased demand for high-quality deli products, indicated by a 3.2 percent increase in shopper trips to the deli in 2018, according to the IDDBA.
Flavor is King
In response to the recent increase in consumption of poultry, companies have begun increasing the variety of flavors available to consumers. Varieties such as
spicy chipotle chicken, tomato and basil turkey and pineapple turkey have become available to improve the taste of somewhat bland poultry meats.
Megan Dorsch, marketing manager of Nueske’s Hillcrest Farm’s Meats, head- quartered in Wittenberg, WI, says the company’s focus has largely been on classic smoke, Applewood and newer smoke vari- etal, Wild Cherrywood Smoked Bacon, offering both traditionally cured and uncured options for consumers.
“Nueske’s has increased our sales of sliced bacon and slab bacon for slicing to custom thicknesses over the past sev- eral years,” she says. “We’ve also added to our line-up of traditional, pre-cooked deli meats, which included Applewood Smoked Turkey Breast and Applewood Smoked Ham, by offering a ham with a new flavor profile earlier this spring. Our newest bone- less ham is hand-rubbed with black pepper before going into our smokehouse and is a stand-out on sandwiches.”
Cibao Meat Products, based in Rockaway, NJ, has been seeing a high demand for meats that include turkey, ham, roast beef and salami.
“Many people don’t know this, but we actually have many non-traditional salami brands,” says Jaline Isidor Horta, Cibao Meat’s digital marketing director. “We have our Pavolami Salami, which is our 100 percent turkey salami. We also have a brand named after our founder, Don Filo. In his honor we have a salami, Don Filo Arenquelami, that contains herring. Being of German descent, this was something he would do during the holidays to give as a gift to family and friends.”
The company first offered this as a holi- day only item, but due to high demand, it is now available all year.
“We also have our Don Filo Chicken, which is one of our products that is more lean, as well as Don Filo Turkey Ham, which is our smoked turkey salami,” she says.
Simone Bocchini, president of Mount Olive, NJ-based Fratelli Beretta, is one of the biggest players in the salami game and has seen a big uplift trend in the consumer who is looking for artisanal and old style formula salamis.
“The trend is to mix old with new, more than in the formula than in the consumer usage method, meaning small, portable
packages and smaller format for individ- ual use and grab-and-go applications,” says Bocchini. “With the inclusion of not only salami but other components like dried fruit and nuts, a deli can get a lot out of it.”
Depke notes for years, there’s been a growing popularity of charcuterie items like Volpi’s artisan salami and prosciutto, which are often introduced to the cat- egory through transitional products like Roltini (Mozzarella and prosciutto sticks). This leads consumers to try the compa- ny’s sliced retail packs of Prosciutto, Genoa Salami, Bresaola, Chorizo and Pepperoni.
“The Shelter At Home orders for COVID-19 sparked a cooking-at-home revolution in the U.S.,” says Depke. “People are experimenting more, playing with new flavor combinations, baking more. We’ve seen our fans submit photos of their salami-studded breads, elevated pasta car- bonaras and the like.”
Many of the companies supplying deli meat have started to consider different packaging materials and options.
“If you’re not concerned about the amount of plastic being dumped on the earth, you’re not listening to your consum- ers,” says Depke.” While simultaneously moving to pre-packaged, small portioned convenience items, we’re also fighting the inherent amount of packaging waste that coincides with that. At Volpi, we’re proud to be the first solution to this issue. We’ve introduced a new packaging material on our line of pre-sliced products that is paper based. This new material uses 70 percent less plastic than traditional deli packs with- out affecting product integrity or shelf life.”
Last year, Beretta introduced a full set of portable snack options including its salami, prosciutto and several combinations of nuts, dried fruit, crackers, etc. This was done to appease those looking for more of a grab-and-go option.
“We believe it is this form of packag- ing that will bring some new consumers to the category,” says Bocchini. “We also focus a lot on the protein aspect of these packages.”
This new format was popular both in the supermarket deli and around different locations of the store, where impulse buying regularly occurs.
“We have seen interesting packaging, especially those that are quick grab-and-go meals,” says Horta. “Cibao Meat hopes to follow that trend.”
Richard says pre-packaged deli meats have been rising in popularity for a while now, and even more so since COVID-19.
“It’s a great option for consumers who don’t want to interact with an in-store deli, or whose deli cases are closed in their store,” he says. “It comes down to convenience, and that was something that was driving the category even before all this happened.”
Convenience has become the focus of deli marketing and merchandising, due to recent trends in consumer preferences.
According to Rodriguez, prepared meals and meal kits have increased as a share of revenue for delis, in recent years.
“Many consumers, seeking a healthy alternative to frozen prepared meals have turned to freshly-made meals in delis, and deli meat is a portion of that,” says Rodriguez. “Additionally, revenue gen- erated from meal kit sales is estimated to increase at an annualized 17.7 percent.”
Depke notes charcuterie is ripe for cross merchandising, and a savvy in-store deli department will match up its meats with a wide variety of items for the home or out- door gathering.
“Really, there’s no better way to add value for the consumer and increase basket ring than to merchandise prosciutto next to fresh produce, specialty cheeses and artisan breads,” she says. “Suggested pairings are on the back of each of our packages, making it easy for consumers and deli associates alike to find the perfect matches.”
Bocchini notes consumers are looking to elevate their experience, and this goes for gathering with other people or just for their daily sandwich.
“We have partnered up with several retailers in developing special combinations of salami, coppa and prosciutto ready to be served in their store-made sandwiches, and it has been a success,” says Bocchini. “The full-serve program is still very traditional in terms of assortment, and few items have found their permanent location inside the full-serve area due to space versus regular mainstream items.”
Dorsch says sandwich programs are where the company has seen the most growth with its deli products but service case sales of pre-sliced bacon and cus- tom-thickness sliced-from-slab bacon have also steadily increased over the past five years.
Cibao Meat utilizes its social media platform to show the different ways its products can be prepared, and also as a way to introduce its products in different ways in the deli.
Impact of Plant-Based Demand
Despite the recent trend toward plant- based eating, per capita consumption of meat is expected to increase over the next five years.
“Plant-based consumers tend to pre- fer meat that is sustainably sourced and memorable,” says Rodriguez. “These pref- erences have helped to bolster demand for deli products, given the variety and quality of products available.”
Bocchini believes the plant-based move- ment has make a very small impact so far in the deli meat category.
“There are some options available, but the level of quality still needs refinement,” says Bocchini. “However, cleaner labels are very strong at the moment, Organic has been popular, and natural and low sodium are really making their way into more mainstream distribution. Better-for- you products are making their way into the retail world.”
Looking ahead, Bocchini sees the salami and dry cured deli meats category evolving and growing into an important market for the deli area.
“If we just look back a few years ago, we were not able to find some of the spe- cialty meat that we produce in regular supermarkets; it was only in specialty stores,” says Bocchini. “Today, the sce- nario has changed dramatically, and we can find high-end dry cured items in your every- day supermarket without the need of searching specialty stores for it. The growth in popularity creates a curiosity effect in consumers and the willingness to try some- thing different.”